American Jews made their choice clear: they would stand with their president, who provided them with passports to American respectability even as besieged European Jews were denied entry to the United States and condemned to horrific death. They hoped to demonstrate – to anyone (and there were many) who might doubt their loyalty to their true promised land – that they were genuine Americans.
American Jewish intellectuals, prisoners of their own lofty universalism, also remained conspicuously silent. As Saul Bellow subsequently noted, they ignored “the central event of their time, the destruction of European Jewry…. We should have reckoned more deeply with it.”
In some American Jewish circles indifference to the plight of European Jews eventually morphed into anxiety lest a Jewish state compromise the loyalty of American Jews to the United States. American Jewish Committee president Joseph M. Proskauer, an outspoken anti-Zionist during the war and postwar years, worried incessantly lest American Jews be accused of “political schizophrenia.”
It might be argued that American Jews finally learned the lesson of indifference to their besieged fellow Jews elsewhere. They have proudly proclaimed that “We Are One” with Israel. But how far does this affirmation really extend? Enthusiasm has quickly subsided whenever Israelis have elected a right-wing government that declined to take dictation from the White House. Then a discernible undercurrent of anxiety emerges lest Israel act in ways that challenge their liberal principles and forces them to choose between their Jewish and American loyalties.
Their “oneness” surely does not include religious Zionists, who ever since the Six-Day War have built new communities in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Israeli settlers who fuse Judaism and Zionism (rather than Judaism and liberalism) are routinely vilified by diaspora Jews (and secular Israelis) as misguided fundamentalist zealots who will drag Israel into a calamitous holy war over “Palestinian” land.
Given their loyalty vulnerability and liberal values, most American Jews prefer a Jewish state that closely resembles the United States. Replete with malls and discos rather than settlements, focusing more on gay rights than the internationally guaranteed right of Jews to live in Judea and Samaria, Israel could then live in two-state peaceful bliss with its Palestinian neighbors. Even before the arrival of the Messiah, haredi lions and feminist lambs, wrapped in tallitot and tefillin, would dance together at the Western Wall.
“The liberal betrayal of the Jews,” as Harvard professor Ruth R. Wisse trenchantly observed two decades ago, has now refocused on Israel. American Jews who define themselves as “liberal Zionists,” even if they reside six thousand miles from Israel, remain trapped within the dilemma that once paralyzed and silenced Rabbi Wise.
Journalist Peter Beinert’s recent analysis in The Crisis of Zionism exemplifies the abandonment of Israel by American Jews to preserve their liberal credentials. Barack Obama has replaced Franklin D. Roosevelt as the liberal exemplar whom Beinert worships as Rabbi Wise did his Democratic predecessor. Indeed, Wise is Beinert’s heroic model for elevating liberal values above such parochial interests as Jewish survival.
But what if the survival of six million Jews living in the state of Israel is imperiled by an impending Iranian nuclear attack while another American president leads from behind? Will American Jews once again cower in fearful silence lest they be accused of compromising their loyalty to the United States? As Sol Stern, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, noted in his appropriately scathing review of Beinert’s book, “There is no Zionism worthy of its name without the priority of rescuing Jews in mortal danger and distress.”
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A new generation of American Jews – the very cohort whose spokesman Beinert and J Street wish to be – may yet confront the identical loyalty dilemma that tortured their predecessors during the 1930s and 1940s. The fawning deference of American Jews to Roosevelt was an American Jewish tragedy. Their complicity in the abandonment of the people, their own people, chosen by Hitler for annihilation was grounded in their yearning for acceptance as loyal Americans.
American Jews have tended to be fickle defenders of Israel, which must pass liberal muster for their approval. Yet, as Professor Wisse astutely observed in If I Am Not For Myself, “Jews have more concurrent rights to their land than any other people on this earth can claim: aboriginal rights, divine rights, legal rights, internationally granted rights, pioneering rights, and the rights of that perennial arbiter, war.”