The Israel Question after Trump—and Before
The new Jew-hatred of the Trump era, and reactions to it, seem hopelessly snarled with feelings for or against Israel. The tight association of Jewishness with Zionism is not an automatic or “natural” consequence of ineluctable historical facts, but rather a product of historical acts by many Americans, prominently including American Jews. Throughout the decades following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, American Jewish supporters of Israel worked consciously to establish the very conflation between Zionism and Jewish identity in the United States that now sometimes appears toxic. After the 1967 war, American Jewish forces across most of the ideological spectrum supported Israel’s retention of the Occupied Territories, particularly East Jerusalem, and the Democratic and Republican Parties ultimately embraced that stance by calling for the relocation of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Therefore, the Trump administration’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem, far from a sharp break with mainstream American and Jewish politics, followed a long political process that made it seem, to many Americans, that supporting Israel without stint equaled pro-Jewishness.
Zionism, US political parties, Jerusalem, Richard Spencer, Women’s March
[End Page 93]
It’s not just about Israel, is it? We might like to think that it is not. To reduce the contemporary reemergence of a “Jewish Question,” if that is the correct term, in American public life to conflicts over Israel and Zionism is a prospect that invites resistance. Yet American Jewish identity in the decades following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 became inextricably linked to Zionism. During the Israel-statehood era, Zionism in America was the project of creating and supporting a “state of the Jews” in historic Palestine or Eretz Yisrael (Shimoni 1995; Laqueur 1972; Urofsky 1995).1 American Jews increasingly, during the past seventy years, would have found it practically impossible (had they wished) to separate Jewishness from Zionism or Judaism as a faith from a Jewishness reshaped by Zionism. However, analytically, I take it as a given—a starting point for analysis, not a conclusion—that Zionism does not equal Jewishness.2 Jewishness and Zionism are two things deeply connected, but not the same thing. A political formation (a state or a movement) and an ethnic or religious group, no matter how crucial their ties, represent two different categories. Therefore when someone makes a comment about Israel she is not thereby saying something about Jews, nor is to say something about Jews thereby to be commenting on Israel. I am not being ingenuous. Of course you might mean to say something about Jews when you offer an opinion about Israel, and someone might take you to mean something about Jews when you say something about Israel. This happens often enough. However, this would be insinuation, not logic.
Yet the insinuations have their own genealogy, which I want to illuminate here. First I will describe the contemporary scene, citing instances where the new Jew-hatred of the Trump era and reactions to it, seem hopelessly snarled with feelings for or against Israel. Then I will recount scenes and developments from the past, highlighting the ways in which Jewishness and Zionism became conflated in America in the decades after the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. American Jews themselves have played a big role in advancing that conflation. This is certainly not to say that Jews are responsible for the attacks they now experience. That would be monstrous. Yet today’s world does not come out of nothing. Many parties are implicated in creating the webs of meaning in which we find ourselves caught. It is not so easy as we might wish to stand apart from the associations that we now find ominous.
Our contemporary sense of derangement becomes palpable each time we feel the need to preface an observation by saying, This ought to go without saying, but. . . . Say it frequently and it becomes first tiresome, then disturbing. How can so much that once stood as common wisdom have been misplaced? It is as if a whole cultural history, earned through hard experience, if not by us then by past generations, is missing. Outbursts of discourse seemingly so bygone as to appear ridiculous excite inadequate responses. I do not think there can be a Jewish Question, in the familiar meaning, in the United States. Without downplaying [End Page 94] the powerful history of anti-Jewish discrimination and violence in American history, and aware of the dangers of glib cross-cultural comparisons, I remain convinced that the constitutional arrangements of this country negate the Question. That Question arose in Europe from a condition or history of Jewish statelessness or formal alienation, a condition absent in the United States. Even if one were to judge antisemitism horribly significant and increasing in America, it could threaten Jews’ safety and interests, but it would not create a Jewish Question. If shocking eruptions of Jew-hatred meet with equally shocking silence or rationalizations, this is due to unpreparedness or wicked political calculation, not to widespread agreement with the far-right theme that the Jew constitutes a structural problem in our society.3
fear and silence
The feelings of embattlement and fear that many American Jews report hardly seem unjustified or beyond understanding. In November 2018, long after this special journal issue was planned, a neofascist murdered eleven people with gunfire at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Thus, the twenty-first century features the worst act of violence against a synagogue in all of American history. More than a year earlier, in August 2017, much better organized neofascists marched in Charlottesville en masse, chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”4 President Trump responded with a spray of evasions—evasions of a simple condemnation of the neofascists, which always before would have seemed a cost-free political act, not even to say a display of basic responsibility, from a national political leader. Either he really harbored sympathy with the white supremacists and antisemites or he wished to win and keep political support from those who do. This reaction recalled a jarring moment during the 2016 campaign season when Trump stated that he did not know who David Duke was and therefore could not, even when “informed” that Duke was a longtime racist leader, disavow him (Chan 2016). If he really never had heard of Duke, the easy and obvious thing—or, and this is my point, what always before would have seemed the easy and obvious thing—for him to have said would have been, Well, I don’t know that name, but anyone who is a Ku Klux Klan leader or a white supremacist is beyond the pale and I condemn him absolutely. But that is precisely what candidate Trump wished not to say. Many have sounded the alarm, since the 1970s, over a “new antisemitism” (Epstein and Foster 1974; Perlmutter and Perlmutter 1982; Foxman 2003).5 The concept of a “new antisemitism” has always focused on criticism of Israel from the political left, and precisely not on white nationalists opposed to Jew-orchestrated cultural mongrelization. That is why it was called “new.” The claim that anti-Israel critique was a new antisemitism has always been sharply contested, by Jews and others on the left primarily. [End Page 95] Logically speaking, this concept ought to be irrelevant to these alarming recent incursions of right-wing fever dreams into normal people’s lives and safety and into our country’s ruling elites. However, the rules of logic do not govern political life.
