Israel at 50: For Many American Jews It Has Become A False God
Many American Jews have been publicly celebrating Israel's 50th anniversary. In Hollywood, a $6 million extravaganza hosted by actor Kevin Kostner was broadcast on CBS in mid-April just prior to the official April 30 celebration. Across the country, Jewish communities have planned events commemorating the establishment of Israel in 1948.
At the same time, skepticism about the relationship between American Jews and Israel is growing and many thoughtful observers have charged that, for many American Jews, Israel has become a false God.
In a special section concerning Israel's anniversary, Tikkun (March/April 1998) collected the views of a number of critics who are concerned about the place Israel has taken in religious life.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, Tikkun's editor, notes that, "If you judge 'who is a people's God' by what they hold sacred, where and for whom they are prepared to make sacrifices...then you have to conclude that for much of the part 50 years the real object of worship of much of the Jewish people has been Israel and Zionism. Unfortunately, like all false gods, this one has failed to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the Jewish people. If many Jews turn away from Judaism today, Israel has played no small part in that process. Judaism may be one of Israel's most important casualties."
The "valorization of what is real as opposed to what could and should be," Lerner writes, "is the essence of what Judaism calls idolatry. Judaism's central claim is that the spiritual and political must go hand in hand, that a central spiritual goal is to heal and transform the world. From this Jewish standpoint, power is always illusory, a momentary self-deception that allows ruling elites to convince people that the way things are is the only way things can be. For Judaism, the goal is to critique power in the name of the ultimate power.... The Prophets made clear that, to the extent that Jews might create a society that was equally oppressive and unjust as those of the rest of the world, they would have no claim to the land of Israel, or even to survival as a people.... The revolutionary message of Judaism...became invisible to the religious Zionists who were so impressed by all the military success of Israel's army that they began to read its victories as the current manifestation of God's will..."
Lerner laments the treatment of the Palestinians: "We Jews jumped from the burning building of Europe...We landed on the backs of the Palestinians...The fire we were escaping required us to jump, and Palestinians were the unintended victims...But once we landed on their backs and unintentionally hurt them, we were unable to acknowledge what had happened. Israel closed its ears and pretended for decades that the Palestinian people did not exist...."
"Judaism may be one of Israel's most important casualties."
Judaism, he concludes, has been one of the casualties of the politicization of religion: "To the extent that Judaism lost its ability to critique the distortions of the Jewish people, to the extent that it has become a cheerleader for a particular state, its army, its fund-raisers and its ideological support structure, Judaism has lost its connection to God and Torah..."
Another contributor to Tikkun, Israeli novelist Amos Oz, writes that, "The Arab citizens of the State of Israel have not been treated correctly. There can be no such thing as a Jewish state; it must be the State of the Jewish people and all its citizens, which means that Israeli Arabs will have the option to be full-scale citizens with all the rights and duties...Israel needs to look the Palestinian tragedy right in the eye and say, 'We will do everything we can, short of committing suicide, to cure this tragedy.' I regard the clash between Israel and Palestine in 1948 as a tragedy because it was a clash between right and right.... Neither side can be terribly proud of what they did in 1949. We have to see how we can heal these wounds..."
In his recently published book, Faith Or Fear: How Jews Can Survive In Christian America, Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and now head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, argues that for many American Jews support for Israel has become the basis of their identity and a substitute religion. He argues that, "It is not too much to say that support for Israel became the key element of Jewish faith for most American Jews. Support for Israel became central to Jewish identity -- the core of the religion of American Jews. To many American Jews, it became the essence of their lives as Jews and of their understanding of their own Jewishness. They lived Israel and they supported Israel. A good Jew could do no less, and one who did no less -- and no more -- was a good Jew."
Only as a religious community can Judaism survive in America, Abrams believes, and the stress by so many Jewish groups on Israel and ethnicity is one reason fewer and fewer Americans born to Jewish families today report Judaism as their religion. Abrams declares: "Whether American Jews can commit themselves anew to the goal of survival, to reversing the demographic patterns that threaten their collective future, depends on whether they still believe they are above all else members of a religious community. As an ethnic, cultural or political entity they are doomed. Such identification erodes from one generation to the next; it cannot be sustained against the pressures of a society seeking relentlessly to include them within larger groups of citizens who do not share their religious heritage...American Jewry will survive as a religious community or not at all."
The concern about Israel having become a false god and a substitute for genuine religion is not new. It has been gaining strength in recent years. In the Fall 1994 issue of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, then president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, declared that, "For many Jews, the Land of Israel remains the sole touchstone of their Jewish existence. They have for too long been plugged into Israel as if it were a dialysis machine...Equating Judaism with Israel does irreparable harm. We will never know who we are if we continue to use Israel as a fig leaf to cover our own nakedness."
