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How American Jews Have Detached Themselves from Jewish Memory

In recent years they’ve let go of both ancient communal memory and recent political memory. No wonder they’re now letting go of Israel.

A chandelier at the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York City. Kate Milford, Museum at Eldridge Street.

A chandelier at the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York City. Kate Milford, Museum at Eldridge Street.

Response
April 11 2016
About the author

Daniel Gordis is Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a People Reborn, won the Jewish Book Council’s “Book of the Year” award for 2016.


Elliott Abrams is clearly correct in asserting both that American Jews are moving away from support of Israel and that this tectonic shift is traceable much less to Israel’s policies than to the manner in which American Jews now constitute their worldview and their Jewish identities.

As it happens, I am somewhat more critical than Abrams of the policies (or lack of policies) pursued by the Netanyahu government. Admittedly, there are few if any good moves that Israel can make on the international chessboard these days; but the optics have been significantly worse than they could have been. Still, nothing one might say on this point diminishes the rightness, or the importance, of Abrams’ thesis: the root cause of the growing gulf between the world’s two largest Jewish communities lies in the way that most American Jews now conceive of themselves and their Jewishness.

The nature of the phenomenon is complex, but Abrams points to one significant dimension. He does so by citing the words of Lawrence Hoffman: “[T]he [mere] ethnicity of people without profound purpose is doomed.” How is such a sense of Jewish purpose communicated? Through, says Hoffman, “regularized ritual affirmations of the transcendent,” i.e., mitzvot. This worldview is central to most Orthodox Jews—who are also, overwhelmingly, devoted to Israel. It is much less central to the non-Orthodox world, which is not only much larger but (not coincidentally) drifting away.

Let me delve a little more deeply into this matter.

 

“Know from where you have come,” one might paraphrase the Mishnah in Pirkey Avot (3:1), “and you will know to where you are headed.”

Through their liturgy and holidays, Jews throughout the centuries regularly and reflexively invoked the past in a way that made it always present and real to them. No matter where they lived or what they did, said, or were thinking about, the land of Israel remained a central focus of their consciousness. Three times each day, they faced Jerusalem in prayer. Century after century, they fasted on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the date on which, tradition has it, both Temples were destroyed. In Spain or in Poland, reciting the grace after meals, they included the blessing: “Praised are You, Lord, who rebuilds Jerusalem in mercy.” At the conclusion of the Passover seder, all around the world—in Africa and in Europe, in Yemen and in Iraq—they sang “Next year in Jerusalem.” At Jewish weddings, the groom broke a glass as a reminder that even in the hour of joy, one ought to recall Jerusalem destroyed.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other Jewish religious practices that kept the dream of Zion alive for generations of Jews who had never seen the land and knew they never would. That helps explain why, in 1896, Theodor Herzl’s Zionist vision, articulated in The Jewish State, fell on such receptive ears and was published in seven languages in that year alone: for many Jews, Herzl was simply giving political shape to a dream they had cultivated for centuries.

Today, the largest part of American Jewry has dispensed not only with “regularized ritual affirmations of the transcendent” (in Hoffman’s words) but also with the wellspring of communal memory and purpose that long defined and inspired those affirmations. The current abandonment of Israel is in many respects an inevitable outgrowth of the loss of these moorings.

But it’s not only ancient memory from which most American Jews are detached. They have similarly abdicated commitment to more recent memory—and this, it would seem, by conscious political decision. In 1950, Jacob Blaustein, then president of the American Jewish Committee, warned ominously that “nationalists”—that is, Zionists—were trying to “indoctrinate Jews generally,” and he proposed that the community “take such measures . . . as seem appropriate to counteract these attitudes.” Sixty-five years later, after the astonishing revitalization of the Jewish people that was made possible by the establishment and flourishing of the state of Israel, and after the outpouring of American Jewish pride and material support in the state’s early decades and beyond, it is depressingly clear that many if not most American Jews have belatedly undertaken to follow Blaustein’s tainted advice.

Honesty compels acknowledging that, especially at the highest levels of organized American Jewry, the embrace of Israel has historically often been incomplete, hesitant, or faltering. Take, as one telling instance, the essentially across-the-board neglect of Hebrew-language literacy as a communal priority, a neglect that has helped ensure a distance in language, idiom, and cultural sensibility between American and Israeli Jews. Take also the widespread and perhaps even more damning ignorance of the history of Israel—a long-term token of which has been the absence of a serious, accessible, single-volume treatment of that history for the millions of Jews who call America home. How could anyone expect loyalty or allegiance to the Jewish state on the part of Jews, especially young Jews, who do not know its story, let alone the central place of land in the story that Jews have always told about themselves as a people since Abraham?