One does not have to assert an equivalence of right and left in order to note the resurgence of weird tendencies concerning Jews in many quarters during the time of Trump. In each case Israel is implicated in the controversy. Even when people say seemingly bizarre things about Jews and not about Israel, Israel always seems to hover in the background. And the often frustratingly disabled responses to such remarks form a pattern as well—a pattern of evasion and confusion.
On the right, the combination of Jew-hatred with love or admiration for Israel, while not unprecedented, still perplexes many. The old Nazi sympathy with Zionism was always partial and opportunistic at best, but nonetheless it did exist, logically enough, since voluntary departure of the Jews from Europe would have been one form of elimination (Segev 1993; Nicosia 2008). American neo-fascist leader Richard Spencer does not call for Jews to make collective aliyah (though it might please him if they did). Instead he argues that Israel is the kind of ethnostate that he wants for white Americans in the United States. He presents Netanyahu’s Israel as a model of racial self-love and self-realization, not as a conveniently remote dumping ground for cultural predators, which is how he and his comrades see the Jews. He calls himself a “white Zionist” who just wants “a secure homeland.” Many respond with consternation. When Rabbi Matt Rosenberg confronted Spencer, at Texas A&M University, with the contemporary liberal Jewish trope of “radical inclusion,” Spencer disarmed Rosenberg by snapping back at him, “Do you really want radical inclusion into the State of Israel?” Rosenberg’s silence after this point implied that he could not reply, Yes, I do (Kaplan 2017). Today’s liberal Zionists will celebrate multiculturalism in Israel in the framework of a Jewish state, but presumably they realize that radical inclusion might burst such a frame (and thus should be confined to America). To refer to my own discussion, above, of insinuation and logic, I do not mean to infer Zionism simply from Rosenberg’s Jewishness. He, unlike Spencer, said nothing about Israel. However, if he were not a Zionist, in light of his refrain of radical inclusion he presumably would have given an affirmative answer to Spencer’s question. By saying nothing, he positioned himself as a liberal Zionist, a creed characterized by strategic and necessary silences. The writer Yair Rosenberg, in Tablet, rejects Spencer’s analogy between white America and Jewish Israel by saying that today’s alt-right “wrenches causes like affirmative action, black pride, and Zionism from their historical and moral context—as defenses of minorities against long-standing majority oppression—and inverts them to serve white supremacist aims against minorities” (2017). This shrewdly questions Spencer’s sincerity, but also problematically aligns Zionism with “black pride” as “defenses of minorities against... majority oppression.” That might be a true historical description of Zionism in interwar Poland, [End Page 96] but Zionism in Israel today is not the movement of a beleaguered minority battling abuse by a majority. Conservative Zionists, for their part, may also sputter with rage at Spencer’s appropriation of Zionism for his own purposes, but they do not face the same challenge as do liberals in squaring support for Israel with a stance as intersectional foes of majority tyranny.
The challenge of intersectionality suffuses the contemporary American left, and an organized Jewish community has an uncertain, troubled and troubling place in this political mosaic, largely because of controversy around Israel and Palestine. Jewish-themed disruptions of leftist aspirations to internal harmony have repeatedly appeared in the context of organized women’s opposition to the Trump regime. In 2017 the Chicago Dyke March ejected a Zionist women’s contingent who displayed Stars of David and who dissented from the March’s official stance that Zionism is “white-supremacist.” The March leaders suggested that the use of Zionist symbols would make Palestinian American participants feel harmed by what they regard as signs of their people’s dispossession. Feelings-based political criteria cut both ways. The banned Zionists framed their excision as antisemitic— a hurtful silencing of their celebration of their people’s national liberation (Cardoza 2018). More broadly, pro-Israel activists on American university campuses regularly urge repression of pro-Palestine groups, claiming to suffer emotional damage from witnessing what they take to be anti-Israel politics (Redden 2015; Mondalek 2016; Nathan-Kazis 2018). The ground of calls for political exclusion or restricted speech is that of ethnic interest, but the speech at issue is about Israel (whether for or against). The idea that Israel and Palestine are reasonable proxies for Jews and Palestinians seems to command wide agreement. So does the notion that self-reported subjective experiences of harm, intrinsically unquestionable, can function as a boundary for legitimation.
Meanwhile, the national Women’s March, expressly devoted to resisting the current US government, was shaken by controversy over some of its leaders’ associations with the Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Tamika Mallory, a longtime activist in the National Action Network and one of the central figures in the Women’s March, attended Farrakhan’s annual Saviours’ Day speech in February 2018, as she had done for many years. During this speech Farrakhan, notoriously antisemitic, not only declared that “the powerful Jews are my enemies” (undoubtedly true in some sense) but also offered a litany of characteristically lurid fantasies about the Jews, claiming that they were feeding black men marijuana in order to make “man . . . lay with man,” and that “the Satanic Jew” was working, through his control of Hollywood, to turn Americans transgender. [End Page 97] Before the speech Mallory had tweeted a picture of her posing with Farrakhan and saying, “Thank God this man is still alive and doing well. He is definitely the GOAT”—Greatest of All Time. After the speech, critics demanded that Mallory distance herself from Farrakhan’s antisemitism and homophobia. She responded defensively, saying she was against these forms of hatred and that “I don’t agree with everything Minister Farrakhan said about Jews or women or gay people,” but insisting that she would not repudiate a man and an organization (the NOI) that she, like many African Americans, viewed warmly (Lockhart 2018; Serwer 2018; Starr 2018).
