Consensus Grows That Israel as Surrogate Religion for American Jews a Failed Strategy

By Brownfeld, Allan C. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Consensus Grows That Israel as Surrogate Religion for American Jews a Failed Strategy


Brownfeld, Allan C., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


In recent years, American Jews have been tola repeatedly that the state of Israel is "central" to their identity. Even the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents Reform Judaism, recently adopted "Ten Principles For Reform Judaism" which included the declaration, "We encourage Reform Jews to make aliyah, immigration to Israel."

In fact, the notion that Israel, rather than God, is central to Judaism and Jewish identity is a rather recent idea, and was adopted by Jewish organizational leaders as a strategy to keep American Jews within the fold.

In a thoughtful book, Divided We Stand: American Jews, Israel, And The Peace Process (Praeger, 2002), Professor Ofira Seliktar of Gratz College reports that, after the 1967 war, "Making Israel the focus of Jewish identity was a logical choice for a community in search of new self-definition. The spontaneous, emotional and almost universal response of American Jews left no doubt that the ethnic-tribal sentiments written off in the fifties were very much alive. Scholars have noted that, in recalling the war effort, individual Jews and Jewish publications would often use the term 'we' as in 'how splendidly "we" have fought' or 'how many Arabs did "we" kill?' A rabbi described his congregation overtaken by vicarious heroism: 'I, the shoe salesman, killed an Arab. I, the heart specialist, captured the tank.' As Kurt Levin, a leading social psychologist, postulated, such a proprietary use of the term 'we' denoted interdependence of fate, a key ingredient in ethnic identity."

Dr. Seliktar noted that, "The 'reethnization' of the community around Israel had a number of advantages. Most importantly, Israel became the lynchpin of the evolving 'civil religion' of American Jews. It became the center of Jewish aspirations and an extraordinary resource for revitalized Jewish consciousness. By working for Israel, Jews would reestablish the ethnic-communal bonds that had worn thin in the process of assimilation. So much so that for large segments of American Jewry the Jewish state replaced the synagogue and the Torah as the symbol of ju daism. Irving Greenberg contended that the most widely observed mitzvah was a contribution to the UJA (United Jewish Appeal) and Israel Bonds. Some sociologists argued that nonsupport for Israel was judged to be a more severe form of deviance than intermarriage... The Jerusalem Program adopted by the World Zionist Organization in 1968 reaffirmed the centrality of Israel in Jewish life. Among others, the program aimed at preserving Jewish identity through fostering Hebrew education and other contacts with Israel. To this end, there was an increase in the number of Hebrew classes offered by synagogues and Jewish centers, and trips to Israel became a popular form of 'pilgrimage'... Albert Chernin, the longtime executive of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), declared that in the field of communal relations, Our first priority is Israel,' a stunning admission that 'the political effort to shore up Israel superseded all other concerns.'"

As a strategy of ensuring Jewish "continuity," making Israel "central" to Jewish life has been a dramatic failure. According to a nationwide survey released in October 2002, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Jews fell by 5 percent from 1990 to 2000, the first statistically significant decline in the U.S. Jewish population since 1800. There has been much talk of a "demographic crisis." A report issued in May of this year indicated that intermarriage rates in the American Jewish community point to a time when there will be more intermarried than "in-married" households.

Although the notion of making Israel "central" to American Jewish life was embraced almost without debate by leading American Jewish organizations, a number of prominent individuals rejected the idea from the outset.

Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a respected scholar, was among the first to warn that pro-Israelism could not solve the identity crisis of the community. …

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