I should state my personal interest here as the author of a forthcoming one-volume history of Israel of the kind long unavailable in America. I undertook this project precisely because it was evident to me that as long as American Jews knew little of how and why Zionism developed, and what Israel as a political, social, and civilizational enterprise has become and stands for, every conversation about the Jewish state would be overshadowed by the ongoing 85-year-old conflict with the Palestinians—an admittedly central topic that, however, cannot be intelligently approached without a grasp of the larger and infinitely more clarifying picture.

 

Whether a single book by itself can engender a richer, more rational, and informed conversation about Israel in American Jewish life remains to be seen. But that brings me to another factor pinpointed by Elliott Abrams in his fine essay—one that contributes heavily to poisoning the chances of such a conversation emerging.

I’m speaking of the rise of activists on the Jewish left who pride themselves on opposing or lobbying against the policies of Israeli governments as Jews, and who do so while loudly proclaiming their superior love for the Jewish people. Many voices of this kind can be heard on university campuses, hotbeds of political correctness and of today’s fashionable amalgamation of progressivism with anti-Israelism. In the world of publications, the main address for this brand of agitation is Tikkun magazine.

Several weeks ago, coincidentally, I received a flurry of alarmed emails in which the name of that same magazine figured prominently—as did the name of an individual whom my horrified correspondents had conflated with me. It took a few minutes of clicking to find the source of their confusion. It was, it turns out, an article in Tikkun written not by me but by my uncle, David Gordis. The article was introduced with this mawkish note from the magazine’s editor:

For those of us who continue to love Judaism and the wisdom of our Jewish culture and traditions, pointing out Israel’s current distortions gives us no pleasure, but only makes [sic] saddens us deeply.

The editor’s statement itself is balderdash: a visitor to Tikkun’s website will search in vain for an article in recent years that has extolled any virtue of Israel’s at all. But what had my uncle—a former vice-president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and former executive vice-president of the American Jewish Committee—said that led so many people to assume mistakenly that I had turned overnight into a spokesman for the anti-Israel Jewish left? Here’s a taste:

Present-day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal, and the visionary. These values have been subordinated to a cruel and oppressive occupation, an emphatic materialism, severe inequalities rivaling the worst in the Western world and distorted by a fanatic, obscurantist, and fundamentalist religion which encourages the worst behaviors rather than the best.

I pass over these indiscriminate castigations, none of them documented or the least bit qualified, to get to the point. Here is the article’s final paragraph:

[M]ost depressing of all for me is that I see no way out, no way forward which will reverse the current reality. Right-wing control in Israel is stronger and more entrenched than ever. The establishment leadership in the American Jewish community is silent in the face of this dismal situation, and there are no recognizable trends that can move Israel out of this quagmire. So, sadly, after a life and career devoted to Jewish community and Israel, I conclude that in every important way Israel has failed to realize its promise for me. A noble experiment, but a failure.

“Its promise for me”! In an article that makes not a single mention of the Jewish people—or of its enemies—the word “I” appears fourteen times, and “me” a few more. Setting aside the narcissism of this exercise, may one point out that Israel was not dreamed of or founded in order to realize its supposed “promise for” any one of us, let alone to soothe the moral disquiet of Jews living in American suburbia? It was created to transform the existential condition of the Jewish people—and, despite its many failings (like the failings of America and other decent countries), it has done just that, and brilliantly. It takes a willful blindness to Jewish history and an astounding commitment to the supreme value of self-gratification to conclude anything different.

 

So this is where we find ourselves today: widespread ignorance about the Jewish past and an abandonment of the modes of Jewish communal behavior that once instilled in Jews of all kinds a reflexive commitment to peoplehood, coupled to a discourse in which the fact that Israel is beset by enemies still sworn to its destruction is regarded as not worth mentioning by alleged lovers of Judaism and the Jews. Add to all this the shallow universalism and fundamentally anti-intellectual narcissism of the campus and media left and you have a perfect witches’ brew of indifference flavored with animosity.

Can matters be turned around? I am genuinely not certain. It may just be that Jews, who held on to their ethnic identity longer than most other American groups, are destined—like the Greeks, the Poles, and the Italians—to blend into the woodwork. Ironically, Israel is the only Jewish issue that can still get many American Jews exercised today. As they move away from that attachment, too, will they pull the last remaining shred of carpet out from under their ability to galvanize themselves in any distinctive or meaningful way?

That is eminently possible. So let us be clear what is at stake. If and when it happens, which I pray it will not, the state of Israel, with all its many flaws and infinitely more virtues, will be the Jewish people’s last remaining hope.

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