The New Religion for America's Jews: Israel: Many American Jews Have Turned to the Defense of Israel as a Kind of Religious Precept and the Result, Too Often, Is a Repetition of Political Talking Points as If They Were the Amidah

By Alterman, Eric | Moment, November-December 2010 | Go to article overview

The New Religion for America's Jews: Israel: Many American Jews Have Turned to the Defense of Israel as a Kind of Religious Precept and the Result, Too Often, Is a Repetition of Political Talking Points as If They Were the Amidah


Alterman, Eric, Moment


The controversy over the relationship among American Jews, the professional Jewish establishment and the state of Israel, highlighted by the semi-explosive reaction to Peter Beinart's essay on the topic in The New York Review of Books last spring--is actually driven by three inter-related but nevertheless separate problems. First, liberal Jews have an increasing difficulty relating to--much less defending--Israel as that society becomes increasingly dominated by its most illiberal elements. Second is the problem that "official" American Jewry--including many neoconservative members of the media--cannot allow themselves to admit any mistakes in Israel's behavior and count American Jews who are lovers of Zion but critical of Israel among its enemies, or at least adversaries. Finally, there is the problem of the state of Judaism itself. What is it? Can anyone define what Jews actually believe, especially among the non-observant? At a time when people define themselves through multiple, often conflicting identities, what is the content of the Jewish part? And would the obsession with the defense of everything Israel among the neoconservarive Jewish establishment be quite so vociferous were they more confident in their American Jewish identities?

Doing some research for a book I'm writing on postwar American Jewry, I came across an illuminating essay published in January 1961 that touches on many of these questions: "The State of the Jews," by Marie Syrkin, daughter of Labor Zionist leader Nahman Syrkin and fiery liberal supporter of die Zionist enterprise. Syrkin helped to found the Labor Zionist monthly, Jewish Frontier in 1934, and later served as its editor. She asked a question that continues to haunt so many Jews today: "What chance for survival, in significant Jewish terms, is there for this Jewry, no longer deeply rooted in Orthodox Jewry?"

Yiddish culture, she says, is "already so remote from the contemporary young American Jew that it is no longer embarrassing." The Zionist movements of her youth which "sustained the sense of Jewish purpose and identity, have moved to Israel with the creation of the state. Meaningful anti-Semitism of the kind that forced Jews into informal professional and social ghettos was also disappearing." Now that "academic quotas are crumbling and bright young Jews offer their high IQs to the faculties as well as student bodies of the country's great colleges, what grievances remain?

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