Revisiting Zionism

February 25, 2014 Topics: SocietyHistory Regions: Israel

Revisiting Zionism

Mini Teaser: John B. Judis' new book on Israel is right, but for the wrong reasons.

by Author(s): Bernard Wasserstein

Judis tries conscientiously to analyze the different segments of opinion among American Jews but in the end he succumbs to the tendency to lump most of them in the category of donkey-like followers of guidance from Jerusalem central.

Yet, as a recent Pew Research Center survey has shown, American Jewry is differentiating, diversifying and, in important ways, disintegrating further and faster than ever before. Institutions like Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization—once the largest Jewish membership society in the country—are shadows of their former selves. The once-powerful Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations no longer carries much clout. And the Jewish federations in major cities are declining in significance.

When contemplating the declining figures for synagogue membership, I am reminded of the old joke about the editor of a Yiddish newspaper in New York who, looking out of the window and noticing a funeral procession file past, calls out to the manager of his printing press, “One copy fewer today!”

Jewish institutionalism has given way to Jewish individualism. This is true particularly among young adults who are ever less inclined to allow themselves to be mobilized for causes over which they have no control and in which they show decreasing interest.

Judis accords American Jewish influence a heavy share of responsibility for Israel’s continued retention of occupied Arab territories. Yet according to the Pew survey, only 30 percent of American Jews describe themselves as “very attached” to Israel. And only 17 percent believe that continued building of settlements has a positive effect on Israel’s security, while 44 percent declared that it hurts that security.

Many American Jews do, of course, support Israeli hawkishness, and some make noisy, self-advertising contributions to bolstering the occupation. Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino operator, has given millions to far-right causes in Israel and is the owner of the ultranationalist Yisrael Hayom, perhaps the country’s most widely circulated newspaper. (It is given away for free.) He recently called for the United States to launch a nuclear weapon into the middle of the Iranian desert. Irving Moskowitz, a Miami real-estate developer, has been an important financial backer of Jewish settlements in inflammatory locations, such as Arab-inhabited quarters of Jerusalem. (He also helped bankroll the “birther” movement against President Obama.) The head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, has been so ardent an apologist for Israeli policies that a writer in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz satirically recommended last year that he be appointed U.S. secretary of state. (He is unlikely to accept any such offer: he would have to take a significant cut in his salary, which in 2012 was $688,280.)

But such figures are not generally representative of those for whom they claim to speak. There are plenty of American Jews who have played a positive role in the search for Arab-Israeli peace. Even those who like to malign Kissinger can hardly deny the supple cunning of his diplomacy in the first steps toward Israeli-Egyptian rapprochement after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In recent years American diplomats who happen to be Jewish (and perhaps it is not just happenstance) such as Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, Martin Indyk and Daniel Kurtzer (a former dean of Yeshiva College in New York) have tried to nudge Israel toward more realistic policies.

In fact, on every significant occasion in its history when Israeli policy makers have moved decisively toward more dovish positions, the preponderant weight of American Jewish opinion has shown support, as, for example, when Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords on the White House lawn in September 1993.

JUDIS WRITES fluently and forthrightly, but other authors have made a more persuasive case of a similar sort. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt stole a march on him with their (flawed) 2007 onslaught against the American Jewish lobby, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. In The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart preceded Judis’s call for a more critical view of Israeli policy on the part of American Jews. Most recently, last year Ari Shavit, in My Promised Land, produced an influential, revisionist critique of Israel’s conventional history and of what he calls “the abnormality of occupation.”

Does all this mean, then, that the basic thrust of Judis’s conclusions is wrong? Not at all. Israel must, in pursuit of her own interests as a democracy, withdraw from the stance of colonial occupier that she has misguidedly adopted since 1967. The United States has no interest in supporting those in Israel who wish to perpetuate the occupation. American Jews, insofar as they give their voices, their money or their political influence to help sustain the occupation, do neither themselves nor Israel any favors. But we did not need dubious historical linkage between the Obama and Truman administrations nor shallow invocations of liberalism, universalism and national self-determination to arrive at these conclusions. Judis is right but for the wrong reasons.

Bernard Wasserstein is the Harriet & Ulrich E. Meyer Professor Emeritus of Modern European Jewish History at the University of Chicago.

Image: Flickr/David Lisbona. CC BY 2.0.

Pullquote: The pro-Israel lobby, of which Judis is highly critical, is unquestionably powerful, but it is not and has never been omnipotent.Image: Essay Types: Book Review