Zionism in America – a Matter of Convenience

I am not a Zionist, am not a believer in any faith and am not a member of any religious congregation. However, reading Jeffrey Rosen’s book titled “Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet (Jewish Life)” (2016) evoked some reflections on Zionism in America, past and present. Louis D. Brandeis, a secular Jew, had been an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1916 – 1939) who, prior to his Supreme Court appointment, actively advocated on behalf of Zionist causes. He visited Palestine in 1919 subsequent to the issuance of a letter authored by Lord Balfour (1917), widely known as the “Balfour Declaration”, that expressed a favorable view of the creation of a Jewish “National Home” in Palestine, and the establishment of the British Mandate over Palestine.

Of particular interest to me are Brandeis’s views regarding Zionism in America as a cause for potential Jewish “dual allegiance”, namely being loyal American citizens and simultaneously adhering to Zionism’s objectives. The core ideology of Zionism is eloquently expressed by Theodor Herzl in his book “Altneuland” (“Old New Land” – 1902) prophesying the establishment of a National Home for the Jewish people in Palestine (the Land of Zion in biblical times and parts thereof as contemporary Israel). The precise definition of the words “National Home”, as intended by Lord Balfour, has come under some controversy over the years but are anecdotally considered as synonymous to “Independent State”, which is consistent with Herzl’s own description contained in his pamphlet “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”) published in 1896.

As described in Mr. Rosen’s book, in order to address the question of “dual allegiance”, Brandeis devised separate meanings to the words “nationality” and “nation”. Accordingly, American Jews can maintain their particular faith-based “Jewish nationality” within the whole of the American “nation”. This is consistent with the pluralism that underpins the American judicial framework. Thus, according to Brandeis, American Jews may at the same time adhere to Zionist ideology (expressed firmly within the aspirational boundaries of their faith-based “nationality”) but still be loyal American citizens and consider themselves as an integral part of the American “nation”. Brandeis’ approach seems to support a permanent Jewish homeland in America, effectively vacating the core ideology of Zionism. Of course, loyal American citizenship cannot be asserted without a firm belief in the singularity of the American homeland. Therefore, as Brandeis puts it, no American Jew is being asked, by virtue of being a Zionist, to abandon the American homeland and immigrate to the Land of Zion. In other words, being an American and a Zionist, loving and caring for the Land of Zion from afar, are not mutually exclusive and do not present a challenge to any Jewish person in America regarding his/her loyalty to their American homeland.

The fact that a Jewish “nationality” differs profoundly and fundamentally from the “nationalities” of other ethnic groups that collectively comprise the American “nation” seems to have escaped, perhaps purposefully, Brandeis’ consideration. Jewishness can only be identified as membership in that certain faith. Thus being a member of the Jewish “nationality” is necessarily synonymous with Judaism. For the Jewish people in America their “nationality” and their faith are inextricably bound together.

This mixture of secular and religious definitions is like oil and water – they do not readily mix. Although one may argue, along the lines expressed by Brandeis, that there is no conflict between the faith-based Jewish “nationality” and the secular-based “nationalities” of other ethnic groups because they all converge into the larger all-inclusive pluralistic American “nation”. Perhaps this explanation fits into the fabric of American society under its constitution but it is, in my view, inconsistent with the core of the Zionist ideology that is rooted in a deeply religious belief that the Land of Zion is the only one land promised by God to His chosen Jewish flock (Ata Bechartanu” – God Choosing and Loving His Jewish People) to be inhabited exclusively by them and thus be their God-given eternal Homeland.

Furthermore, the Jewish faith is the sole religion (of the three major monotheistic ones) that eternally ties its believers and practitioners to one specific parcel of land, known as the Land of Zion, as it had been promised to them by God. The Bible (Old Testament) proclaims in no uncertain terms that God has given that specific land to Abraham, for his decedents to inhabit, multiply and be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand grains along a beach (Genesis 15:28-21). God tells all Jews wherever they are that the word of God emanates from Jerusalem (“Dvar Adonai Mi Yerushalayim”) and that the Torah projects God’s religious and moral authority unto all from Zion (“Mi Zion Tetze Torah”).

Perhaps it may be said that since God is believed to be universal in His presence, His words reach every corner of the globe and the Torah being God’s manifest of wisdom and morality emanates from Zion upon all nations under God. Observant Jews universally declare during their daily prayer that they shall never forget Jerusalem “Im Eshkachech Yerushalayim Tishkach Yemini” (“If I forget Thee Jerusalem, Let My Right Hand Forget Her Cunning”). The objective of this prayer, likely rooted in antiquity, has been to remind the Jewish diaspora of the eternal status of Jerusalem and the Land of Zion as their divinely ordained Homeland, indeed the one Homeland that they should always strive to return to. The very foundation of Zionism is consistent with this ancient prayer. But it seems that the majority of the Jewish people in the contemporary diaspora as well as during Brandeis’ time (in America and elsewhere) prefer to view this prayer as merely an age-old tradition, perhaps a historic matter but not as God’s dictum.