Another leader of the Women’s March, Linda Sarsour, the country’s most visible Palestinian American activist, defended Mallory, spurning calls for Mallory to condemn Farrakhan. Sarsour had been involved in previous controversies. Her inclusion in a panel discussion on antisemitism at the New School in New York City in 2017 had elicited scorn from Jewish and pro-Israel groups who thought this was, as Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League, put it, “like Oscar Meyer leading a panel on vegetarianism.” At her New School appearance, Sarsour took the position that racism and other forms of bigotry are meaningful only when perpetrated by those who have the power to do a group of people material harm. This was a view with a long pedigree on the left. Sarsour had a history of supporting American Jews victimized by antisemitic violence from the right, and had filled a reservoir of goodwill among progressive Jews (“BDS Activist Raises $56,000 for Vandalized Jewish Cemetery” 2017; Sucharov 2017). Yet other Jews derided her hostility to Israel, and her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel, as intrinsically antisemitic. The dominant Jewish American organizations see BDS as antisemitic because in their view it seeks to “delegitimize” Israel and make it a pariah state on a moral plane with apartheid South Africa, a kind of singling out of Israel that can only be based in anti-Jewish animus (Chesler 2017). Protest against the New School panel focused not solely on Sarsour but also on the inclusion of Rebecca Vilkomerson, the leader of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the small but growing leftist Jewish group, which supports BDS—and which subsequently declared itself anti-Zionist (Weiss 2017; Omer-Man 2019). Regarding Sarsour, some of her Jewish antagonists may see her gestures of solidarity with targets of antisemitic attack as insincere, as mere efforts to purchase herself political cover. Others may simply not be satisfied with an intersectional vision that locates Jews as one of many oppressed minorities working in concert but that denies Jews the right, as a people, to rule a state.
After a puzzling delay, the Women’s March officially stated, “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity principles.” This startlingly weak pronouncement suggested that Mallory, Sarsour, and their fellow march leaders worried that a more [End Page 98] emphatic rejection of Farrakhan or his remarks might jeopardize the participation by women of color in the March, whose purpose, in a way, was to show that female opponents to the regime from diverse backgrounds could unite. A comprehension of this worry did not ease the minds of Jews (and others) who concluded that contemporary intersectionality would mean condemning antisemitism only in general terms while tolerating specific statements of anti-Jewish hate (Gessen 2018; Singal 2018; Cauterucci 2018).
The most profound evidence in this case of a systemic cultural derangement—one that does, in fact, cut across ideological categories, despite the fact that the real-world consequences are, to be sure, drastically different on each side—was the Women’s March leaders’ treatment of hate speech as normal political speech. This is not a legal question; it has nothing to do with trying to get the state to limit or police speech. It is a question of judgment, analysis, and moral response. Anti-Zionism is a political position. You can agree or disagree with it, you can react sharply or emotionally to it, but it has a rational basis and is subject to reasoned debate. Saying that Satanic Jews are turning our kids gay or trans is not a political position. It has no rational basis. A reasonable reaction to it is not to consider how far it “aligns” with one’s “principles.” The failure to draw any bright line between politics and lunacy is the sign of our times. On the left, this might be because anti-Zionism, increasingly legitimate and not intrinsically antisemitic, actually can work to authorize antisemitism. The thrill of hearing supposedly proscribed views about Israel uttered aloud bleeds into anti-Jewish entertainments, so tight is the Zionism–Jewishness association. On the white-nationalist right, in contrast, warmth for Zionism underwrites racism and antisemitism in what is supposed to be the white Israel of North America. If both these tentative conclusions seem upsetting or even offensive, rest assured that I don’t much care for them myself. Yet hurtful does not mean untrue. Facing contemporary realities may mean confronting things that we wish were not so. And in these cases it means facing up to the long-rooted and widely shared responsibility for entangling, perhaps inseparably, Jewishness and Zionism in the United States. It means diving deep into historical context.
scenes from a merger: zionism and non-zionism
A conscious project of conflating Jewishness and Zionism in the United States goes back to the immediate aftermath of Israel’s creation in 1948. The project’s purpose was to strengthen and restructure American political support for the new Middle Eastern state. American Jews—with many Christian allies—had mobilized impressively during and just after World War II in order to marshal political pressure on behalf of the creation of a state for the Jews in Britain’s Palestine [End Page 99] Mandate, officially granted to it by the League of Nations in 1922 (Urofsky 1995; Wyman and Medoff 2002; Gal 1991; Pedersen 2015). After that goal was secured, the grassroots mobilization quickly declined. What remained was a relatively small core of longtime Zionists. The new Israeli government, led by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, for various reasons did not see these forces as promising partners in the United States. Others, including I. L. Kenen, who lobbied for Israel in Washington, DC, in the late 1940s; Philip Klutznick, a wealthy property developer deeply engaged in Jewish communal affairs and government service; and Nahum Goldmann, a highly visible international diplomat working on behalf of the Zionists in Palestine/Israel before and after 1948, had a different idea (Kenen 1981; Klutznick 1991; Goldmann 1969). They wanted to resurrect the broad American Jewish united front for Zionism that had arisen and then vanished between 1940 and 1948, now in order to promote Israel’s interests in America. They enjoyed the support of Ben-Gurion in their efforts. The benefits of such a united front were clear. It would have large resources at its disposal, and would allow Israel’s advocates to impress American gentiles with Jewish consensus. Pro-Jewish would mean pro-Israel, and a coherent, organized Jewish interest would be able to define exactly what pro-Israel meant. As Kenen put it in 1953, “We ought to remember that our chief task is winning American public opinion. This means winning Jews as well as Christians. We will not get very far in our campaign if we try to limit our forces to enrolled Zionists.” In his view, “If we cannot win the Jewish community, we shall not win the Christian community” (1952).
