November 19, 2019

We Stand Divided, But Why?

While sitting in Rosh Hashanah services, I spent the better part of my time reading Daniel Gordis’ new book “We Stand Divided,” about the split between American Jews and Israel. Gordis’ basic argument is that the angst American Jews feel about Israel is not new, and it is not intimately connected to Israel’s actions. Instead, Gordis argues, the rift between American Jews and Israel is a reflection of the fact that the U.S. and Israel are fundamentally different countries created for different purposes and with different values.
Gordis applied this argument to Israel’s recent election in the pages of The New York Times in making the case that American Jews aren’t likely to be any more satisfied with a Benny Gantz premiership than they have been with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure. While forecasting that some of the policies that Gantz, should he become prime minister, might adopt will ease tensions in the short term, Gordis warns that “any new Israeli prime minister might ultimately make matters worse between Israel and American Jews. That’s because American Jews will discover that some of the policies they detested and associated with Netanyahu are actually supported by a wide spectrum of Israelis. What they thought they disliked about Netanyahu they may find that they dislike about Israel itself.”

On all of these fronts, I think that Gordis is unquestionably correct. The U.S. and Israel are fundamentally different; American Jews and Israeli Jews have fundamentally different values and see their Judaism differently; and American Jews who lay all of their hang-ups about Israel at Netanyahu’s feet are destined for serious disappointment when Israel is one day run by someone else. We need to be honest about the fact that American and Israeli Jews don’t see eye to eye on things large and small, from what it means to be a Jew to how to engage with the world. We also need to be historically literate and understand, as Gordis demonstrates, that arguments and divisions between Israeli and American Jews have been present since before the creation of the state, and that this is not an unprecedented phenomenon driven by a new generation of millennials. The imagined halcyon days of the relationship between Israeli and American Jews are largely a myth, even if things now are particularly fraught.

As always, however, the devil is in the details, and that is where Gordis advances an argument that does not hold up quite so well to scrutiny. He hints at this in his New York Times op-ed about Gantz when he writes that American Jews may discover that what they dislike is Israel rather than its current leadership. Without the more extensive argument that he lays out in his book, one can easily read that to be referring to Israeli government policies that would be pursued by Gantz or any other plausible candidate for prime minister in Israel’s current political environment. Yet Gordis’ theory in his book is that American Jews have a problem with the very concept of Israel as a Jewish state, and that American Jews’ politics and worldview will never be comfortable with nation-states of any kind. In his formulation, the fact that Israel is a state rooted in the particularist idea of benefiting one distinct group of people is embarrassing and even (in his words) loathsome to American Jewry.
This is, to say the least, a controversial argument, but the fact that it is controversial does not make it wrong. What makes it wrong is that Gordis’ evidence for this claim is thin and overly reliant on a historical record from before Israel’s establishment that doesn’t comport with today’s landscape. Gordis does an adept job of demonstrating the ambivalence that many American Jewish leaders had toward the establishment of a Jewish state in the first half of the 20th century, and convincingly argues that the combination of American universalism and the historically anomalous safe haven that universalism provided to Jews gives American Jews a unique perspective. But when you are citing Michael Chabon and IfNotNow as representative of American Jewry writ large, or referring to a 1946 exchange between Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem to support a claim about the predilections of American Jews in 2019, it is a sign that your line of reasoning has gone off the rails.

American Jews do indeed support Israel as a Jewish state, and to describe the relationship between American Judaism and Israel as one in which the former is embarrassed by the latter’s Jewish character is contradicted by mountains of easily observable data.

To look at the deeply Zionist American Jewish community, where every major American Jewish organization of any significance supports Israel not only in practice but specifically as a Jewish state and where over 90% of American Jews say they have favorable feelings toward Israel, and to posit that the real problem is a rejection of the concept of Israel’s Jewish nature is a puzzling leap. Gordis contends that a refusal to endorse Jewish statehood is endemic to American Judaism because it is a natural outgrowth of American universalism. In this theoretical framework, the debate over Zionism that consumed American Jewry in the 1930s, 1940s and even 1950s is more relevant to understanding American Jewish problems with Israel than the fact that today, anti-Zionism is a fringe position within American Judaism. Adopting this understanding of American Judaism meant that a hypothetical Prime Minister Gantz inevitably will run into a wall of American Jewish opposition not because he is right of center on security policy and views no partner on the Palestinian side, but because he believes in Jews’ right to have a state of their own while American Jews reject any and all forms of ethnic nationalism.
This is not a debate that is confined to the realm of academic theory. If one accepts Gordis’ premise, not only does it mean that Israel can never satisfy American Jewish concerns, but that actual Israeli policies make no meaningful difference when it comes to this rift. If Israel somehow manages to separate from the Palestinians and execute a successful two-state outcome, it won’t matter. If Israel withdraws from the West Bank entirely, it won’t matter. If Israel ends its blockade of Gaza and turns a blind eye to anything that goes on there, it won’t matter. 

None of this will matter unless Israel drops any pretense to wanting to preserve a Jewish state and becomes a single bi-national state. American Jews who argue that their discomfort is with Israeli government policies are either being disingenuous or do not truly understand their own deep-seated psychological misgivings about Jewish statehood. The policy implications of this argument are immense, and it can easily lead to a scenario in which the Israeli government thinks that nothing it does ultimately matters so it may as well throw all caution to the wind when it comes to holding onto American Jewish support.

Gordis gets a lot right, and to his enormous credit, he is not trying to artificially paper over the deep divisions that exist between Israel and its American Jewish cousins. But IfNotNow is no more a bellwether of American Jewry than Breaking the Silence is of Israeli society, even if both groups do represent distinct constituencies that should be heard and understood. American Jews do indeed support Israel as a Jewish state, and to describe the relationship between American Judaism and Israel as one in which the former is embarrassed by the latter’s Jewish character is contradicted by mountains of easily observable data.

To the extent that American Jews are embarrassed by or uncomfortable with Israel, it is generally because of Israeli behavior rather than its metaphysical status. Gordis makes an admirable and critically necessary plea for greater understanding on both sides of the ocean, but that first requires a more accurate diagnosis of the malady.


Michael J. Koplow is the director of Washington, D.C.-based Israel Policy Forum’s Policy. He can be reached at mkoplow@ipforum.org.