On Israel, The ‘Sane Center Must Speak With Passion’


As American Jewry ushers in a new year, we would do well to mark not just the creation of the world, but also the centennial of American Zionism. Precisely 100 years ago this coming year, owing in part to the intervention of Justice Louis Brandeis, the Balfour Declaration came into being. In a story told most recently in a fabulous new book by Jeffrey Rosen, it was Brandeis who, by way of his influence on President Wilson and Lord Balfour himself, was able to secure the long-awaited dream of international sanction of a Jewish homeland in Palestine: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the political cornerstone for what would become the modern State of Israel.

Critical as Brandeis was to the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, it is his ideological legacy to which American Zionism is forever indebted. In those days, to declare oneself a Zionist was to be subject to the charge of dual loyalty. To the non-Jewish community, but more importantly, to the Jewish community, Brandeis articulated a vision whereby one could be both an American and a Zionist. “Let no American,” he declared to a roomful of rabbis in 1915, “imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism. … Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.”

Brandeis is the father of American Zionism, because a century ago he championed the revolutionary idea that every American Jew become a Zionist without necessarily making aliyah (emigrating to Israel). He understood the loyalties that stood in conflict, and he articulated a compelling vision whereby one’s Zionism and patriotism were not only not mutually exclusive, but were interdependent, one upon the other. “To be good Americans,” Brandeis insisted, “we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.”

The challenge that Brandeis faced and was able to reconcile is a challenge of a bygone era. By the time Brandeis died in 1941, American Jewry faced a new question: how to support American war efforts while finding refuge for a persecuted European Jewry. A few years later, with the establishment of Israel in 1948, American Jewry was, on the one hand, jubilant in the return of Jewish sovereignty and self-determination, but was also disoriented in the realization that they had, by making the choice not NOT to emigrate, somehow sidestepped the arc of Jewish history. It is worth noting that the campus bearing Brandeis’ name was established in that same year – 1948 – as if to assert that American Jewry was here, and here to stay. The Golden Age, if you will, for American Zionism came in the 1960s and ’70s. Whether it was the Six-Day or the Yom Kippur War, Entebbe or Munich, triumph or terror, the combination of fear and pride prompted American Jewry to respond with unprecedented support – political, philanthropic and in terms of emigration to Israel, personal.

Students of American Jewry differ as to when the turning point occurred. When exactly did the Golden Age end, ambivalence creep in and occasional criticism replace unequivocal support? Some say it was the Lebanon War, others the first intifada a few years later and some suggest it was even earlier, in the wake of the Six-Day War, when Israel chose not to heed the advice of Ben-Gurion, who, upon hearing of the IDF’s capture of Hebron, reportedly said, “Well done, now give it back to them.”

Some, to be sure, say it wasn’t Israel that changed, but American Jewry — that as we began to assimilate, it was a weakened and wavering American Jewry that began to criticize the Jewish state. Regardless of the start date and who started it, what is clear is that at some point we entered a new chapter in our relationship. Long gone were the days when Israel could claim the role of powerless victim, the David to the Arab world’s Goliath. No longer was Israel the young, scrappy and hungry place of milk, honey and moral purity depicted in Leon Uris’ “Exodus.” Yet again, American Zionism would face a test of competing loyalties. Not those of Brandeis’ day: patriotism vs. Zionism; not those of 1948: emigration or not; but a new conflict – a conflict inconceivable to our predecessors – that if not named, discussed openly and, most of all, addressed, will imperil the critical bond between the two vital centers of world Jewry today.

Two Kinds Of Jews

So what is the conflict facing American Jewry today? In 1982, the late, great Leonard Fein wrote in Moment, the magazine he founded:

“There are two kinds of Jews in the world. There is the kind of Jew who detests war and violence, who believes that fighting is not ‘the Jewish way,’ who willingly accepts that Jews have their own and higher standards of behavior. And not just that we have them, but that those standards are our lifeblood, are what we are about. And there is the kind of Jew who thinks we have been passive long enough, who is convinced that it is time for us to strike back at our enemies, to reject once and for all the role of victim, who willingly accepts that Jews cannot afford to depend on favors, that we must be tough and strong.