Realizing this vision of a united front meant winning the non-Zionists in the Jewish community for the cause of Israel. The complete success of that strategy is reflected in the invisibility of the concept of non-Zionism in America today. Those familiar with this patch of ideological debate will be more readily familiar with anti-Zionism and post-Zionism. Non-Zionism is neither one of those. The non-Zionists were those who, before 1948, were willing to support what they termed the “upbuilding” of the yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, but did not back the goal of a Jewish state there. The premier non-Zionist group was the American Jewish Committee (AJC)—self-selected, small, elite, conservative, and influential—which had started in 1906 as an avowedly anti-Zionist group but which had softened its position and moved toward non-Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s (Cohen 1972; Sanua 2007). Other non-Zionist groups included the Jewish Labor Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women, with stances of studied neutrality regarding statehood in Palestine. After 1948’s events, the non-Zionists shared both the fears and the exaltation of the Zionists, and once Israel was definitely established they supported it, often with personal enthusiasm. Yet they remained reserved about joining pro-Israel efforts and did not want to be bossed by American Zionists, whom the non-Zionists tended to view as somewhat sectarian and tactically heavy-handed. [End Page 100]
Ben-Gurion led the way in reaching out to American non-Zionists when he elevated the AJC to a new level of importance in pro-Israel work. American Zionists traditionally had viewed the AJC with some distaste. Yet Ben-Gurion valued the AJC’s skills and connections, and precisely because of their traditional non-Zionism he saw them as no threat to assert Zionist authority in the world at large. Ben-Gurion and the AJC leader Jacob Blaustein appeared as peers when they enacted an “exchange of views” in 1950, issuing a joint statement like two heads of state. They agreed, per the AJC’s requirements, that Ben-Gurion cease his suggestions that American Jews ought to move to Israel. In truth, Ben-Gurion had said only that Zionists, not all Jews, should make aliyah (Liebman 1974; Ganin 2005; Feldestein 2006; Sanua 2007). Since the AJC still maintained it was a non-Zionist organization, this should have presented no problem for them. Yet Ben-Gurion, for his part, had come to see American Zionists and non-Zionists as virtually indistinguishable. What mattered to him was that both supported Israel (and neither seemed eager to move there). A bright line dividing these two constituencies, which might have allayed the AJC’s anxieties over charges of divided or dual national loyalties on the part of American Jews, was becoming smudged.
In the 1950s, Kenen, Klutznick, Goldmann, and their allies broadened this entente between American Zionists and non-Zionists by creating the two organizations that would remain the central organs of the “Israel lobby.” These were the American Zionist Committee on Public Affairs (AZCPA), created and led by Kenen in 1954, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, inspired partly by Goldmann’s entrepreneurial bent and led initially by Klutznick, the president of B’nai B’rith (Rossinow 2018). AZCPA, in 1959, was renamed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Kenen headed it until 1974. Basically AIPAC would focus on congressional lobbying, while the Conference of Presidents specialized in gaining audiences with high executive-branch officials, including secretaries of state and US presidents. The two groups would cooperate closely. Kenen worked hard to enlist support from non-Zionists behind AZCPA/AIPAC, and non-Zionist groups like the Jewish Labor Committee and others worked in the Conference of Presidents with Zionist outfits like the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah (the Women’s Zionist Organization of America), and smaller groups, even though the AJC stayed out. The very name of the Conference of Presidents reflected its status as a joint Zionist–non-Zionist assembly, and might have suggested to some that it would take on a broad agenda of issues of concern generally to American Jews. But its actual purpose was solely to promote Israel’s interest with high US government officials. Every account of the group’s origins makes this plain. The group’s name telegraphed the message that Israel was the American Jewish agenda at the national (and surely the international) level. The new name of AIPAC, at decade’s end, expressed Kenen’s view that the organizing principle in his work was support [End Page 101] for Israel, not outdated differences over life for Jews in Eretz Yisrael versus galut, or “exile,” in traditional Zionist parlance (galut would include the United States). As he put it, “[A]nyone who favored and helped to restore the Jewish state was, in fact, a Zionist.” Pro-Israel was the new meaning of Zionism (Kenen 1981, 110). Some of the older Zionist groups bristled at this transformation. But their misgivings had little force, since, just as Ben-Gurion had observed, when these activists had relinquished the equation of diaspora-as-galut and the accompanying Zionist doctrine of the “negation of the exile,” they had lost their distinctive ideological footing. They could only express their derision of newcomers to the cause by citing their own allegedly superior fervor and longevity in the fight.
As the association of Jewishness and Zionism began settling into place, American champions of Israel nervously eyed the US government’s Middle East policies during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower (1953–61), who indicated that he favored a neutral approach to the Israeli–Arab conflict. Anxiety turned to feverish action when, in late 1956, Eisenhower committed himself to reversing the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, which followed the jointly planned Israeli– British–French invasion of Egypt. Both AZCPA and the Conference of Presidents organized and applied whatever pressures they could muster to slow Eisenhower down. Kenen was particularly effective in rallying support for Israel in the US Senate, which blunted Eisenhower’s tactics against Israel somewhat, even though the president succeeded in getting Israel to retreat. The unity of American Jewish groups behind Israel’s position and actions was impressive (Hahn 2004; Alteras 1993; Louis and Owen 1989).
