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VCU Menorah Review Fall 2003
Number 59
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Zion and America

Are We One? Jewish Identity in the United States and Israel
by Jerold S. Auerbach
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press

A Review Essay by Rafael Medoff

Jerold Auerbach has turned the traditional slogan of international Jewish solidarity, “We are one,” into a thought-provoking question that frames his intriguing new study of the relationship between American Jewry and the State of Israel. The American- Jewish relationship with Zionism and, later, with the State of Israel, was always shaped to a significant extent by American Jews’ concerns about non-Jewish opinion, Auerbach maintains. To pre-empt accusations that Jews were more loyal to Zion than to the United States, “American-Zionists molded their Jewish nationalism to fit the requirements of American patriotism … Americanized Zionism was entirely compatible with the main currents of liberalism that transformed American political culture in the 20th century. American Jews could become Zionists yet remain assured of their place in the American liberal mainstream.”

This observation, one of the major themes of Are We One?, echoes a remark by Abba Eban in his autobiography, describing his years as Israeli ambassador to the United States: “In the American Jewish community I always found a warm welcome but I often felt that while they listened to me, American Jews had one eye directed to the gentile audience whom I was trying to convince. Their pride was often a function of Israel’s capacity to impress non-Jewish Americans.”

“We Are One!” may have been “a compelling fund-raising slogan for American Jews [but it] nonetheless obscures an extremely unstable relationship between the American Diaspora and the Jewish homeland,” Auerbach writes. “Historical reality is more complex than the comforting myth of unity suggests. American Jews, to be sure, have taken Israel to their hearts. But not always, or unconditionally.” He recalls, for example, the outrage among American Jewish leaders when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made statements encouraging Diaspora Jews to immigrate to Israel and the tension after the 1956 war, when some Jewish leaders pressed Israel to accede to the Eisenhower administration’s demand for a unilateral surrrender of the Sinai to Nasser.

After Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War, “American Jews basked in the glow of their new identification with a daring, courageous, triumphant Israel,” Auerbach notes. But that sentiment was short-lived because Israel now found itself accused of “conquest, domination and ultimately — and most preposterously — ‘racism.’” Such attacks often emanated from sources on the political left and in the African-American community with which many American Jews had allied themselves. “For Jewish radicals, who were disproportionately represented in New Left politics, the choice was easy: Israel, after South Africa, their favorite pariah state, was dispensable. For mainstream Jews, who disproportionately flocked to liberal causes, the discomfort was acute. What if they must choose between their liberalism and Judaism?”

That discomfort accelerated during the election in 1977 of Menachem Begin, “the first prime minister of Israel to conspicuously identify himself as a Jew rather than an Israeli … He had a disconcerting way of reminding [American Jews] of their Old World relatives, whom they preferred to forget.” Auerbach describes how Israeli policies in the years to follow irritated liberal American Jews. Begin invoked religious-nationalist themes that were alien to many in the Diaspora. And, when his policies aroused the wrath of official Washington and the media, some Jews became unnerved at the prospect of being identified with an unpopular Israel.

In the second half of Are We One?, Auerbach turns to more recent trends in the relationship between American Jewry and Israel. He contrasts the old Israel, both as it was and as it existed in the American Jewish imagination, with Israel as it is today. Auerbach is critical of efforts by some Israeli intellectuals to radically redefine their nation’s identity and culture. He cites numerous examples of Israeli historians who have rewritten Zionist history to blame Israel for the Arab-Israeli wars; polemicists who heap scorn and ridicule on traditional Judaism; and playwrights, artists and entertainers who champion the idea of a state “depleted of Jewish content.” Will American Jews who are at home in a secularized America likewise prefer an increasingly de-Judaized Israel? Or, will they consider the process of “self-laceration,” as Auerbach calls it, to have taken Israel too far astray from the vision of the Zionist founding fathers?

It seems that Israel’s contemporary domestic controversies have focused a spotlight on something that Israelis and American Jews continue to share: the enduring dilemma of Jewish self-identification. As Auerbach puts it: “For [Israeli] Zionists, no less than for Diaspora Jews, emancipation continues to pose a stark choice: integration or isolation; normalization or distinctiveness. All modern Jews, wherever they may live, confront the identical dilemma: whether to assert their Jewish distinctiveness and remain a people apart or relinquish it and submerge themselves in the dominant culture.”

Are We One? will be seen by some as the American Jewish counterpart to Dr. Yoram Hazony’s The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, which analyzed the impact of “post-Zionist” intellectuals on Israeli culture and politics. Hazony’s study triggered the liveliest Israeli public debate (on a non-security related issue) in recent memory and has already led to changes in the Israeli Ministry of Education’s high school cirriculum. Perhaps most important, it has prodded many Israelis — among the intellectual elite and beyond — to take a serious look at the future of Israel’s national identity and the meaning of Jewishness in the modern Jewish state.

Jerold Auerbach’s thoughtful and well written volume aims to ignite a comparable debate about the meaning of American Jewish identity and Zionism in the 21st century. He may succeed for Are We One? is one of the most provocative books on Israel-Diaspora relations since Hillel Halkin’s landmark Letters to an American Jewish Friend stirred the U.S. Jewish community 25 years ago. The critic Robert Alter described Halkin’s book as “an intellectual event.” The same may be said of Jerold Auerbach’s Are We One?

Rafael Medoff is Visiting Scholar in the Jewish Studies Program at Purchase College, State University of New York. His most recent book is A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, coauthored with David Wyman (New Press).

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