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The Illusion of Jewish Unity


In the political drama playing on Israeli television, American Jews are shown as largely supporting Israel’s hard line. During Yitzhak Shamir’s visit to the United States in March, he addressed two national Jewish conferences, first, of the “young leaders” of the United Jewish Appeal in Washington, then of the leaders of the American Jewish organizations in New York. He was cheered at the first meeting, and there was only a scattering of opposition to his views at the second. American Jewish leaders were demonstrating their solidarity with Israel at the very moment, in fact, that polls were showing that most American Jews were critical of its policies. But that criticism was not perceived in Israel.

After the meetings with Shamir, Gideon Samet, a columnist for Ha’aretz who had been its Washington correspondent in the early 1980s, protested that American Jews had betrayed their liberal convictions and had let Israel down. Samet was upset because he knew that the film clips of those meetings on the Israeli 9 o’clock news, which the entire country stops to watch, would be interpreted as a triumph of Shamir. He would be seen to have persuaded American Jews to support the position that it was better to remain at war with the Palestinians than to have to surrender any part of the “undivided Land of Israel.” Since Israel itself is split between hawks and doves, the doves needed direct and unmistakable support from American Jews to help them influence opinion. At the very least, they hoped for television images that would show the average Israeli that a serious confrontation had taken place with Shamir.

Israel’s left wing should not have been surprised: they have been disappointed before. In the years before he came to power in 1977, Begin used to argue that American Jews were capitalists, that they were, indeed, among the greatest beneficiaries of the free enterprise system. He appealed to the Jews in the Diaspora to put their weight on the side of capitalism in Israel, and thus create a world Jewish majority against the socialism of the Labor party. Begin even went so far as to propose a second chamber to advise the Knesset—he called it, with a dose of melodrama, a Jewish “House of Lords”—to which leading figures in the Diaspora would be appointed along with their peers in Israel. This body was to act as a brake on the leftist policies of the Israeli government and give it advice from on high. Of course, nothing ever came of Begin’s suggestion. So long as Labor was in power, it did not want such highly placed kibitzers. When Begin himself became prime minister, he never said another word about the “House of Lords.” He made it even clearer than Golda Meir had before him that what he expected of Jewish leaders of the Diaspora was not advice but agreement.

The truth is that Israelis do not understand American Jews. Most Israelis, including some of the most sophisticated, want to believe that American Jews think of themselves as managers of a large warehouse that furnishes political influence and money, and even people, to serve Israel. Israel persists in asking only one question of the news from America: Is it “good or bad for Israel”? Is the news of yesterday’s meetings of Jews in Washington or New York, reported on the front pages of Israel’s newspapers, good for Shamir or good for Peres?

This is a grave misconception of American Jews. Most of them are committed to helping Israel, but this commitment does not dominate their lives in the way Israelis think it does. If that were so, hundreds of thousands of American Jews would have gone to settle in the Jewish state, to help build and defend it. Many Israelis I have talked to believe that most of the money that is raised by the annual Jewish appeals throughout America is given to Israel, but it is not. Less than twenty years ago, Israel received roughly 60 percent of the total, and it now receives 40 percent. The leaders who conduct these drives in the several hundred organized Jewish communities in America loudly proclaim their loyalty to Israel. One sees them on their annual “missions to Israel” shouting “We are one!” from their tour buses, but in committee meetings back home they have allocated funds to build community centers and hospitals and old-age homes and day schools for the benefit of Jews in America.

It is also not true, as most Israelis want to believe, that many American Jews support Israel as an “insurance policy” for themselves, that is, as a haven that they are keeping in reserve for the day when they might feel threatened by anti-Semitism in America. Jews in New York and Los Angeles may sometimes say such things, especially when raising money for Israel, but they do not mean them. American Jews simply cannot imagine a truly murderous anti-Semitism in the United States. If they could, they would be more circumspect than they have been in forcing the issue of Israel to the very center of American domestic politics.

American Jews have become a “one issue” lobby in Washington. In the climate of a strong pro-Israel opinion in America, they have succeeded in establishing Israel as the major recipient of American foreign aid, now some $3 billion a year. This success has made it easier for them to spend most of the charity dollars that American Jews raise on their own on institutions in the US. The public display of passion for Israel represents not the fear of anti-Semitism and the need to prepare a refuge from it, as many Israelis think, but, on the contrary, an almost complete denial of the possibility of such a backlash.