It was ironic, then, that within official transnational Zionist meetings, debate over where American Jews’ ultimate loyalties lay—a debate the Americans preferred to avoid—broke out. At a Small Zionist General Council meeting in Jerusalem in December 1956, Israelis criticized American Jews for not supporting Israel even more strongly than they had. One said, putting the matter directly to Goldmann, “When the ‘dual loyalties’ issue was put to the test for the first time, it immediately became clear that Zionism had suffered a reverse. But the defeat was not that of the anonymous masses, but of the leadership . . . . if a conflict should arise between the Zionists in the Diaspora and the countries in which they live, he [Goldmann] does not know what the outcome will be. Is this, then, the result of decades of Zionist education?” Another said, “Our public relations work in the Diaspora today must be based upon full identification with the policy of the Israel Government. . . . We must educate the Jews of America to have the strength and courage to speak out openly against their Government, as the Jews of Poland did at a time when they lived under far worse conditions, under a semi-fascist regime” (American Jewish Committee 1957, 20).
Goldmann retorted, “For the past eight years Diaspora Jewry has done everything the State has demanded of it.... The Jewish people lined up as one man in [End Page 102] defence of the State and of Government policy. Similarly they defended the occupation of Sinai, although it was not easy for them to understand why it happened” (American Jewish Committee, 21). He explained to the Israelis that “we have to understand that the organizational set-up in America is such that in the political sphere the Zionists seldom appear as Zionists. We set up the Presidents’ Club... a permanent political organization of American Jewry in behalf of Israel.... From the political point of view it is infinitely more important that the Jews should all act together than that the Zionists should come forward on their own. Thus a political situation has been created which, in my opinion, is ideal for America: the basis is that of all Jewry, whereas the effective driving force is Zionist” (16).
Such scenes from the 1950s spotlight a process of constructing American Jewish unity to support Israel. By the 1960s, the category of non-Zionism had become obsolete and was increasingly obscure. Jews growing up in America at that time and later would never encounter the term. Both Zionists and non-Zionists had cause to feel that they had been the dominant party in the merger of their forces. The Zionists were, as Goldmann said, “the effective driving force,” shaping the broadly shared pro-Israel agenda, and the non-Zionists gave up their old ambivalence about Jewish statehood. Yet now Zionism would simply mean supporting the Jewish community in Israel materially and politically—not so different from what non-Zionism had meant before 1948. The ambiguities in this transformation of the American Jewish scene were great. Old-line Zionist groups may have grumbled that newcomers to the movement were diluting its meaning. Yet the benefits to the Zionist movement in America were substantial. With the base of American Zionism broadened, there was little space or legitimacy in organized communal life for critique of Zionism (or, as some now called it, “pro-Israelism”).
If we fast-forward a couple of decades further, the long-term results of this merger become clear. Anti-Zionists had become few and marginal in organized Jewish life.6 The merger of Zionist and non-Zionist forces in a new pro-Israel politics meant that, for practical purposes, Jewishness implied Zionism. Thus, in 1980, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, a leading advocate for Israel who was interreligious affairs director for the AJC, would reject an effort by Christians to distinguish between Jewishness and Zionism. At that time the National Council of Churches, the central coordinating body of the “mainline” Protestant churches in the United States, produced a draft statement on the Middle East. Tanenbaum offered a detailed critique of what he saw as a document hostile to Israel, and rounded up wide American Jewish support. At one point the draft statement had included the line, “For the Zionist Jew the state (Israel) should have a Jewish majority and have a distinctly Jewish character.” Tanenbaum objected. He wrote that “this sentence reflects a biased and uninformed attitude towards the national liberation movement of the Jewish people,” and he recommended “that this sentence be recast to reflect the universal support of the Zionist ideal by Jewish people everywhere.” In effect, [End Page 103] Tanenbaum wanted the statement to speak of a unitary Jewish view and to leave Zionism merely implicit in Jewishness. In fact, by the 1970s, Zionist had come to seem, to many people’s ears, a term of abuse. It had come to be used almost exclusively by opponents of Zionism. American Jewish Zionists had little reason to use the term because they had ceased to make a distinction between Zionists and Jews. At the end of the 1970s Tanenbaum argued that a Zionist consensus bound the American Jewish community, and he was not far off the mark (1980).
yerushalayim shel zahav
Intercommunal disputes such as that between Tanenbaum and his Protestant colleagues turned on questions of territory: who controlled it and who should. Among American Jews themselves, and indeed among Zionist Jews, the issue of territory proved divisive in the decades following Israel’s 1967 conquest of a Greater Israel. Thus it is fitting, if ironic, that one matter which reveals the enduring consensus within the Jewish community is also about territory. That is the question of Jerusalem. This is the place where President Trump broke with precedent, upsetting a delicately balanced apple cart by relocating the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018. Yet Trump’s actions were, in reality, far from out of step with broad American Jewish opinion of long standing, not to mention the positions of America’s two major political parties. The issue of Jerusalem, so central to the dramatics, paradoxes, and new departures of the Trump administration’s stance toward the Jewish world, underlines once again the tangled identities that now seem to ensnare us uncomfortably.
