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Sunday, July 15, 2007

American Jews: The Pity of it all

In Ha'aretz, Shmuel Rosner   published a very interesting reaction of an anonymous American Jew to the proposition that Israel is the center of Jewish life. To my silly mind, this proposition must be self evident to every person who studies Jewish religion and Jewish culture, and it has been true for 3,000 years. In the farthest reaches of China and Africa, wherever they were, orthodox Jews prayed toward Jerusalem, and vowed, "Next Year in Jerusalem." A millennium ago, a Jewish poet wrote, "My heart is in the East and I am at the ends of the West." The common language of all the Jewish people, East and West, was always Hebrew, the holidays celebrated by Jews were mostly related to the land, and the shared history of the Jewish people always began with the land and ended with return to the land. "The land" has always been only one place for Jews - it is here, in Israel, not in beautiful California, or fabulous Florida or Florence Italy nor even in majestic London or cosmopolitan New York. Jews means "people of Israel." And when, in the 19th century, many Jews stopped being religious, they nonetheless came to realize that they could not be French or Russian or German precisely like their neighbors, but rather that they had something in common with religious Jews: Israel.
This innocent, straightforward proposition meets the fiercest sort of opposition from some Jews. Here is author Aaron Hamburger: "Israel is not a pillar of our religious belief." I wonder what that religious belief could possibly be. If Hamburger is a Hindu or a Muslim, Israel and the relation of the Jews to Israel might not be part of his religious belief. If he is a religious Jew, or belongs to any one of many Protestant denominations, then Israel is necessarily central to his religious belief, even if he is an anti-Zionist who believes that Israel can only be established when the Messiah comes, or a Christian of the replacement theology persuasion who believes that the Church replaced the Jews  in God's promises.
A former American Jewish functionary, Steve Hoffman,  asserted apparently, that he is still not prepared to view Israel as the center of the Jewish people. There are two centers, Israel and the U.S. he claims. Indeed. When Hoffman goes to synagogue, no doubt they pray, "For from America will come forth the Torah, and the word of the LORD from Washington D.C." 
Places like Vilna, Lodz and Satu-Mare were also once "centers" of some of the Jewish people. Most of the Jews of those places, if they didn't leave, became ashes.  In ancient times, there were centers in Iraq too. Some of your sons may be fighting Jihadists in those places now. There are no Jews there, and few Jews remember or know where those places were.  Nobody but fools thought that they could compete in Jewish cultural centrality with Zion and Israel, even when there was nothing here but barchash flies and malaria. No Jews prayed to be "Next Year in Vilna," though perhaps many Israelis wish for next year in Cupertino or Miami.  
One of Rosner's readers, a great philosopher named Jack, who would not give his last name, wrote:
If Israel, god forbid, disappears (and we all know, deep down, that this is not some distant unimaginable possibility) suddenly American Jews will find themselves wandering in empty space. On the other hand, if the center is here, we have nothing to worry about. America is strong and so are we.
"America is strong and so are we," quoth he.  Jews are two percent of the population of the United States. In every generation, anti-Zionists repeat the same shibboleths as though they were original "wisdom."  Here is another quote, which that reader should consider:
We are not immigrants -- we were born here -- and so we cannot claim any other home: either we are Americans or we have no homeland. Whoever disputes my claim to this my American fatherland disputes my right to my own thoughts, my feelings, my language -- the very air I breathe. Therefore, I must defend myself against him as I would against a murderer.
I am sure that reader, Jack, would agree with the above. However, I cheated. I changed the quote a bit. Here is the real quote:
We are not immigrants -- we were born here -- and so we cannot claim any other home: either we are Germans or we have no homeland. Whoever disputes my claim to this my German fatherland disputes my right to my own thoughts, my feelings, my language -- the very air I breathe. Therefore, I must defend myself against him as I would against a murderer. (Gabriel Riesser, German Revolutionary National Assembly, 1849, Quoted in Amos Elon, The Pity of it All)
