The Stars & Stripes of David

Article excerpt

It has become a cliche to observe that unquestioning support for Israel, combined with a strong measure of Holocaust lamentation, has replaced the Five Books of Moses as the religious basis of modern American Jewry. Like most cliches, it is a gross over-simplification of a complex process, but it is not without an uncomfortable edge of truth. In the fifty years since the creation of the State of Israel, American Jewry has married itself to the Zionist enterprise, with outcomes both good and bad for both sides. In the symposium that follows, The Nation has asked five longtime observers from the U.S. Jewish community to comment on the state of the relationship after fifty years.

Susannah Heschel

Susannah Heschel is Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College. She is the author of Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus Chicago).

Two symbol systems configure the relationship between the State of Israel and American Jews: gender and theology. Zionism is a starkly gendered movement whose goal was "overcoming" the Diaspora history of piety, learning and passivity and creating a "new Jewish man." Indeed, the Hebrew word l'hitgaber, "to overcome," literally means "to become a man." Zionism meant transcending effeminacy, re-creating the Jew as man. If Zionism was about Jewish masculinity, then the establishment of the State of Israel inaugurated a marriage between Israel and American Jewry as husband and wife. American Jewish status was derivative. Like an upwardly mobile woman marrying a rich man, American Jews gloried in the military prowess and success of Israel.

Yet while American Jewish identity was revived by Israel, domesticated American Jews were to know their place. Criticism that might remotely pose diplomatic discomfort to the state was not tolerated. Prominent Jews who opposed the war in Vietnam or marched in the civil rights movement were warned by Israeli representatives to desist. The Jewish left ignored these warnings and was cast off -- divorced. If the wife got a mind of her own, the marriage was off. Failure to control her meant she would emasculate die state. The stirrings of an American Jewish revolt against Israeli policies is a kind of feminist movement, and is received as such. Not coincidentally, the rebellion against Benjamin Netanyahu's efforts to undermine the Oslo peace accords comes just as American Jews are recovering their Jewishness. Identity cannot remain derivative, for women or for Jews.

The reaction to the disapproval had been a campaign in Israel to undermine the rights of American Jews by refusing to recognize non-Orthodox Judaism. Over here, left Jewish criticism of Israeli strong-arm tactics is chalked up to "embarrassment," and labeled effeminate, adolescent and immature. Jonathan Rosen, an editor of Forward, said, "[Israel] has appetites and needs, it can exhibit aggression.... Certain Jews react to this fact like adolescent girls developing breasts and feeling mortified that they aren't ethereal angels but actual animal bodies." The message: Act like a man.

Ruth Wisse recently wrote, "I would sooner pray among Jews who did not love God than I would among Jews who did not love Israel." Loving Israel, of course, means a certain kind of love: passive and adoring. Like any demanding patriarchal husband, Israel assumes attributes of an all-powerful and all-knowing God. If God is male, then the male is God, the feminist philosopher Mary Daly wrote. In this scenario, the husband, Israel, has apparently replaced God. Even at prayer, love of God is not the supreme value; the new heresy is differing with the politics of the right.

Where do these gender politics leave the State of Israel? Military might is now bolstered by extraordinary economic might. Yet, paradoxically, even as it tortures Palestinians, depriving them of economic and political independence, Israel whines about its vulnerability. Is that a masculine voice? …