In the years between 1967 and the Trump era, American Zionists saw their political world transformed through many dramatic events. The 1967 Israeli engrossment of huge expanses of land, including East Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan River; the appearance of a youthful Jewish left in 1970s America; the decline of the Mapai/Labour founding establishment in Israel and its displacement by a conservative Likud establishment; the rise of Palestinian nationalism (in forms violent and nonviolent) to prominence; a cold peace between Israel and Egypt and then between Israel and Jordan; Israel’s repeated invasions of Lebanon; the first and second intifadas in the Occupied Territories; the Oslo Peace Accords and the promise of a two-state solution to the Israel–Palestine conflict in the 1990s, followed by the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli protagonist in the Oslo agreement, in 1995: these and other dramatic events could not but affect the American scene, among Jews and non-Jews both. The most basic change in the shape of American Zionism from the 1960s to today is its shifting political center of gravity, from left to right. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a truism that the more progressive an American politician was, the more pro-Israel he or she was. [End Page 104] This is true no more. Onetime liberal Christian allies of Israel defected, replaced by conservative evangelical supporters of a Jewish state that appears congruent with biblical prophecy (Carenen 2012; Weber 2004; Ariel 2013). Israel’s fiercest supporters in the United States, who once feared Republican governments, now often hope for them. The only mainstream political figures who question Israeli policies or actions with any regularity reside on the left wing of the Democratic Party. The so-called “crisis of Zionism” announced by Peter Beinart starting in 2010 is really a crisis of liberal Zionism (Beinart 2010; Beinart 2012).
Yet, in spite of the ongoing ideological polarization of American Zionists, certain unities endure, tying American Zionists together. American Jews are thus bound together as well, since actual challenges to Zionist commitment have remained confined to the edges of American Jewish public life. Most of the sharp disagreement in the years following the conquest of Greater Israel pertained to specific Israeli policies, and also to certain practices of the American Jewish establishment. They were almost never doctrinal disputes in any serious sense. Those had been largely put to rest by 1960. Territorial partition, the essential issue that would congeal the new identity of liberal Zionism as one faction within the Zionist world after 1967, had divided Zionists in the 1930s and 1940s as well. But in that pre-statehood era the partition issue had not separated Jewish Zionists from Jewish non- or anti-Zionists; it had been a practical question of strategy dividing Jews into different Zionist camps. So, too, with the question of the West Bank and Gaza from 1967 until the present. The conflation of Jewishness and Zionism, well established in the United States, went largely undisturbed even by contentious debates.
Israel laid a claim to Jerusalem amid the 1948 war, a claim that ran athwart the United Nations partition plan of 1947. The UN plan had mapped out a corpus separatum, an enclave to be governed by an international authority, encompassing Jerusalem. Neither the Jewish nor the Palestinian Arab state foreseen in the plan would possess the holy city. After a civil war within Palestine broke out and neighboring Arab states invaded the territory in an effort to prevent a Jewish state’s existence, the war was on and Jewish forces treated the boundaries described by the UN as obsolete. Based on their security concerns and their military capacities, they took considerable land beyond the areas the partition plan had assigned them. This was why an arduous process of negotiating armistice lines, a process so hard that it won Ralph Bunche the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, had to occur at the war’s end. Israel took the “New City” of West Jerusalem, and Jordan, similarly ignoring the UN plan, occupied the “Old City” of East Jerusalem. Both ignored calls to institute the corpus separatum (Tessler 2009; Hahn 2004). American Christians were upset over what appeared a lost opportunity to make their holy places in the city easily approachable. Israel held meetings of the Knesset in Jerusalem and declared the portion of the city it controlled its capital, but other [End Page 105] governments refused to recognize the legality of this move. Israel’s Foreign Ministry initially remained in Tel Aviv, where other countries’ diplomats met with their Israeli counterparts. In July 1953, Israel moved its Foreign Ministry to Jerusalem. The United States objected publicly, but gradually accommodated itself to the situation (Hahn 2004, 175–76).7
In the “Six-Day War” of June 1967, Israeli forces breached the gates of the Old City and seized control of all Jerusalem. Jewish euphoria over Israel’s entire military triumph peaked in the excitement Jews felt over the unification of Jerusalem under Jewish rule. A folk-style Hebrew song with a hypnotic melody, “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold) became famous in Israel, an anthem for the Six-Day War, and Jewish children in the United States learned to sing it as well. UN resolutions and international law concerned Jews hardly at all; with Israel’s war understood as defensive, its right to newly held territories seemed as justified as did its ownership of land it had conquered in 1948. American Jewish groups and institutions began planning momentous visits, or ongoing involvement, in Jerusalem. Even though many of these contacts were with West Jerusalem, not the Old City, they carried unmistakably the message that diaspora Jews celebrated the new Israeli rule over the city as a whole and supported Israel’s determination to keep it. Reform Jewish authorities, representing politically the most progressive of all branches of US Judaism, led the way, demonstrating their relatively recent Zionist commitment dramatically. The World Union for Progressive Judaism, an international body of which Reform Judaism was a component, switched the locale of its 1968 convention, which had been planned for Amsterdam, to Jerusalem. In 1969, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform rabbinical seminary based in Cincinnati, sent an initial class of students to its new Jerusalem campus, the product of extensive negotiations with Israel’s government. HUC-JIR had wished to establish a Jerusalem branch for many years, but the opening of its campus there so soon after the 1967 war made for powerful symbolism. Henceforth, all candidates for Reform ordination in the United States would spend a mandatory first year of their rabbinical studies in Jerusalem, something required of neither Conservative nor Orthodox trainees. Finally, in 1970, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical association, held its convention in Jerusalem for the first time ever. In a bold statement, hundreds of US Reform rabbis converged joyously to conduct their essential business not in the United States but in Israel.8
Nelson Glueck, president of HUC-JIR, had spearheaded the drive to open the Jerusalem branch. A famous biblical archaeologist, Glueck was eager to regain access to excavation sites in the West Bank. Years earlier he had supported the UN partition plan’s concept of a corpus separatum for Jerusalem. In 1970, speaking at the new Jerusalem campus’s dedication, Glueck took a different stance, one phrased with subtle complexity. He said, “We believe that the ‘compleat’ Jew, [End Page 106] must regard the land of Israel as central and sacred to his own being.... This city can no more be separated into separate parts under different governments than can a human heart be cut in twain and continue for long to beat. . . . Jerusalem must remain the capital of Israel even as it must be considered the spiritual capital of mankind.” Now “separation” was an evil. But the opposition of unity to separation had a double meaning. West and East Jerusalem must no longer stand apart, Glueck argued. But he also indicated his endorsement of the Israeli position that Jerusalem as a whole could never stand as a corpus separatum but must be integral to the true corpus of which it was the heart—Israel (Glueck 1970).