Jack is so sure of himself. He will no doubt insist that the comparison is absurd. After all, nothing could happen to American Jews. They are strong, as he says. I am sure that all American Jews agree, and I too would not be so brash as to predict a bad end for the Jews of America. After all, the Holocaust happened only once in Germany, and the expulsion from Spain, well that happened only once too. And the pogroms in Russia, they happened a few times. Of course, history does not repeat itself, necessarily. But I would not be so brash as to predict a good end either. We all know that every Jewish Diaspora in history has been threatened at one time or another, and the most brilliant Jewish Diaspora communities, in Spain, in Germany and in Poland, all met with disaster. It is possible that history has suddenly changed its course, and that what was true for 2,000 years is no longer true. The Sun might also fail to rise tomorrow. It is possible. But it is impossible to be certain that the Sun will not rise, and it is tempting fate to believe that Jews are absolutely safe in any Diaspora. Now you are all angry at me, a doctrinaire Zionist and crazy Israeli, for saying these things, I know.
But actually, Mr. Jack is not so sure of himself after all. Perhaps the tiniest sliver of a doubt exists in his mind, for he wrote:
"...Any connection to Israel only weakens us, and causes trouble. "
Really Mr. Jack! What sort of trouble could be caused by a connection to Israel? Don't the Irish march proudly each year in their St. Patrick's day parade? Would Americans have it any other way? Would America be the same America without St Patrick's day? Aren't you as proud to be Jewish as Kennedy is to be Irish? Aren't all Americans supposed to be proud of their roots? Is there, perhaps, something different about Jews? It is impossible? Here's what Mr. Jack says:
Supporting Israel weakens our position in America and opens the door to accusations regarding loyalty etc. So both from our own selfish psychological point of view AND from the point of view of the society around us, it's much better for us to be on our own, without any special connection to Israel.
Such an original thesis! This man's mother must think he is a genius. But I'll tell you what Jack - Ireland was neutral in World War II. I doubt if it entered anyone's mind that Americans of Irish descent were Nazi spies. Irish were fighting Britain, an ally of the United States at one time, and yet the issue of double loyalty never really came up. And don't forget that America fought Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, but there were no pogroms of Italians and Germans - only Japanese. But you don't look Japanese, I bet, so there is no problem.
So why are you worried? Jews are no different from other Americans, isn't that so Jack? Or maybe you don't really believe that.
Jack probably never heard of the anti-Zionist Jew, Edwin Montagu, a member of the British cabinet in 1917, who opposed the Balfour declaration for precisely those reasons.  He was certain that the creation of a national home for the Jews would be an impetus to European anti-Semitism. There was plenty of European anti-Semitism to be sure, but it was not caused by the Balfour declaration.
Jack, nobody is forcing you to be Jewish. If you want to repudiate your heritage, it is your business. It is America after all. But I know that Jack is a Jew. He will remain a Jew. A Jew of the old kind, not the kind we want to create in Israel. This is how I know. He wrote:
Imagine: all the money and hours wasted on Israel by Jewish Americans is suddenly available for Jewish schools, Jewish community centers, Jewish outreach, Jewish renewal, and all the other great project that will make us ? not just Jews but rather Jewish Americans ? stronger and more vital. What a wonderful dream." 
Ah, Now we understand what is bothering you Jack. It is a typical Jewish complaint. As the anti-Semites say:
"Money. All you people ever think about is money."
That is what is bothering you Yankel, your pocket.  In the end, all you are thinking about is money. Keep your money, Mister. You cannot buy your part in what we are building here with your money, if your heart does not go with your money. Keep your money and be damned.
I wonder what American Jews could teach in such schools, devoid of Israel, and what they would do in such community centers,  and how it would be related to Judaism. They could not teach the Tanach (Old Testament) , which is mostly about God's promise of Israel to the Jewish people, and about the fulfillment of that promise, and the history of the Jews in the land of Israel. The whole book is set in the Middle East. America is not mentioned even once as far as anyone knows.
They could not teach the prayers, which vow, "Next Year in Jerusalem." They could not teach Hebrew, the language of the ancient Israelites.  They could not teach about Passover, a holiday not only of release from bondage, but of return to Israel. They could not teach the children to celebrate Hannukah, the holiday that celebrates liberation of Jerusalem. They could not teach about Tu Bishvat, the holiday of Israeli trees and fruits. Forget Tish'a Be'av too - it mourns the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. They would be left with Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and Purim.   Perhaps they could teach Yiddish and help kids develop a taste for bagels and lox. Would they then be accused of double loyalty to Germany?  How would that education be "vital?" Of what would their Judaism consist?
Ami Isseroff

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