American Exceptionalism and Israeli Orthodoxy: What future Zionism?

I’ll respond to your questions in two parts: “American-Jewry and Zionism,” and your faith that Israel will somehow overcome the anti-Zionism (antisemitism) now apparently most influential in Israeli Orthodoxy. If trends continue how will this impact the future of Israel-as-Zionist (its obligation, ability and willingness to serve as future refuge)?

In many regards American Jewry is very similar to how German Jewry saw itself before the Final Solution. Our community in Germany was arrogant in their belief that, since unlike the Eastern Jews they had not been subject to major antisemitic campaigns, that their homeland was therefore, “exceptional.” With our present awareness of the Holocaust as history, the history also of our own country’s passive complicity in the Holocaust (typically denied or, when recognized, rationalized ala FDR’s hollow excuses: “the best way to save the Jews is to end the war quickly,” and; “bombing Auschwitz would kill Jews,” etc), it would be difficult to at least not sense “sub-consciously” that the Jewish people are an endangered species. Thus the desire to “disappear” into the country, a reason for the relatively high levels of assimilation, intermarriage and even conversion (high also in pre-Holocaust Germany, and for the same reason) so disdained by Israeli Orthodoxy, an aversion to the Galut that even spills over on to American Orthodoxy in their eyes!

Need I point to the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a sentence previously unheard of for their crime and conviction; of Jonathan and Anne Pollard, Jonathan’s sentence also previously unprecedented for the crime for which he was charged and convicted.

Since I mentioned American complicity in the Holocaust I might note that the legal fig leaf denying refuge to Jews fleeing the Holocaust was the racist 1923 Immigration restriction legislation passed so enthusiastically by a Congress that invited leaders of the racist pseudoscience eugenics for input as to its antisemitic design.

Clearly from what preceded, I am convinced from a historical record spanning nearly two thousand years that there is no such thing as a Diaspora haven for the Jews, where we can feel safe, today and tomorrow; that there is even the possibility for such an “exception” today or yesterday, here or abroad. And while we Survivors, and in this I include all Jews alive today as having barely survived the nearly final Final Solution, whether we admit or even recognize the threat, that each of us is still haunted by unease: a defensiveness and longing for acceptance. The “need” that my country, this country truly be the exception our people have so long longed for, our Goldene Medina!

That we know this to be mere fantasy and Denial is best illustrated by how we responded to or better ducked, chose not to respond to the Pollard Affair, the Rosenberg show trial; indeed, to our  passivity in the face of of the mass murder of our people in Europe, so great was our fear of American antisemitism surrounding us also!

Does not “fear” best explain our avoidance at all costs of the smear of “dual-loyalty”? And how does this color “American Zionism”?

Chaim Wiezman understood this “America-as-exception” fixation of American Jewry, appreciated how it impacted the identity of American “Zionism.” He chose to transfer “leadership” of the international movement across the ocean for two reasons. The Yishuv, the nascent “Israel-to-be” needed American dollars to survive and grow. There was also the problem that in the midst of the First World War Jews were combatants on both sides of the conflict. And America was still neutral at the time and could serve as “temporary” seat for the movement.

As it turned out Jews with “deep pockets” chose not to identify with the Eastern Jews who made up what passed for an American Zionist movement at the time. And Weizman underestimated Justice Brandeis. He failed to appreciate that Brandeis would turn out to be a forceful leader, able to retain leadership of the movement for America even after the war. As a result American Zionism born of “American Exceptionalism” became the standard for the international movement ever since. And in the years following Ben-Gurion declaring independence nearly seven decades ago, Israeli “Zionism” has emerged as an offshoot of the American model.

In a sentence, American Zionism is all about “refuge,” but “for the needy Jews over there.” Any hint that American Jewry would ever need such a refuge threatens the thin veneer of Jewish faith in “American Exceptionalism,” something that more than once threatened the survival of Zionism on this side of the ocean. American Zionism is sentimental, not activist. Activism, so needed in my eyes looking towards the future, for all intents and purposes ended in the nineteen-teens!

And back to the second issue you raised, faith that Israel will in the future overcome Orthodox anti-Zionism. We are both aware that, as my condensed “history” above represents, Orthodoxy has from the start attempted to set a “halachic” standard for Israeli society. And that began during the phase of “religious-Zionism.” Since those halcyon days of mutual admiration, with the ever-increasing immigration by various strains of Orthodoxy into the country, mutual-admiration has turned into mutual back scratching between religious and secular political parties.

Now you point to the fact that regardless how focused on immediate expediency politicians may be (the secular parties are either unaware of uncaring of the impact on the State of Israel, on its Zionist mission resulting from blurring the separation of synagogue and state) the Supreme Court has always intervened to maintain a happy social balance. True enough. But that has not discouraged, only angered Orthodoxy against the secular Court. And while their numbers today do not constitute a majority population whose influence in a “democracy” must influence decisions of a future Court, no less an authority than Bank of Israel chairman Stanley Fischer clearly warns of a catastrophe in the making: by 2030, he concludes, Jewish secularism will already be a minority. And this based only on the fact of haredi “fertility.”

Not long after Fischer’s dire warning the protector of Israeli democracy, Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman, announced in a speech before Orthodox lawyers and the Chief Rabbis that, “We will bestow upon the citizens of Israel the laws of the Torah and we will turn Halacha into the binding law of the nation… Soon, in the near future, amen.”

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.