In the 1970s, American Zionists across the board defended the Jewish right to possess Jerusalem. Generally they felt the same way about the West Bank, too— but Jerusalem in particular was the basis for a broad American Jewish consensus, even as support for holding on to all territories captured in 1967 gradually began to falter. That shift became perceptible after the Likud, led by Menachem Begin, won power in Israel in 1977. After this, some liberal American Jews began to see the Israeli policy of retaining the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights and populating them with Jewish settlers—a policy pursued for ten years before 1977 by Labour governments—as questionable. Yet such change came slowly. Rabbi David Polish, a highly respected Zionist thinker and one of the few who continued to press for more explicit and exclusive formulations of Zionist doctrine, wrote in 1976, one year before the Likud victory, “From a theological perspective the present moment is for the Jew a redemptive moment,” because of the return of the Land to the Jews’ collective control. Polish implied that Christian criticism of Greater Israel was rooted in theological rejection of Jewish collective redemption, not compassion for stateless Palestinians. Traditionally in Christian thought, he wrote, Jewish “exclusion from the land of Israel had nothing to do with its occupation by other groups or by controversy over the exact borders of the land of Israel . . . the former rightful place of Jews [in] their land was not questioned, only their right to return to it because of a divinely-imposed penalty.” He continued, “My thesis is that like Jewish nationalism, this theology of anti-redemption, while transposed into largely secular terms, has its own roots in much earlier religious dogma. The Palestinian question is a real question and it will have to be grappled with, but the absence of the question will not in itself exorcise the demon of antipathy to Jewish self-redemptive efforts” (Polish 1976). In a decidedly non-theological vein, Marie Syrkin, professor at Brandeis University and an intellectual pillar of labor Zionism in America, wrote in the late 1970s that “though I disagree with the settlement policy of the Likud government of Israel, I do not dispute the authenticity of the legal claim to Jewish settlement in the West Bank” (Syrkin n.d.). Citing the League of Nations Palestine Mandate, she stated, “Historic justice and international law make a strong case for the retention of the West Bank.” She added, in an acute observation regarding Israel, that even [End Page 107] “Israelis who urge withdrawal from most of the heavily populated West Bank and oppose any scheme for the incorporation of a million Arabs into the Jewish state just as vigorously oppose a second dismemberment of Jerusalem. Supporters of Peace Now”—a group begun in Israel in 1978 by Israeli soldiers who supported negotiations between Israel and Egypt, which if successful would mean an Israeli cession of the Sinai—“fervently sign statements in favor of united Jerusalem, capital of Israel” (Syrkin 1980).
In light of how far into the Jewish center-left the attachment to Jewish control of a united Jerusalem extended, it is no surprise that the Democratic and Republican Parties came around to the Israeli position on the city as well. The Democrats did so first, stating for the first time in the party’s 1976 campaign platform, “We recognize and support the established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with free access to all its holy places provided to all faiths. As a symbol of this stand, the US embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem” (Democratic Party 1976). Both the global politics of Israel and Palestine and partisan calculations about the American scene may have worked to impel this shift. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Democrats enjoyed strong backing from American Jews and had little motive for spurning the long-held view of the US diplomatic corps that the US government should maintain its formal objection to Israel’s control over Jerusalem. This meant keeping the US embassy in Tel Aviv and joining most other world governments in refusing to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s legal capital city. The Republicans tended to embrace that state department perspective, and they had little Jewish support nor keen prospects of winning it, so neither were they moved to rock the boat diplomatically on the Jerusalem issue.
The turbulence of the mid-1970s started to destabilize these alignments. The trope of the “new antisemitism” received confirmation soon after its appearance, in the eyes of many, with the 1975 condemnation of Zionism as “a form of racism or racial discrimination” by the United Nations General Assembly. This historical moment, also marked by fears among Democrats that Jews, with others, had grown disenchanted with Great Society liberalism, led to the 1976 pledge by that party to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem. However, it was only Democratic president Jimmy Carter’s subsequent legitimation of Palestinian nationalism in US politics and diplomacy, sincere on his part and elemental to his peacemaking strategy, which really cost his party support from American Jews (Jensehaugen 2018; Yaqub 2016). When Republican Ronald Reagan unseated Carter in 1980, Reagan won almost 40 percent of the Jewish vote, a significant improvement from previous Republican nominees (Wald 2015). More firmly partisan on Israel’s behalf than Eisenhower or other GOP presidents, Reagan suggested that he did not see Palestinians as a distinct nation. However, he did not move the embassy, even if some of his supporters had hoped that he might. When pressed, mainly by Democrats in the Congress, to do so in 1984, Reagan resisted (Weisman 1984). [End Page 108] The Republican platform in 1984 still read merely, “We believe that Jerusalem should remain an undivided city with free and unimpeded access to all holy places by people of all faiths” (Republican Party 1984).
