Gordis maps the rift between U.S. Jews and Israel

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Daniel Gordis
Photo by Dmitry Rozhkov/Wikimedia Commons

Review

We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel by Daniel Gordis. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2019. 252 pages $26.99.


The once rock-solid relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community is under siege, writes Daniel Gordis.

Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, the Jewish state’s refusal to accommodate Conservative and Reform Judaism and other contentious issues are alienating some American Jews, battering the brotherly ties that once united the world’s two major Jewish communities.

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This hostility toward the Jewish state is most prevalent among young, progressive American Jews.

What a difference a half century can make! Back then, the “almost miraculous creation” and survival of Israel was the one issue that could bring together religious and nonreligious American Jews, writes Gordis in this well-written, thoughtful book.


According to the senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, “[r]eligious American Jews were fascinated by Israel’s traditional sites … . Secular Jews were taken with the kibbutzim … . All Jews, it seemed, still traumatized by what the world had let happen to Jews in the middle of the twentieth century, took pride in Israel’s army, the symbol of Jews no longer being as helpless as they had been in the face of pogroms and the Holocaust.”

For Jews at that time, after the Shoah, Israel seemed like a miraculous rebirth of the Jewish people. “For today’s younger American Jews, however,” Gordis writes, “Israel is not a symbol of rebirth. How could it be when the Holocaust feels like ancient history?”

Without that Holocaust connection and viewing Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians and the liberal Jewish religious movements as unjust, those progressive Jews “increasingly find Israel unpalatable.”

For their part, Israeli Jews contribute to the divisiveness by tending to be deeply critical about life in the American Diaspora. They also are disappointed in American Jews for not not really understanding the limitations under which Israel and its people operate and for not making aliyah in meaningful numbers. (I must report that when I lived in the Jewish state in the 1970s and ’80s, many Israelis whom I met were aghast and mystified that a nonreligious American Jew like me would leave the comforts of his native country to live in Israel. They did not accept my Zionist explanations.)

But, says Gordis, even if the Jewish state changed its behavior and Israelis muted their criticisms, the two communities still might be drifting apart.

“The real issue … is not what Israel does, but what Israel is,” the author notes. “The essential issue … is that at their core, America and Israel are exceedingly different: created for different purposes, they believe in and foster very different sorts of societies with very different values and different visions of Judaism.”

Gordis posits two communities that differ fundamentally from each other in four ways: 1) America is a state created as a universal model for democracies, while Israel is a particularist state created for the Jewish people; 2) America has been for Jews “a place to escape the nightmare of history… to get a good night’s rest,” while Zionism wanted to remake the Jewish people and thrust the nation back into history; 3) in the religion-nation debate on the essence of Judaism/the Jewish people, American Jewry chose the former while Zionists opted for the latter; and 4) the dispute about whether Israel should be a liberal (American Jews’ preference) or ethnic (Israel’s real character) democracy.

Because America and Israel are so different, American Jews who wish Israel to be a better version of the U.S. therefore are bound to be frustrated, the author concludes.

Gordis convincingly describes the divisions between the two communities and their causes. He also is persuasive about the need to overcome the rift because the two sides need each other. Notable among the points he makes is the irony that among many Jewishly illiterate American Jews (American Jewry is “by far, the least Jewishly literate community ever created by the Jewish people,” Gordis writes), criticizing Israel is the only Jewish subject that they talk or think about. He observes that “too many American Jews, absent Israel, simply do not know enough to have a passionate conversation about almost any other dimension of Judaism.”

His suggestions for change needed to bridge the chasm between the two communities are solid; however, he fails to give much detail about how to implement the transformations he advocates.

If you are worried and somewhat perplexed about the growing gap between American and Israeli Jews — and as a Jew you should be very concerned — this book should jump to the top of your books-to-be-read list.

Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.

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