Years ago, the United Jewish Appeal attempted to popularize the catchy slogan, “We Are One,” by promoting the facile notion that Jews in the United States and Israel share common values and interests and are separated only by physical distance and nothing else.
This slogan was superficial and misleading because it ignored the very real differences between Israeli and American Jews. True, Jews are historically one people, but they differ on a whole host of political, cultural and religious issues.
Of late, the yawning divisions among Jews have manifested themselves far more strikingly than in the recent past, particularly in the United States, Israel’s most important and enduring ally.
Anyone who has followed Israel’s 75-year relationship with the United States knows that Israel is one of “the most intensely debated topics in all of American politics,” as Eric Alterman observes in We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel (Basic Books).
Although Israel is one of the world’s smallest countries, ranking 149th on a list of 195 sovereign nations, it is disproportionately in the news. “Just as extraordinary as the degree of attention paid to Israel in the United States is the level of support it receives,” notes Alterman, a professor of English at Brooklyn College and a journalist.
Until the war in Ukraine broke out, Israel was the largest recipient of U.S. military aid. And diplomatically, the United States has often regarded Israel’s priorities as indistinguishable from its own.
And so it is hardly surprising that Israel — “a conglomeration of dreams, fantasies, blueprints and master plans,” as the late Israeli novelist Amos Oz put it — looms large in America and in the consciousness of its citizens, especially American Jews.
Alterman, in this deeply-researched, thoughtful and hefty book, examines the history of the passionate debate in the U.S. over Israel’s founding, character and conflicts. “It pays particular attention to the actions and concerns of American Jews, as historically they have stood in the center of the debate, often times defining its terms and policing its borders.”
Alterman explores this phenomenon from a moderately left-wing point of view, which means that he is critical of Israel’s hardline policy toward the Palestinians and its tolerance of the powers amassed by the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate.
As he reminds a reader, the disproportionate attention Israeli receives in the United States is not a historical anomaly.
Long before the founder of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, appeared on the scene, the idea of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land was invariably promoted by Christians, who believed it would hasten Christ’s return. American Jews, eager for acceptance, feared that sympathy for Jewish nationhood would lead their Christian neighbors to question their patriotism.
By the 1940s, with the Holocaust bearing down on Jewish communities in Nazi-occupied Europe, most American Jews were supporters of Jewish statehood. Israel’s birth in 1948, followed by the 1967 Six Day War, rapidly accelerated this process.
U.S. President Harry Truman recognized Israel on a de facto basis barely ten minutes after David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish Agency chairman and Israel’s first prime minister, declared statehood on May 14, 1948. But his decision was opposed by Secretary of State George Marshall and others in the State Department and the Ministry of Defence on the grounds that it would alienate Arabs and thereby imperil vital U.S. interests in the Middle East.
The 1967 war “transformed American Jews’ relationship not only to Israel, but also to themselves,” says Alterman. “In a remarkably prescient Commentary article, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg noted that (it) had united American Jews ‘with deep Jewish commitments as they have never been united before.'”
According to Alterman, “Support for Israel soon overwhelmed all other commitments, whether to social service, community solidarity, or social justice. In the everlasting battle between Jewish particularism and universalism, the former … was now threatening to wipe out the latter … with remarkable speed.”
After 1967, Holocaust remembrance became inextricably entwined with arguments in defence of Israel, and as Alterman writes, the majority of Jews were willing to lay aside their liberal beliefs if they conflicted with support for Israel.
“Conservatives consistently made the case that, because of Israel’s reliance on American power, it was long past time for Jews to give up on liberalism altogether,” he says. This argument did not really find much resonance among American Jews, who remained largely liberal and loyal to the Democratic Party.
Major American Jewish organizations hewed to a policy of “unanimous and unquestioned” support for Israel. Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, concurred with this approach. During Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, he declared that critics of Israel were guilty “not merely of antisemitism but of the broader sin of faithlessness to the interests of the United States and indeed to the values of Western civilization as a whole.”
More recently, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who funded the Birthright travel program in Israel, promoted this hardline perception of Israel. In an interview, he claimed that “the two-state solution is a stepping stone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Dissenting Jewish organizations, such as JStreet, have not been silenced by the call to refrain from public criticism of Israel. To Alterman, JStreet expresses positions “far more consistent with the ambivalence” of American Jews toward Israel.
During the 1980s, millions of evangelical Christians took up Israel’s cause, joining Jews to create a powerful force in American politics. The preachers Pat Robertson, who died recently, and Jerry Falwell were in the forefront of this movement. Falwell claimed that he considered Israel’s founding to be the most important date in history since the birth of Jesus.
Many American Jews were leery of the Christian evangelical alignment with Israel, given their liberal beliefs regarding such issues as separation of church and state, racial integration and reproductive freedom.
“This alliance was accompanied by a gradual sense of distance and disillusionment on the part of many American Jews, especially younger ones, who became increasingly alienated by the rightward direction of Israel’s policies and its harsh treatment of the Palestinians …” Alterman writes. “As Israel came to be perceived as more and more a conservative cause, liberals and leftists evinced growing sympathy for the plight of the displaced Palestinians, who, now stateless and oppressed, had come to occupy the underdog role that history had previously assigned to the Jews.”
In Israel, right-wing religious Jews and Christian evangelicals found much to agree on. As Alterman puts it, “They shared commitments to biblical exegesis, social conservatism, and militarism, and they loathed both socialism and Islam.”
Israel, in its early years, enjoyed broad support among liberals and leftists. Its image as a socialist, anti-imperialist state was partially burnished by Leon Uris’ novel, Exodus, and the blockbuster Hollywood movie from which it was adapted.
Since the Six Day War, however, the tide has turned, with liberals having grown critical of Israel and leftists having unapologetically defected to the Palestinians.
On American university campuses, Israel is invariably seen as an oppressor of Palestinians. Alterman contends that the shift in academia is partially due to Edward Said’s foundational book, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Published in 1978, it has been translated into 36 languages, including Hebrew, and appears on the syllabi of 868 courses in American universities and colleges.
Tony Judt, a British-born historian, has been influential in pro-Palestnian circles as well. In a 2003 essay in the New York Review of Books, he argued that Israel had “imported a characteristically late-nineteenth separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in sort, is an anachronism.”
Alterman, a supporter of a Jewish state, is critical of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Its advocacy of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants is a prescription for Israel’s disappearance as a Jewish state. And its endorsement of boycotting Israeli scholars undermines a fundamental purpose of a university — the unimpeded pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment.
He believes that Israel’s growing illiberalism both at home and in its relationships abroad, plus its occasionally undisguised contempt for the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States, have alienated a considerable number of American Jews, some of whom no longer define their Jewishness within the framework of Israel’s existence.
These tensions have led to a situation in which Israel has become more of a divisive element for Jews than a unifying force.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who presides over the most right-wing government in Israeli history, has played a key role in this development by virtue of his deeply conservative domestic and foreign policies.
It’s clear, as Alterman argues, that Israel can no longer count on the blanket approval of American Jews.
“We are one” is a slogan whose relevance has come and gone.