Some observers believe that the Six-Day War of 1967 marked a dramatic change in the role of Israel in American Jewish life. In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman, who served as the New York Times correspondent in Beirut and Jerusalem, writes that, "After the 1967 war, the perception of Israel in the mind of many American Jews shifted radically from Israel as a safe haven for other Jews to Israel as the symbol and carrier of Jewish communal identity...American Jews could not embrace Israel enough; they could not fuse their own identities with Israel's enough. They visited Israel in droves, climbed on captured Egyptian tanks, sat in the cockpits of Israeli Phantom jets, and posed arm in arm with literally any Israeli soldier who walked down the street. The impact of Israel on American Jews was so powerful that for many of them Israel actually replaced Torah, synagogue, and prayer as the carder of their Jewish identity."
In a widely discussed book, The Jews In America, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, professor of religion at New York University, explored the manner in which support for Israel has replaced religion in American Jewish life. By placing Israel at the center of communal Jewish life, and largely excluding traditional religious values, the organized Jewish community created a massive spiritual vacuum in American Jewish life. "After 1967," Hertzberg writes, "the Jews in America were freer, bolder and more powerful than any community of Jews had ever been in the Diaspora. And yet, amid the bustle of success, the Jewish community was eroding...They would have to face the question of meaning...Jewishness in America was thus fashioned, de facto, not as a religion but an ethnic community. America's Jews would define themselves by fighting their enemies and clinging to each other."
Even religious advocates of Zionism have expressed dismay at the manner in which Judaism has been corrupted by its involvement with the political life of a sovereign state. Sir Immanuel Jakobovits, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, laments that, "Anti-religious feeling was...stirred up by Jewish religiously agitated terror groups operating against terror targets, and by ugly confrontations over Sabbath desecration, bones found in archeological digs, the exhumation of a non-Jew buried in a Jewish cemetery...To me, even more disturbing were other by-products of this unholy partnership. The moral conscience of the Jewish people has been all but despiritualized, transferred from its traditional custodians, and virtually monopolized by the secularist masses and their spokesmen. When over 10 per cent of Israel's Jews, aroused by moral qualms over the war in Lebanon, participated in what must have been proportionately the largest spontaneous demonstration ever seen anywhere, there were few rabbis among the protestors, and certainly none of the better known religious leaders who constantly summoned mass demonstrations against some isolated desecration of the Sabbath or of some suspected graves..."
Rabbi Jakobovits notes that, "ideals such as peace, conciliation, tolerance, sympathy for the sufferings even of one's enemies, and simple faith in the eventual triumph of human understanding -- all so deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition -- were virtually obliterated from the religious vocabulary of virtues. This religious insensitivity to Jewish moral values continues to baffle and trouble me to no end."
The transformation of Jewish religious life into nationalism and the replacement of a spiritual vision with a political agenda has produced in many sensitive and thoughtful Jewish believers such as Rabbi Jacobovits what he describes as "my desolation over this disengagement of Judaism from its moral imperatives."
THE NEW IDOLATRY
In his book, Where Are We?, Leonard Fein, a Reform Jewish leader who writes a column in The Forward, expresses concern that American Judaism has become idolatrous, placing the State of Israel and the "Jewish people" above faith in God and the covenant entered into at Sinai. For Zionists, Israel -- the state -- has become an end in itself, Fein points out, replacing God and the ancient Jewish mission of repairing the world.
For some time, the Zionist establishment in both Israel and the U.S. has been working very hard to promote the idea that Israel is "central" to Judaism and to Jewish life. In 1968, the 27th World Zionist Congress adopted a resolution recognizing its "Jerusalem Program" as the official pronouncement of basic Zionist aims. The key element of this program is its first provision which affirms "the unity of the Jewish people and the centrality of Israel in Jewish life" as a Zionist aim.
Reform Jews, who previously opposed the Zionist concept of Jewish ethnicity and advanced a universal Judaism free of nationalism, adopted this Zionist concept of Israel's "centrality," as have Conservative and most Orthodox Jewish groups.
As Jewish life became dominated by Israel and Middle East politics, a spiritual vacuum developed and more and more younger American Jews began to seek spiritual meaning and purpose in other religious traditions. Slowly, Jewish religious leaders are beginning to understand that substituting Israel for God will not provide the basis for a continuing Jewish identity in the free and open American society.
Speaking at a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative Jewish religious body, Rabbi Randal Konigsberg of Orlando, Florida, declared that, "American Jews have, for many years, depended on Israel and the Holocaust for their Jewishness. Young Jews today are looking for a belief in God. They want to know that God can make a difference,"
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, stated in a talk in Philadelphia in 1997 age of ethnicity is over. Young Jews, and older ones as well, are saying that Judaism can no longer be an exercise in nostalgia, or an act of spite: you better be Jewish because the Nazis tried to destroy us. Yes, we are and will remain a people, but Jews will wish to be Jewish only if our people/religion can help us to find a transcendent meaning in our lives. Yes, we will need to help beleaguered Jews throughout the world, and our brothers and sisters in Israel, but we will also need to come to the aid of each individual's beleaguered soul...Judaism must reach out for the spiritual, the transcendent, the holy. We need to fill the spiritual vacuum with serious Jewish reflection on God and on mitzvah and on the meaning of life."
