I: The Past: The Inner Life of American Jewry in Relation to the State of Israel.
Although the position of American Jewry with respect to Israel is a matter of pressing current concern--to American Jews, if not to Israelis--it cannot be understood except in the context of (at least) the recent past, before the Oslo accords and before the electoral victory of Benjamin Netanyahu. Let me therefore begin my reflections on the current relations between American Jewry and Israel back in 1982, the time of the war in Lebanon. In that year, Irving Howe, the most important Jewish public intellectual in America, published an autobiography entitled A Margin of Hope. In it, he admitted that although he had devoted himself for over three decades to the cause of "secular Jewishness" rooted in the immigrant Yiddish culture of the United States, he now recognized that his cause was lost. In the long struggle between Zionism and Yiddishism for the loyalty of secular Jews in America, Zionism had triumphed: "When the writer Hillel Halkin sent from Israel [in 1977] a powerful book 1 arguing that the Jews in the West now had only two long-range choices if they wished to remain Jews--religion and Israel, faith and nationhood--I searched for arguments with which to answer him. But finally I gave it up, since it seemed clear that the perspective from which I lived as 'a partial Jew' had reached a historical end and there, at ease or not, I would have to remain."
Not long after writing this, Howe plunged into political activity on behalf of the organization called American Friends of Peace Now, and was even willing to cooperate with the buffoonish apostle of "the politics of meaning," Michael Lerner, in political activity designed to bring down the government of Yitzhak Shamir. (The intellectual decline of the American Jewish left is accurately registered by the fact that its leadership has shifted from Howe, who died in 1993, to Lerner.) In December 1988 Howe lectured on "American Jews and Israel" at a conference in New York sponsored by Tikkun magazine. In the lecture, he acknowledges the demise of the various forms of Jewishness that his generation had tried: "Few of us in America can claim to be more than partial Jews." He includes Jewish socialism in the list of dead faiths, along with religion itself ("the privilege of a small minority"), Yiddish, Zionism, and liberalism. For most American Jews, he observes, "Israel represents the last Jewish hope", which is a main reason why American Jews,
1 Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1977), one of the most important books to come out of Israel since its founding, remains the most profound exploration of the relations between Israeli and American Jews.
apart from the righteous minority of "dissenters" to which Howe belongs, refrain from sharp, open criticism of Israeli policies: "They simply could not bear it; they would feel there is nothing left." He is shrewd in his warning that, "If Israel were secure and prosperous, and therefore no longer in need of its immobile brothers across the Atlantic, [American Jews]... would be left empty-handed and might have no option but to ask: Why do we exist? What makes us Jews?"
Howe's lecture was an interesting mixture of sense and nonsense, prescience and blindness. He was right to assert that their attachment to Israel (which he distinguished from genuine Zionism) keeps many American Jews from confronting the essential question of why they should live, and why they should die, as Jews. But one wonders why he did not see that American Jewish attachment to liberalism (which, he readily granted, had no sanction whatever in Jewish tradition) also keeps them from recognizing the spiritual void in their existence, and from asking what is their raison d'etre as Jews. Although nobody on earth has ever become a Jew by becoming a liberal, the majority of American Jews still believe that being a liberal is the essence of "Jewishness." And it is precisely this liberalism that leads Howe back, in the end of his lecture, to the outrageous and demeaning claim that the chief task of American Jewish life now is to espouse national rights for the Palestinian Arabs, or, in less euphemistic terms, an irredentist PLO state next to Israel. The whole of the Jewish heritage in its American incarnation is to center upon this (ill-conceived) political campaign! "The central issue of Jewish life today," according to Irving Howe in 1988, is not the failure of Jews to reproduce themselves, or to keep within the fold the few offspring they do produce, or to impart to these offspring a measure of Jewish literacy and faith, but to pressure the sovereign state of Israel to bring about an independent state for Yasser Arafat and his followers (who, unfortunately, just happen to be committed to the elimination of Israel). But even if creating another Palestinian state (in addition to Jordan) were a worthy political aim, it is hard to see how the whole Jewish tradition could be said to devolve upon this singular goal.
There was also, of course, a profound disingenuousness in Howe's picture of the relation between the inner lives of American Jewish "dissenters" from Israeli policy and their public actions. He neglected to say that for anti-Zionist American Jews, for non-Zionist "critics of Israel" like himself, and for all the other American Jews who have not a single "Jewish" interest except the "Palestinian" issue, Israel has indeed served a tremendous purpose: it has enabled them, and still enables them, to
September 1997 - 3 - Outpost