American and Israeli Jews are more than just oceans apart
In the opening scene of Tom Stoppard’s play “Leopoldstadt,” two upper-middle-class Viennese Jewish families, the Merzes and Jacoboviczes, revel in their newly found station in life. In 1899, they didn’t have to be confined to the Jewish residential quarter and could proudly display their Christmas tree and laugh when one of the grandchildren mistakenly places a Jewish star on it. They can marry Gentiles, become baptized, and mix with the upper echelon of Austrian society. The protagonists speak about Theodor Herzl as a curiosity and go on with the day’s activities.
Herzl would have fit in nicely with that crowd. The preceding decades witnessed the civil and political emancipation of the Jews in Western Europe. The Enlightenment, its accompanying “age of reason,” and rampant industrialization, with its need for capital investment by Jews, among others, broke down the barriers that religion and class hierarchy imposed on society. The poet of this “new freedom,” Algernon Charles Swinburne, encapsulated the pride felt by “the emancipated minds” of that era in 1871, when he wrote “Glory to man in the highest, the maker and master of things.”
And Herzl lived the emancipated dream. As lawyer, playwright, and Paris correspondent for the Neue Frei Presse, Vienna’s most prestigious newspaper, he cavorted with the leading politicians and luminaries of his time. He would have fit in nicely at the recently convened Davos global forum. Moreover, he believed that assimilation was the ticket for Jewish upward mobility, so he refused to have his son, Hans, circumcised.
Yet when he covered the Dreyfus trial with the church, military, government, and press aligned against the wrongfully accused Dreyfus, he realized that the emancipation he so worshipped was illusory. Closer to home, the 1895 Viennese municipal elections assigned two thirds of its seats to the United Christians, which selected the antisemitic Karl Lueger as mayor. Lueger dominated Austrian politics until his death in 1910; Hitler hailed him as an inspiration in his Mein Kampf.
Get New Jersey Jewish News's Newsletter by email and never miss our top stories Free Sign Up
This turn of events jolted Herzl out of his illusions, and he recognized that hatred of the Jews was ingrained in the soul of European civilization. The only alternative was emigration to a Jewish state, where Jews can exercise the autonomy and fulfillment they never could achieve in Europe. And he was proven right with the devastation of European Jewry in succeeding decades. Only three members of the Merze and Jacoboviczes families survived the Holocaust, despite their aspirations to fit in.
Europe was doomed when it came to creating flourishing Jewish continuity, but the New World beckoned. America was settled by Protestants and Catholics in Maryland seeking religious freedom and bolstered by the English and Scottish enlightenment. Its founding fathers established a new society, where the state would not impose religion. In his message to the Newport Jewish community, President George Washington said that the newly formed United States not only would tolerate Jews but would accept them as equal citizens. Despite our sordid history with slavery and inglorious history with immigrants, whether Irish, Chinese, or southeastern Europeans, for Jews America represented the “goldene medina.”
Decades later, with the ascendance of the U.S. as a global power after World War II, Harry Truman, his colleagues, and their successors established the institutional mechanisms promoting the “world order” through the UN, NATO, IMF, and other international agencies. While there have been numerous regional conflicts, this constellation of agencies has prevented another world war.
Against this backdrop, most American Jews have viewed the Democratic Party, the party of their parents and grandparents, to be more accommodating to immigrants. They lean liberal as they prefer a more active government to maintain their civil rights and provide for the less fortunate. “We were slaves once” is our annual seder reminder to care for the stranger and destitute. Having seen although not lived through the horrors of Nazi Germany, many have a more cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic perspective. Invoking the term “tikkun olam” has been de rigueur for politicians seeking the Jewish vote. And we generally have been supportive of international organizations attempting to preserve the international order. Jews do not disproportionately serve in the military and are overwhelmingly Ashkenazic. About 90% are non-Orthodox, and now 30% — note that number is growing — do not identify with any religious denomination. They identify as “just Jewish.” Other than among the Orthodox, intermarriage has been rampant in recent years.
Those who settled Palestine and later Israel rather than the New World found an unwelcoming population with contempt for these new arrivals, whom they saw as colonizers usurping their land. Despite the UN’s partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state 75 years ago, Israeli Jews have encountered numerous wars and battles in between the wars. Other than the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, Israelis, including the Druze, must serve in the army. This culture of service in the IDF and to the nation as a whole is infused in Israel’s political fiber.