The Republicans changed their position on this issue in the 1990s. A new cohort of Republicans in Congress joined with Democrats to impose a Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 on President Bill Clinton. Continuing hopes for competition over Jewish political support now combined with a keen eye toward evangelical Protestant voters who hoped for any moves toward a restoration of the Davidic kingdom in Israel. Clinton, a Democrat, like his Republican successor, George W. Bush, and Bush’s successor, Democrat Barack Obama, said they would like to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—but, as President Trump has gleefully pointed out, none of them was willing to do so. Each repeatedly exercised the option that the Embassy Act gave him to use a six-month waiver to avoid making the move. This, Trump eventually declined to do (Anderson and Schwartz 2017). He fulfilled a specific bipartisan demand that had gained steam in American politics for thirty-five years. Very broad American Jewish support for an entire Jerusalem (indeed, for a Jerusalem whose boundaries Israel has redrawn since 1967 to include additional territory in the West Bank) as Israel’s capital has powered this demand and its recent fulfillment.
retrospect and prospect
Nothing comes from nothing. As discussed earlier in this article, there is much that is disturbingly new about the politics of Jewishness in Trump’s America. But we should acknowledge that the easy slide between Jewishness and Zionism and back again, which may appall us when that slippage is deployed or enacted in ways that do harm, has a long history. The convergence of Jewishness with Zionism in America since 1948 has been a conscious political project and also a cultural juggernaut with an authentic emotional and ideological basis in American Jewish communal life—but not a process that occurred “naturally.” It was something that people—many people—accomplished. One task for Jewish Studies in the waning years of the Trump era and beyond will be to cast a discerning eye on this past process of political and cultural construction. Doing so is necessary in order to avoid confusion and contradiction when speaking out, as many will wish to do, against malign uses of that very conflation.
The tight linkage, nearing equation, between Jewishness and Zionism in recent American history has shown signs of uncoupling during the Trump era, although caution is warranted in predictions of rapid change. JVP is the first significant anti-Zionist Jewish group in the United States since the heyday of the American Council for Judaism in the 1940s. This contemporary dissent from [End Page 109] Zionism on the Jewish left is tied to rising social forces. JVP has aligned itself with a multicultural left that includes elements of the Black Lives Matter movement. That left has renewed old associations, once drawn by militant African American groups in the late 1960s, between white supremacy in America and Jewish domination in Israel/Palestine (Davis 2016). When US representative Ilhan Omar made rather blithe comments in 2019 regarding pro-Israel Americans who display, in her words, “allegiance to a foreign country,” she was widely condemned. American Zionists have always been concerned to repudiate suggestions that their support for Israel compromises their patriotism. Yet, shortly afterward, when President Trump spoke to Jewish Republicans and called Benyamin Netanyahu “your prime minister,” some of those who had expressed outrage at Omar said little or nothing. Trump, paradoxically, frames his identification of American Jews with Israel as the basis for his claim to be a pro-Jewish leader, and the president calls for a “Jexodus” of American Jews out of the Democratic Party and toward the Republicans. The leading critic of Omar was US Representative Eliot Engel, a fellow Democrat and in general a staunch New Deal–Great Society liberal—and also a passionate supporter of Israel who supported the US embassy’s move to Jerusalem (Zunes 2018).9 Engel represents the politics of American Jewish Zionism as it prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s. The combination of commitments that he embodies faces new challenges, from left and right. Yet Engel is chair of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, while Omar is a back-bencher. Changes in the politics of Israel in the American Jewish world are afoot, but such changes may proceed slowly, against a background of entrenched cultural and political arrangements.
doug rossinow is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and professor of history at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s (Columbia UP, 2015) and editor (with Leilah Danielson and Marian Mollin) of The Religious Left in Modern America: Doorkeepers of a Radical Faith (Palgrave, 2018). His current project is titled Promised Land: The Worlds of American Zionism, 1948–1995.
1. Many would argue that the goal of statehood had not defined or totally encompassed Zionist thought before 1948 and would see the “cultural Zionism” associated with Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginzberg) as an alternative. See Zipperstein (1993). This heterogeneity narrowed after 1948.
2. A long tradition of prescriptive literature makes this distinction forcefully, sometimes but not always from a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist position. What all such literature has in common is an affirmation of Jewish diaspora life. For different recent perspectives see Butler (2012) and Wolfe (2014). Here I merely make an analytical distinction. Although I admire the legacy initiated by Hannah Arendt in her famous essay “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition” (1944), I prefer to exalt neither “return” nor “exile.”
3. Michels (2010) and Frankel (2013) argue stoutly against easy assumptions that there was no Jewish Question in the USA. For histories of antisemitism in the United States see Dinnerstein (1994), Gerber (1987), and Jaher (1996). Also see Kenneth D. Wald (2019) and Jaher (2002).
4. Reports varied as to whether the Charlottesville marchers said “You” or “Jews,” but witnesses, including the Protestant pastor Brian McLaren, stated they heard both used in sequence (McLaren 2018). For background on the rallying cry of replacement or, in the original French, remplacement, see Williams (2017). I take the Charlottesville marchers to have meant not that Jews would take their positions in American society and culture but instead that Jews are masterminding the displacement of white Christians with others.
5. The authors of the three books named here were employed by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B’nai B’rith, but in the twenty-first century the concept has passed into wider usage by pro-Israel writers.
7. In 1955, the acting US secretary of state, Herbert Hoover Jr., wrote, “Chief of Mission could at his discretion attend social functions given by FonMin [Foreign Ministry] in Jerusalem provided practice minimized and functions do not carry connotation of acceptance Jerusalem as capital. Chief of Mission may discuss important matters with PriMin in Jerusalem but not with FonMin” (Hoover 1955 in US Department of State 1989, 464).
8. In 1973 the World Union would move its headquarters from London to Jerusalem, under the leadership of Richard Hirsch. In 1976 the World Union became the first Jewish religious body to formally join the World Zionist Organization, a role traditionally played by political parties and movements.