“And the trouble is,” Fein concludes, “most of us are both kinds of Jew.”

Fein wrote these words against the backdrop of the first Lebanon War just prior to the horrific bloodshed of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, an incident that would eventually prompt the resignation of then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Fein’s reflection draws out what remains the fundamental tension American Jewry faces regarding Israel, and that is the competing loyalty between our particularism and universalism, or as the sociologist Steven M. Cohen writes, our protective and prophetic impulses. Our tension is not that of dual loyalty, nor, for most American Jews, the question of emigration. Rather it is the simple fact that as American Jews, each one of us is two kinds of Jew, heirs to two laudable and sometimes conflicting traditions of particularism and universalism.

Our particularism is based on our being members of a distinct family, a mishpocha, and as such our first concern is necessarily directed toward the well-being of that mishpocha, protecting the Jewish past, present and future. Post-Holocaust, with anti-Semitism in Europe growing and Israel a constant target at the U.N., that means standing up for Israel. Would any other sovereign nation, we rhetorically and rightfully ask, respond with Israel’s restraint and military code of ethics when its own citizenry is subjected to indiscriminate attacks? In such a world, what kind of Jew would do anything other than put our particular concerns for Israel as our pre-eminent if not sole loyalty?

But to be a Jew also means a commitment to a prophetic tradition and a series of universal values, namely, putting the welfare of humanity at the forefront of our concerns. American Jewry has a historic commitment to civil rights and civil liberties, tikkun olam, and a host of progressive causes. How exactly do we square the circle of the dream of Israel as a liberal democracy while bearing witness to the growth of settlements and asphyxiation of the two-state solution? With every piece of legislation in which Israel declares itself hostile to religious pluralism, hostile to the Judaism practiced in the States, is it at all curious that American Jews should find themselves increasingly alienated from the Jewish state?

Far too many people, far too often, brush the struggle aside, claiming it is just a generational gap. But we are heirs to two authentic traditions, protective and prophetic. As Hillel taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, then what am I?” Both sides have a point, both rooted in Jewish sources. This is not about who is right and who is wrong; we are both kinds of Jew, both of us are right, and that is precisely the point and the problem. American Jews are blessed and burdened with two identities and Israel is the Rorschach test that brings it all to the fore.

I think of our college students, taught from birth to treat the stranger with kindness because we too were once strangers in a strange land. Taught to love Israel and defend her, and hopefully by way of a Birthright trip to Israel get even more engaged. Then, we send them off to campus where Israel is subjected to such a barrage of criticism that they are effectively told that their love for Israel is in conflict with every other progressive value that they and their contemporaries hold dear.

I think of my own children who have been to Israel more times than they can count, have family there and one day want to live there. This summer my 11-year-old son asked me without any prompting:

“Hey Dad, you know the Israeli national anthem – ‘Hatikvah’ – that line about the 2,000-year hope to be a free nation in our land?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well,” he continued, “how do Israeli Arabs feel when they sing it?”

It was a terrifying and gorgeous moment. My kid was doing exactly what I always hoped for: loving and defending Israel, but thinking of the Other, the stranger in our midst. And because my child was doing everything right, a conflict of values was set into motion.

We Need To Think Anew

There are a million examples, but they all point to the same conundrum: an American Jewry caught between the switches, caught between its universalism and particularism. Which is why we need to be challenged to think anew, to leave the safe space behind and enter the brave space where we define the conversation we want to have. One hundred years after Brandeis and Balfour, 50 years after the Six-Day War, 25 years after the Madrid Peace Conference, let’s draft the next chapter of American Jewry’s relationship with Israel — let’s call for the birth of a New American Zionism.