Because the Jewish state serves as a refuge for all Jews, Israelis are nationalists by definition. As the world abandoned the Jews during World War II, and the UN unilaterally withdrew peace-keeping forces demanded by Egyptian president Nasser as a prelude to attacking Israel in 1967, Israelis have much less faith in international organizations. And the UN has passed more resolutions against Israel than any other country by a large margin. With its Resolution 2334, it marginalized Jewish claims to East Jerusalem and the Kotel, referring to those places as “occupied”.
Israelis live in constant fear for their safety. Despite the upsurge of antisemitism here, American Jews do not. The intifada and other terrorist attacks have claimed thousands of Israel lives. Israel civilian losses have affected literally every Israeli family. The riots by Israeli Arabs during the last Gaza war and the spate of recent terrorist attacks killing — there have been than three dozen — helps explain why the Religious Zionists overperformed during the recent election.
Regarding the two-state solution, which most American Jews support, Israelis are dubious about its prospects let alone viability. They witnessed the closing of Ben Gurion airport, the country’s economic lifeblood, due to gunfire from the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority is corrupt, and PA president Abbas, who was elected for a four-year term, is serving his 18th year in office. He declined to call for new elections because Hamas would defeat Fatah as in Gaza, after which Fatah was forcibly evicted. And with at least three peace proposals by the Israelis summarily rejected by the Palestinians, how many times, as Abba Eban quipped, “will the Palestinians lose an opportunity to lose an opportunity.” That’s one reason why four Arab countries joined the Abraham Accords.
Unlike the U.S., with its separation of church and state, Israel is infused with religion. As in Europe, many clergy are paid by the state as is the office of the chief rabbinate. All the holidays are, by definition, Jewish holidays, and are widely observed by both secular and religious Jews. The Law of Return provides automatic citizenship to any Jew who seek to emigrate.
More than 22% of Israelis are Orthodox, and many more are traditional. Despite the inroads made by the Reform and Masorti movements, for most secular Israelis the synagogue they don’t go to is Orthodox, as are marriages, funerals, and the like.
Most Israelis lean right. The majority are Sephardim whose ancestors fled harsh Arab dictators and are more hawkish than their Ashkenazic neighbors. The more than 1,00,000,000 Russians who lived under the state control of the Communists want less government control, favoring right-leaning parties.
Like European countries, Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a unicameral legislature, the Knesset. There is no executive branch; instead, the prime minister and his fellow Knesset ministers govern the country. Elections typically are held when the governing coalition loses a vote of no confidence, which occurred five times over the past four years.
Israel has no constitution; instead, it has Basic Laws that are subject to differing interpretations. Its judiciary is selected by a nine-member panel consisting of three sitting justices, two members from the Israeli Bar Association, and four members of the Knesset. Since a nominee for the Court needs seven votes, non-elected members in effect have veto power over the recommendations of the elected officials. There is a need for judicial reform, but the current proposal by the Justice Minister eviscerates the Judiciary. (As an aside, Britain’s highest court cannot overturn any legislation passed by Parliament. Despite King Charles, Parliament is king.)
As I have outlined, there are vast differences between Israeli and American Jews. We are in many ways, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, one people disunited by a common religion. On judicial reform, annexation, and other issues we may strongly differ. But in a democracy with only a 30,000 vote majority, the governing coalition can fall if enough pressure is exerted by advocates for change.
But at the end of the day, Israelis, not American Jews, will have to live with the consequences of whatever government is in power, and they must punish it if it fails to meet their expectations. We can criticize, offer advice, advocate, and otherwise show our support for the causes we believe in. But in his “Arc of the Covenant,” Walter Russell Mead reflected the perspective of many Israelis who view with some skepticism advice about their security by “affluent Jews who never held a gun, patrolled a Palestinian street or crouched in the basement with their families as Palestinian missiles soared overhead.”
Despite our differences, we are one people. There is only one Jewish state among 21 Arab states. There has been a record number of tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian Jews making aliyah from war zones. In recent years, tens of thousands of French Jews have arrived fleeing the increasingly hostile environment of their native country. Herzl’s dream of a refuge for Jews is alive and well.
We are constantly reminded to be diverse and inclusive in our schools, corporations, institutions, and government. All the more so we must respect differences of opinions from fellow Jews whose world view may be oceans apart from ours. The late and great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about honoring different religions that worship the same God. Certainly his “Dignity of Difference” should, at the very least, apply equally among our own people.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.