Israel is, indeed, the center of Jewish loyalty for most American Jews, but not in the way that the Israelis imagine. For many American Jews Israel is not only a cause to be supported but a place whose existence helps to make them more comfortable and secure in America. Jews in America are the only ethnic minority that does not have a homeland, a country of origin to which they can trace their roots. On trips to Europe, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan each made a sentimental journey to the village in Ireland from which his ancestors came. German-Americans claim the past of Goethe and Beethoven, and skip over the Nazi years. The Jews cannot claim as their homeland czarist Russia or the Poland of Colonel Beck in which they were persecuted, especially since most of these Jewish communities were destroyed by the Nazis; and those communities that still exist in the Soviet Union do not remind American Jews of the towns from which their grandparents came. After 1948 Israel became the homeland. The connection with Israel has been an important element in making Jews seem a “normal” part of the American scene.

The need for a homeland of which American Jews “could be proud” has had many consequences. In the earliest years of the State of Israel it was possible for American Jews to learn something about the moral ambiguities that came with power, but they preferred not to do so. Little notice was taken in the United States of a novel by Yigal Mossinsohn, Khirbet Khiza, written as the War of Independence was ending, which spoke with pain about Jews with machine guns lording it over Arabs, or of the poems by Nathan Alterman, in which he berated Israelis for their failure to behave decently toward the Arabs they had just conquered.

American Jews preferred to see Israel as it was depicted by Leon Uris in Exodus, in which Israelis were painted as totally noble and Arabs were the Middle Eastern equivalent of the murderous Indians of Hollywood Westerns. American Jews preferred to see Israel as unquestionably good. Jews recalled that even in America they were, in accordance with the faith of their ancestors, the “chosen people.” When support for Israel became the “secular religion” of most American Jews, Israel had to be presented as a homeland that was superior to all other homelands.

Therefore, through the years, most American Jews have not wanted to know what was really happening in Israel. They could take pride in the kibbutzim as a “great social experiment,” and resolutely ignore the fact that fewer than 5 percent of Jews lived in them, while most of Israel was trying to become more bourgeois, “just like America.” After the Six Day War in June 1967 American Jews did not have to think about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, not even after Menachem Begin came to power a decade later. By definition, among American Jews the “homeland” was simply the one peace-loving state in the Middle East. If they heard echoes from Jerusalem of statements about the “undivided Land of Israel,” such remarks could be dismissed, in a very American way, by claiming that the Israelis who made them didn’t really mean them: they were only trying to stake out a hard bargaining position from which they could achieve the best deal. By saying that the Likud does not mean what it says, one does not have to face the uncomfortable fact that there is a right wing in Israel that is so insistent on its ideology that it would rather live amid violence than search for compromises.


So far I have used the phrases “most American Jews” or “many American Jews,” and not the usual phrase “the American Jewish community,” because there is no such thing as an American Jewish community. American Jews are divided into three unequal, sometimes overlapping, parts.

On the right, a minority of no more than 15 percent of American Jews are convinced, undeviating hard-liners. Most are Orthodox in religion, and many come from the small element of American Jewry that arrived after World War II; they tend to be Holocaust survivors, or the children of survivors. The experience of ultimate powerlessness in the Nazi death camps has made the survivors particularly susceptible to the appeal that Menachem Begin made his own: “never again.” Even among the American Jews who remember the death camps, there are some with moderate views. For example, Menachem Rosensaft, the founding chairman of the Children of Holocaust Survivors, is an outspoken dove, even though many of the most vocal people in his group are hawks. But for most of those whose lives were deeply affected by the Holocaust, the memory of powerlessness translates into the assertion that Jews cannot show any weakness to their enemies, that only power counts. And the major enemies of the Jews, now, are the Arabs.

The other component of the right-wing minority is the neoconservatives. This right-wing intelligentsia makes considerable noise, because it produces countless articles and makes many speeches; but it has no substantial number of foot soldiers. In a poll of American Jewish opinion by the Los Angeles Times, the results of which were reported on April 12 and 13, 56 percent described themselves as belonging to the Democratic party and 27 percent described themselves as political moderates. Only 17 percent described themselves as conservatives: not much more than the 10 percent of American Jews who were Republicans in the Roosevelt era. And many of today’s Jewish Republicans are Orthodox believers, few of whom are subscribers to Commentary or The Wall Street Journal.

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