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In April 1976, Israel received an usual state visit from the prime minister of South Africa, the leader of a country increasingly isolated and condemned internationally for decades because of its apartheid policies. The moment that John Vorster, “a former Nazi supporter, architect of South African apartheid” stepped into Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, was a true moment of cognitive dissonance for Jews everywhere (76). As Marjorie N. Feld describes it in her new book Nations Divided, this was one of many moments–up until Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013–that South Africa and its apartheid regime would force American Jews to confront a central tension in their identity, between their particularistic allegiance to other Jews (and Israel’s needs, specifically) and their universal ideals, which found any Jewish complicity with the racist regime in Pretoria morally revolting.
Feld’s deeper subject is this tension and all the rips and tears that it caused both among members of the American Jewish community and within individuals struggling to reconcile these competing imperatives. She tracks this tug-of-war against the backdrop of the anti-apartheid movement as it grew in force from the 1950s through the 1980s. Jews increasingly had to balance “commitments to universalism and justice on one hand, Jewish unity and an unjust system on the other” (37).
In the immediate postwar era, it was possible for American Jews to bridge this divide easily. Not only did Israel in the 1950s present itself [End Page 373] as the result of a successful anti-colonial liberation movement, but the Jewish state was also deeply invested in aiding newly independent black sub-Saharan Africa. American Jews were then in deep cooperation with blacks in the civil rights movement, which allowed for a seamless combination of Jewishness with more universal commitments, including a reading of the Holocaust that made it incumbent upon them to help another discriminated group.
But what began as a small source of strain, with some Jewish communal leaders fearing that outspoken opposition to apartheid would jeopardize the well-being of the largely quiescent South African Jewish community, transformed into a much bigger dilemma. As the 1960s progressed, especially after the Six Day War and the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel was suddenly itself perceived by some as a colonial force, on the other side of a divide that put it in the same camp with the Afrikaners, all while the Palestinian struggle became a potent symbol for radicals in the West. Further exacerbating this dynamic was Israel’s growing economic and military ties with South Africa in the 1970s when, for reasons of realpolitik, the two countries tried to assuage their respective isolation by forging a bond of expediency that reached a crescendo with Volker’s 1976 visit.
This realignment of Israel’s global position put American Jews in an uncomfortable place, contends Feld. A community that was largely animated by liberal values found itself yoked in its support for Israel to the apartheid regime. The New Left activists and the black nationalists of the 1960s and 1970s arrived at a simple equation that would affect all further collaboration: any Jewish allegiance to Israel equaled uncritical support for Israel equaled colonialism. What followed was the collapse of the black-Jewish civil rights coalition and, more globally, the United Nations resolution that equated Zionism with racism, adopted by the General Assembly in 1975.
Once she establishes this tension, Feld then focuses on the thin slice of American Jews who actively lived it, criticized on one side by their comrades for their Zionism, but also alienated from a Jewish establishment that blindly supported Israel’s most morally compromising positions. Though she does not say so explicitly, Feld presents these individuals as her heroes, both because of the pressures they faced and their insistence on rejecting an “either/or choice,” framing their continued involvement in progressive causes as an outgrowth of their Jewish identity, not something that undermined it. As Israel’s policies in the...