The same year that Emma Lazarus wrote her famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” she also wrote a far more obscure poem commemorating the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. “The New Year,” written in 1883, foreshadowed the growing division of the Jewish people. “In two divided streams the exiles part, One rolling homeward to its ancient source, One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart. By each the truth is spread,” Lazarus wrote, anticipating what would become the defining internal conflict of Jewish life more than a century later: the deep communal rift between American Jews and Israel, which forms the subject of Daniel Gordis’ new book, We Stand Divided.
We Stand Divided begins with a compelling challenge to the orthodoxy that the Israeli-American love affair never had a rough patch in its history. In fact, by retracing bilateral relations from the yishuv to present-day Israel, Gordis illustrates a “complex, fraught, love-filled, hate-filled relationship that American Jews and Zionists have long had.” The bulk of We Stand Divided is dedicated to the four major causes that Gordis argues have historically exacerbated relations between the two Jewish promised lands: differing conceptions of religion, history, identity, and democracy. The sociologist Steven Cohen, whom Gordis quotes, succinctly captures this sentiment, reflecting that, “Israel is a Red State and American Jews are a blue country.”
Current political battles over Israel can feel uniquely acrimonious, like they’re approaching a point of permanent rupture. But the historical narrative running through Gordis’ book challenges that view by reminding us that American and Israeli Jews have periodically been at odds, and not always on civil terms. The bitter skepticism among influential segments of American Jewry at the inception of modern Zionism in the late 19th century is a case in point. The infamous 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, a kind of manifesto for Reform Judaism in America, categorically renounced Jewish national political aspirations. “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community,” the Reform rabbis who authored the document proclaimed on behalf of American Jews.
Gordis’ research is extensive and diverse, presenting a broad spectrum of Jewish thought, some of which will likely be new even to readers acquainted with the subject. A classic example of the dynamism roiling the American Jewish disposition toward Zionism at the time was witnessed in Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ evolution on the matter. Brandeis lived at the uneasy intersection between the lofty prospects Zionism offered a historically marginalized people and the perception that such sentiments undercut American Jewry’s loyalty to the United States. Some prominent Jews at the time, like the businessman Jacob Schiff, distanced themselves from accusations of disloyalty by unabashedly condemning Zionism. “As an American, I cannot for a moment concede that one can be at the same time a true American and an honest adherent of the Zionist movement,” said Schiff, Accordingly, in Gordis’ view, Brandeis painstakingly embarked on an attempt to reconcile American patriotism to Jewish aspirations for self-determination. “We should all support the Zionist movement although you or I do not think of settling in Palestine,” Brandeis maintained.
Despite the inventive leadership of figures such as Brandeis, Gordis illustrates the visceral unease many American Jews long held toward Zionists. A Reform Houston synagogue explicitly banned Zionists from their congregation; the academic center of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish Theological Seminary, banned singing “Hatikvah” at university functions; and American Jewish Committee President Jacob Blaustein repudiated Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s insistence that Jews were “exiled” in America.
Of course, there were many others within the American Jewish community who quickly adopted the cause of Zionism. Robert Gandt’s latest book, Angels in the Sky, follows diaspora Jews, many from the United States, who leveraged their experience as airmen during World War II to defend Israel during the War of Independence. This touches one of Gordis’ recurrent themes in analyzing the diaspora-Israel relationship—the catalyzing influence of war and conflict in accelerating and amplifying American Jewish support for the Zionist cause. Less than two decades later, the Six-Day War proved to be another tectonic shift in the landscape of American Jewish psychology. As Norman Podhoretz later remarked on the war’s impact, “thus did Israel now truly become the religion of American Jews.” Sara Yael Hirschhorn’s recent book, City on a Hilltop, focuses on the disproportionate influence of American Jews who made aliyah following the war and eventually formed the backbone of the modern settlement movement.
In the book’s most stimulating and provocative chapter, Gordis presents American and Israeli conceptions of democracy as being fundamentally at odds. In the U.S., politics have been organized around the right to free and equal exchange in the public square, Gordis argues, and American Jews acculturated into this system have come to idealize a form of “naked” democracy, utterly stripped of all cultural symbols. Such “hypercivility,” as Gordis describes it, is incompatible with the Jewish particularism that is a founding mission of Israel, a nation created, after all, not to enshrine universal values but to ensure the survival of a single people. “For long before there was a Jewish state, there was an implicit understanding in the yishuv that Jewish substance should pervade Israel’s ether,” Gordis writes. Accordingly, Shabbat sirens in Jerusalem, temporary halting of bus services, strict religious conversion standards, and even forbidding the public display of hametz during Passover are seen as legitimate, and necessary, infringements on individual rights to preserve Judaism’s national identity.
To uphold the divide between Israeli and American Jews as the result of incompatible visions of Judaism and democratic politics rather than a temporary, contingent rift, Gordis can, at times, reduce the internal complexity in both of these communities to a simple binary contrast. We Stand Divided sometimes skirts around the deep divisions emerging within the American and Israeli camps by granting the two groups singular voices where they are more often characterized by a cacophonous bickering that may be unhelpful for illustrating stark themes, but are instinctively recognizable background noise to Jews all over the world. For instance, Gordis’ suggestion of consensus among Israelis regarding their nation’s ethnic democracy threatens to suffocate the great national divisions within Israel over religion’s growing political prominence and the treatment of minority groups—divisions that have animated the last several Israeli elections and contributed to the country’s political gridlock.
We Stand Divided is a natural progression from Gordis’ previous work, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, offering a broad spectrum of readers, from the unacquainted to the well informed, a constructive, digestible framework for interpreting recent developments in the American-Israeli relationship. Gordis succeeds in demonstrating the essential point of We Stand Divided in that today’s strained ties are neither new nor novel. “I argue that although most observers believe that the fraught relationship is due to what Israel does, a closer look at Jewish communities in Israel and the United States suggests that the real reason has to do with what Israel is,” Gordis writes. Locating the divisions over Israel as a matter of essence rather than particular actions, Gordis suggests that Israeli and American Jews are prone to misunderstand each other—but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to inevitably drift further apart. That remains to be seen and depends partly on whether they can look honestly at what divides them.
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Ari David Blaff is a journalist based in Toronto and writer at Deseret. His writing has appeared in Quillette, National Review, and The Globe & Mail.