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Irving Howe Hits U.S. Jewish Establishment for ‘unhealthy’ Relationship with Israel

December 30, 1982
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The relationship between the American Jewish Community and Israel “is very unhealthy and gives every sign of becoming worse,” according to Irving Howe, author and frequent critic at the policies of the government of Premier Menachem Begin, who expressed this view in an address Sunday to the 11th annual national editors conference of the Jewish Student Press Service here at the Martin Steinberg Center for the Arts. The three day conference concluded last night.

The author of “World of Our Fathers,” and the recently published, “A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography,” addressed some 60 editors and reporters from Jewish student newspapers throughout the country. It consisted of a reading from a yet unpublished essay on his feelings of the current state of the American Jewish community, which Howe said is developing toward a position of uneasy malaise.


Howe viewed the policies of the Begin government and his Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon to be detrimental to the Jewish State and its people. And he placed considerable blame for what he said appears to be uncritical support for the actions of Begin and Sharon at the door of the lay leadership within the diaspora who “tacitly, half heartedly” go along with many actions of the Israeli government, particularly policy toward the West Bank.

Howe pointed out that this policy of the American Jewish lay leadership which he was quick to say does not speak for him, is not new and actually began during the days when Israel was led by the Labor Party. He warned that this unflagging, uncritical support could result in a deterioration of the status of the American Jewish community and reduce it to a “puppet” to the State of Israel.


As an example of this support, Howe recalled the stir in the Jewish community following the announcement on September 1 by President Reagan of his Middle East peace initiative which was quickly rejected by the Israeli government. According to Howe, the American Jewish leadership, while maintaining its public contempt for the Reagan initiative, nevertheless privately found it an appealing proposal worthy of more thoughtful consideration.

Howe, who is also co-editor of the quarterly, “Dissent,” contended that there is contempt among Israelis toward American Jews, for among other things, that these Jews would give everything to Israel but themselves, making aliya. As for the growing “malaise,” Howe assessed this as a symptom of a “growing smugness” and “self satisfaction” and also the turning away of many American Jews from social causes along with a decline in religious faith.

But according to Howe, there remains much vitality in the American Jewish community outside the institutionalized structure, especially “outside the fundraising establishment.” The source of this strength, he continued, seems to be “marginal,” focusing on secular Jews, individual rabbis and others who maintain their seriousness toward these pressing issues.

“In this context, as it seems to me, both because of what I regard as an inner hollowness of the American Jewish community and because of what I regard as the mistaken policies, the fatefully mistaken policies of the Begin government, dissent within and from that community becomes not just a necessity, but becomes an avenue of health,” Howe declared. “So to me the question of whether dissent is acceptable in Jewish life is not even a question. The real problem is how to express it creatively ….”

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