In his most recent book, We stand Divided: The Rift between American Jews and Israel (New York: Harper Collins, 2019), Daniel Gordis writes in his concluding chapter: “In 1880, the combined population of the United States and Palestine totaled 275,000 people. As the world’s Jewish population at that point was approximately 7.8 million, these two communities represented a mere 3 percent of the world’s Jews. Today the United States and Israel account for 85 percent of the world’s Jews.” (page 231). The remaining 15 percent of the world’s Jews are scattered in small communities around the world, mainly the developed world. So, the U.S. and Israel constitute the two arms of the body of world Jewry today. Israel is the center and America is the center of the diaspora. Sadly, Gordis notes, these two communities are, in many ways, even while existing in a crucial synergistic relationship, at odds with one another. It is the purpose of this book to explain this rift and, hopefully, by providing insight, contribute to its repair.
I highly recommend We stand Divided. It is beautifully written, carefully researched, and provides much food for thought, not to mention important information for all those wishing to understand the nature and historical development of Jewish thought up to the present time. On the nature of Zionism it is particularly useful. I will not provide here a comprehensive book review. Rather, I want just to address a limited set of points that underly Gordis’s comprehensive analysis. I want to address those aspects of his analysis that disturbed me most, not least because of the degree of intractability I see involved in them.
In successive chapters Gordis analysis various reasons for the divide between American and Israeli Jews in general, namely, the incessant conflict with the Palestinians and how Israel approaches that, the particularist (as opposed to universalist) nature of Israeli nationalism (Zionism), the contrast between Judaism in America as a religious identity and Jewishness in Israel as a national/cultural identity, the mixing of church and state in Israel’s legal regulatory system, and the “historically embedded” lives of Israelis as opposed to the detached lives of Americans. It seems to me that running through each of these is a common theme, one that Gordis treats in passing, one that is peripheral to him but is central to me, and that is, in a nutshell, the issue of the relationship between nationalism and individual rights.
Americans in general and traditionally (much less so those adhering these days to ‘identity politics’) think in terms in individual rights as the basis of their freedom. Their freedom is individual freedom. They hold those “truths to be self-evident” that all people (regardless of their ethnicity, race, background or group affiliation) are entitled to equal freedom, everywhere. America is a country (perhaps the only country in history) founded on the basis of universal individual rights. To be American is not be of a particular blood line or race or ethnicity. To be American is to embrace American ideals (notwithstanding the departures in our history that have tarnished this). America is, as it were, a universalist project. The ideals to which Americans at their best stand committed are applicable to everyone, everywhere. Historical pronouncements are replete with exhortations to the world in general to join in the American project to build a society in which individuals are free and live peacefully together. With some accuracy we may call this a commitment to liberal democracy (though it does not, as is commonly assumed, necessarily imply a political democracy of any particular kind).
By contrast, while it is true that a large proportion, if not a majority, of Israelis also feel and profess a general commitment to liberal democracy broadly conceived, this is not as absolute for them as it is for Americans. In particular Israelis face the persistent question of whether there is a tradeoff between Israel being a Jewish state and being, at the same time, a liberal democracy, where everyone has equal individual freedom. Gordis thinks there is such a tradeoff, and that Israelis in general answer it by compromising on liberal democracy. But, far from this being a criticism, he presents it as an inevitable difference between two peoples who have experienced very different histories. It is not, according to him, that either view is more moral or correct than the other. America aspires to be a liberal democracy, Israel does not, because to be one would require sacrificing the Jewishness of Israel. He asks us to think of Israel as an “ethnic democracy”.
It is when one considers the implications of this that the nature of the divide becomes most apparent. For example, Israel has laws that restrict the residence of Arabs (even Israeli Arabs) in certain areas on the basis of preserving the Jewish nature of that area. For Americans this is anathema, what they call “red-lining”. It is legalized racism. And there are other similar restrictive laws. Then there is the monopoly of funerals, weddings, and conversions that the orthodox Israeli Jewish establishment has. This implies for example that marriages between Jews and non-Jews cannot take place in Israel. Again this is anathema to Americans. Gordis’s attempt to explain this in terms of understanding Israel’s origin and ongoing raison d’etre to provide a safe haven for the Jews of the world facing current or future oppression will strike many American readers as simple apologism.