Observant Jews or even those who are generally secular but practice some aspects of belonging to the Jewish “nationality” renew a solemn vow each year at the conclusion of the Passover (“Pesach”) Seder dinner to return to Jerusalem by that same time next year (“Le-shana Ha-ba’ah Bi-Yerushalayim” – “Next Year in Jerusalem May We All Dwell There in Peace”). A final redemption from the ancient bondage and slavery that is symbolized by the Passover Seder can be made permanent by returning to Jerusalem for good. The act of returning to Jerusalem, therefore can be viewed as the embodiment of Jewish, and Zionist, freedom.

But the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people in America (including Brandeis himself) did not then and do not now attach any tangible meaning to that vow. The annually repeated vow to return to Jerusalem is an expression of an historic traditional faith-based aspiration that does not require any plans for immediate or future implementation. Today, Jerusalem has been redeemed as it is of course a part of the independent State of Israel which Herzl, Brandeis and other Zionists envisioned as the Jewish Home. Taking Zionism ideology at its word and considering the fact that the State of Israel views itself as the only one homeland of the world Jewry, there should be no reason why Zionists should not fulfil that solemn vow. But according to some interpretations of the biblical dictum Jews are not being asked to obey God’s command and return to the Land of Zion until God Himself sends a divine signal that the time has come for such a move. Accordingly, God will dispatch a Messiah (“Mashiach”) to call upon them to make good. Jerusalem and the Land of Zion will then be ready to accept all of the Jewish diaspora. This interpretation conveniently vacates the Passover vow from any tangible meaning and appears to support Brandeis’ views regarding the Jewish “nationality” and the permanency of the American Jewish homeland within the whole of the American “nation”.

A logical deduction suggests that there is no escape from defining as Zionists only those Jewish people who materialized the Zionist core ideology, made and continue to make the Land of Zion, God’s land promised to His chosen people, their home (dwelling) – they alone can rightly claim a fulfillment of God’s biblical dictum. All other Jewish people who choose to live in the diaspora may still refer to themselves as Zionists for whatever communal, practical, personal, traditional, cultural or even religious reasons but their Zionism is devoid of a crucial part of the authenticity and trueness that is clearly mandated by their faith.

The American constitutional framework that guarantees personal, religious and communal freedoms respects all those who profess the American brand of Zionism but still maintain that being a Zionist is an expression of personal convenience and a communal belonging. Thus it is consistent with the notion that any American Zionist is also a loyal American citizen and his/her loyalty to American is beyond reproach. It seems clear that Brandeis’s being a constitutional scholar framed his definitions of “nationality” and “nation” around these fundamentals.

Members of the Jewish “nationality” in America achieved significant levels of scholarly, scientific, cultural, political and economic presence within the whole of the American “nation”. Their contributions, like those made by Brandeis, profoundly influenced America and enhanced its status. It is completely understandable why historically many Jews sought to immigrate to America and why many Jews did not then and would not now seriously consider the Zionist core ideology as a call to leave their adopted homelands and immigrate to their divinely promised homeland. Brandeis held a simplistic, perhaps naïvely utopian vision of the future of Jewish life in the “Jewish Homeland” based nearly exclusively on agriculture and he “fell in love” with the Land of Zion during his visit. But as a secular Jew he probably did not, as likely the majority of the American Jewry regardless if secular or religious, see himself obligated to obey any God’s dictum. It seems that he believed that his advocacy on behalf of the Zionist cause would be more effective if he remained in America although at that point in his life, as a Justice of the Supreme Court, he refrained from public activities on behalf of Zionist causes. However, it is also likely that the general harshness of life in Palestine that he witnessed, as compared to his comfortable living in America, compelled him to reject the idea of making that same Zionist ideology he advocated for a personal reality.

Subsequent to the establishment of the State of Israel Zionism in America underwent reformation. Zionism’s premise of a Jewish Homeland in God’s “Promised Land” became a reality. It was necessary to revise the objectives of this movement to fit the new circumstances. The young State of Israel was in a dire need to expand its Jewish population in order to solidify the Zionist achievement and ensure its future vitality. Yet the majority of the American Jewry chose to remain ignorant of that need. Moreover, Israel during its early years of independence yearned not only for “Jews by the numbers”. It also needed those American Jews who were educated and successful to establish themselves as an important part of the young Israeli society and exert their influence upon its evolving culture, contribute to its democratic governance, help shape its judiciary, join in developing its economy as well as to partake in its emergence on the world stage. Needless to say that relatively few American Jews heeded the Israeli call. The majority of American Zionists view themselves as supporters of Israel by publicly advocating its causes, calling for material and political support. Immigration to Israel by American Jews was relegated to a “back seat” status.

Brandeis’ ideas of Jewish “nationality” within the American “nation” appear to be consistent with the “new” reshaped American Zionism. Since this brand of American Zionism is no longer consistent with the “old” core objectives, Jews who are sympathetic to Israel’s causes and those who engaged in providing material, cultural and political support to the State of Israel view themselves as Zionists and at the same time remain loyal Americans as members of the American “nation”. Indeed, as Brandeis put it so prophetically, their Zionism is an expression of their Jewish “nationality”. Zionism in America, as practiced by those who claim to be Zionists, became a matter of convenience.

About the Author
Arie, a retired consulting engineer, had been born in Israel, served in the IDF and is a resident of Boston since 1978. lifelong interests include history of Israel (including the formerly Palestine) and US/Israel relations. Other interests include studies in philosophy and theology.