First and foremost, we need an American Zionism that begins with love for the Jewish people, a Zionism that teaches our children and grandchildren the story of our exile, the pitfalls of powerlessness, the dreams of every wave and every stage of our national longings and our right to the land. American Jewry has become woefully ahistorical, and we need a Marshall Plan to rebuild our deficit of memory, because you can’t love a country that you know only by way of CNN. We need formal, informal and, most importantly, experiential curricula; our children should be in dialogue with Israeli children, by way of technology, exchange programs, Hebrew language programs, sister congregations, any means available. Every bar and bat mitzvah should be given a trip to Israel, underwritten if need be. We need to do more, we need to do it better and we need to be all-in.

Next, we need an American Zionism with a dose of humility. The Middle East is not Manhattan, and the democratically elected government of Israel has every right to make decisions in the best interest of Israel even when they run contrary to our sensibilities. Israel lives in a very rough neighborhood, and the community of nations holds Israel to a nasty double standard that is often, but not always, laced with explicit or implicit anti-Semitism. There is nothing wrong, in fact there is everything right, with standing at Israel’s side, even when, and sometimes especially when, it makes decisions we ourselves would not make. Given the choice of defending a sovereign and imperfect Israel or enjoying the moral purity of exiled victimhood, we must always choose the former over the latter. In school, on campus, on Capitol Hill, the coming generation of American Zionists must be given the tools to be resilient, self-confident and adroit defenders of the real, not imagined, Jewish state.

But for the coming chapter of American Zionism to ring authentic and stand the test of time, we must also be willing and able to integrate the other, universal and prophetic dimension of American Jewry. If the project of Zionism, as Martin Buber once reflected, is the Jewish use of power as tempered by morality, then it is a project that sometimes Israel gets right and sometimes Israel gets wrong. If the dream of Israel is to serve as a homeland for all Jews and all forms of Jewish expression, then we must confront the bitter truth that that very dream is threatened by the government of the Jewish state. If on this year’s anniversary of the Six-Day War, Israel’s challenge remains how to remain a liberal democracy without sacrificing its security concerns, then we dare not stand idly by as that dream slips away.

There is nothing wrong with helping, chiding or goading Israel towards these goals as long as that nudging comes from a place of abiding concern for Israel’s safety and security. We dare not let the ideological and philanthropic extremes define the terms of the debate. If you don’t live in Israel but want to effectuate change there, then do it systemically. Support religious pluralism, support efforts aimed at Arab-Jewish coexistence and dialogue, and support those efforts aimed at creating a two-state solution. With the stakes as high as they are, the sane center must speak with passion and with volume; we must protect each other from the ideologues on the extremes; we must rally the men, women, money and discipline for a cause that is just and above all else, we must let the Jewish world know that we are all in this together.

Finally, the coming chapter of American Zionism needs to understand that American Zionism is not a substitute for American Judaism. The problem with the Golden Age of American Zionism was that for far too many Jews, support for Israel became a vicarious faith, a civil religion masking the inadequacies of our actual religion. The only way Israel will learn from, listen to or care about American Jews is if American Jews show themselves to be living energetic Jewish lives. A robust American Jewish identity can weather policy differences with this or that Israeli government and withstand the slings and arrows of campus culture — something a paper-thin Jewish identity cannot do. One hundred years ago, Brandeis asserted that to be better Jews, we must become Zionists. Today, we know that to be good Zionists, we must be better Jews. If we are really interested in the future of American Jewry’s relationship with Israel, then we must do the one thing truly in our power to do: live a vibrant Jewish life and do everything in your power to support those individuals and institutions committed to nurturing and sustaining the American Jewish community.

Our politics as American Jews, no different than in Israel, may differ. And no different than Israelis themselves, let us acknowledge that conflicted as our souls may be — universal and particular, prophetic and protective — deep down we are both right: we are both kinds of Jew. This is no concession; it is actually our strength. It is the starting point for drafting the next chapter of American Zionism, and it is the seed that bears the promise of our future.

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue. This article is based on his Rosh HaShanah sermon.