Now, as Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary, American Jews are becoming increasingly disillusioned with those in their own community who have substituted Israel for God and made a false religion of Jewish nationalism.
Indeed, the gap between Israel and American Jews is growing and Israel is clearly not "central" to Jewish concerns, writes Yosef Abramowitz, editor of the magazine Jewish and Family Life. He declares: "In nearly every dimension of American Jewish life that has been associated with Israel -- from advocacy to fund-raising to education -- Israel has lost its centrality...Gone are the glory days that followed the euphoric victory of the 1967 Six-Day War, the alarm and relief of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the pride of the 1976 Entebbe rescue. In their place are declining fund-raising campaigns, a relative indifference to the Mideast peace process, dwindling tourism to Israel, and a growing emphasis on `domestic' issues like Jewish education and social action."
Dr. Sidney Schwartz, president of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, states that, "You can no longer fund-raise on the back of Israel. Almost no one is interested. The annual campaigns are being supported by older Jews for whom Israel holds a special place, but not by the next generation of givers."
Donald Cohen, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Dayton, Ohio, states: "The intifada complicated Israel for a lot of Israel supporters. No longer was it possible to rehearse the same old lines that Israel was always right, Arabs always wrong. All those debating points were simply not enough to carry the argument in public, or even in the minds of Israel's supporters. Many people simply disengaged from Israel."
The fact is that the deification of Israel by many American Jews in recent years represented a rejection of Judaism, the religion. Rabbi John D. Rayner of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue of London points out that Jewish nationalism "idealized the nation...The fact that there is good and bad in it is conveniently forgotten; everything in the national garden is said to be lovely. Then the nation is elevated to the level of the highest good, so that its interest overrides, on the one hand, the interest of its own individual citizens and, on the other, the interest of every other nation.... Just as chauvinistic nationalism denies the Hebraic principle of the inalienable rights of the individual, created in God's image, so it is a stranger to the Hebraic ideal of a humanity transcending nationhood, of a family of families living, under God, at peace with one another. And for both reasons, however high-sounding its rhetoric, it is often an excuse for hatred and injustice and for every cruelty under the sun. It was Dr. Johnson who said that `patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.' Today it is often the first."
Reflecting upon the horrors that extreme nationalism has brought about in today's world -- from Bosnia to Northern Ireland, from Rwanda to the Middle East -- Rabbi Rayner states: "Not since the Nazi era...has it been so urgent to denounce chauvinistic nationalism for the evil it is, and to proclaim instead the Hebraic ideal. What is the Hebraic ideal? It is not that nations should suppress or neglect their distinctive traditions, but rather that they should affirm and cultivate them...The Hebraic ideal is that the nations, while maintaining their individuality and if necessary their separateness, should nevertheless transcend it in mutual respect and cooperation, and in a common endeavor to establish a global society united in obedience to the One and Only God who stands supreme above all nations and all individuals, and therefore living in harmony and peace..."
The fact is that Zionism, as it emerged from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was a conscious rejection of the Jewish religious tradition. Aharon Appelfeld, one of Israel's most respected novelists, notes that, "There was a general conception among secular Zionists that the Jew was too weak, too spiritual, and that our real task should be to be more like other nations. The Zionists said we had walked willingly to the slaughter; but we had been slaughtered not because of our deficiencies but because we were surrounded by barbarians. If Jews had really been weak, they would never have survived for two thousand years in this kind of European circumstance...We were a spiritual nation, and we should be a spiritual nation, and spirit should be at the center of our lives, and classical Judaism should be at the center of our lives. Can you imagine if French people, or even Germans, were to say we don't want to be French or German anymore? This form of Zionism was a kind of self-hatred."
What will the future hold? Will the soul, searching now taking place on the part of American Jews and Jews in other parts of the world result in a movement away from the idea that Israel and not God is "central" to Judaism? There is reason to be hopeful that it will. Michael Lerner believes that, "By the middle of the 21st century...the chauvinistic consciousness that today predominates in some sections of the American Jewish community and in the govemment and religious communities of Israel will be viewed in the same way that we today view those who supported slavery or who opposed the right of women to vote."
Israel's 50th anniversary has provided an occasion for just the kind of soul-searching which is so desperately needed within the American Jewish community which, for too long, has substituted nationalism and politics for religion, to the great detriment of the unique contribution which a genuine prophetic Judaism of universal values could make, both to American society and to the Middle East.
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