Gordis’s argument, shared by many, is that these compromises to liberal democracy are necessary to preserve the cultural identity of Israel. In addition to the very real physical threats that Israelis face (the truth that they face a persistent overriding existential threat to their physical being), they face, according to this argument, a threat to their culture that can only be resisted if the Jewish nature of the state is preserved, and this requires ensuring, among other things, that Jews remain the controlling majority of the population. It is an argument that proceeds from the idea of the right to “national self-determination” not individual rights. In this light, the contrast could not be more stark. A principled individual rights approach, sees rights adhering solely to individuals. There is no coherence to the notion of collective rights, as in “the rights of the nation”. The later is simply a set of weasel words used often to justify violations of individual rights for the “greater good” or some mythical national purpose. Gordis gets this right, but understates the coherence of the individual rights approach. He is, not surprisingly, no libertarian/classical liberal, though he is very appreciatively aware of its teachings, notably through the ideas of America's founders like Thomas Jefferson.
I don’t want to minimize the problem. Israel was founded at a time of unimaginable upheaval, for the world and for the Jews in particular. After WWII millions of “displaced persons” streamed across borders into new countries and many were held in refugee camps for long periods. One third of the Jewish people had been murdered. European Jewry had been destroyed in a matter of five years. In a few more years the age-old Jewish communities of the Arab world were also destroyed as the Jews were expelled. The Jewish population of Israel doubled. And this was but the culmination of centuries of Jewish life across Europe in which the “Jewish question” festered. It was a well-known phrase, the most graphic illustration of which was, of course, the Dreyfus affair. Particularly in Eastern Europe by the eve of WWII matters had become precarious for the Jews. For decades Jewish leaders had worked for the establishment of a home for the Jewish people where they could be “normal”. Israel is seen as the very embodiment of that project. And its current policies are informed by that historical experience. Even now, as anti-Jewish sentiment endures, Israel is seen by Israelis and others as the necessary safe haven, insurance policy, for the Jews of the world.
Furthermore, given the historical circumstance of its birth, in the dying days of the British Empire and of colonialism in general, a certain cynical realpolitik was necessary to combat the efforts of the mercurial British and their newfound Arab extremist allies who objected to the settlement of Jews in Palestine because they were Jews, non-Muslims. A deep seated ethnicity indeed permeates the neighborhood. This too is clear in the minds of Israelis today.
And while it is true that Israel does possess a legal system that is in many respects ethnically-based, it is also true that by comparison to its neighbors, or, indeed, to any other country in the Middle East, it shines supreme in the degree to which it is a liberal democracy and in the way in which, notwithstanding its restrictionist laws, it treats its minorities, including women and gays. There is simply no excuse, in this regard, to hold Israel to a double standard, waxing belligerent condemnation of Israeli policy while staying silent on the horrors occurring in the rest of her neighborhood. On that I have harped persistently.
But having said all this, it still remains that American Jews, contrary to what Gordis seems to hope, will never be able to get comfortable with ethnically based social policies of the kind that Israel has. In truth, they smack of the very impetus that propelled the opposition to Jewish settlement in the first place. In American eyes, in my eyes, these are not two morally equivalent worldviews. That is the sin of multi-culturalism. If the principles of classical liberalism are valid, they are universally valid. Sad to say, the use of the phrase “apartheid state” has its explanation in this, though, based on what apartheid really was, I firmly reject that phrase as applied to Israel.
I think, in the end, Gordis would be better advised not to defend these laws as necessary evils in their current form, including finding a rationale for the religious monopoly and its intrusion into private decisions. I think of it differently. From an individual rights perspective, people have a right to affiliate in groups in any way they see fit as long as they act peacefully. It is the role of the state that is problematic. Israelis look to the state to design and enforce their national/ethnic aspirations and that is a problem. If the top priority is to preserve a Jewish homeland, a safe haven for Jews, one need not do this from the very top. The notion of a free republic in which “minority rights” are guaranteed is not unreasonable. Minority rights means the rights of individuals to express themselves religiously, culturally, educationally, etc. Some “situational” conditions may have to be incorporated in the governance structure, as was attempted, sadly unsuccessfully in the end, in Lebanon, with its arrangement to share governance between Christians and Moslems. Perhaps some sort of federal arrangement might work to prevent ethnic violence. But, in the end, I would maintain, to deny equal freedom to the residents of any country on the basis of their ethnicity remains unacceptable and that the desire to preserve cultural identity and traditions (as opposed to physical safety) does not override this.
I am not an expert. These are my armchair reactions to this excellent book.