Israel Divides the Jews

by Lawrence Davidson Retired professor of history from West Chester University in West Chester PA 18.11.2015

Reform Judaism vs. Israel

Something significant recently happened in the ongoing political-ethical drama that grips Israel and, by extension, Jewish communities worldwide. As reported by the Jewish Daily Forward on on 6 November 2015, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (a position that makes him the leader of largest Jewish denomination in the United States), publicly broke with Israel’s political and religious leadership. In a major speech at the Union’s biennial conference he said, “Asking Jews around the world only to wave the flag of Israel and to support even the most misguided policies of its leaders drives a wedge between the Jewish soul and the Jewish state.” Going public in this fashion is significant and welcome. However, as we shall see, this aspect of his critique has a long history.

Jacobs then got more specific: “the treatment of Israel’s minorities” and the “way ultra-Orthodox views of Judaism are being enshrined in secular law” are indications that Israeli society is “broken” and that Reform Jews will not be quiet about this. Jacobs offers the concept of Tikkun olam or “good works that benefit the wider community” and the “power and wisdom of pluralism” as antidotes that can help “repair” Israel. This is potentially powerful stuff for the situation here in the U.S., if not in Israel itself. If Jacobs moves to mobilize America’s Reform Jews behind a campaign opposing present Israeli behavior, it will constitute a major challenge to Zionist tribalism. It might also help liberate the U.S. Congress from its present role of accomplice to Israeli crimes.

The Past as Prologue

While the Zionists will never admit it and it is unlikely that the great majority of Reform Jews are aware of it, Rabbi Jacobs’s criticism is not new. Indeed, warnings and skepticism of what Zionism meant for the Jews and Judaism go back to the late nineteenth century and intensified with the announcement of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.

I wrote a long essay on this subject in 2004. It is entitled “Zionism and the Attack on Jewish Values” and appeared in the online journal of ideas Logos (Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 2004). Here are some excerpts:

— Ahad Ha-am (the pen name of the famous Jewish moralist Asher Ginzberg) noted as early as 1891 that Zionist settlers in Palestine had “an inclination to despotism. They treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, deprive them of their rights, offend them without cause, and even boast of these deeds; and no one among us opposes this despicable and dangerous inclination.”

— In England, on May 24, 1917, the Joint Foreign Committee of two Jewish organizations, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association, issued a statement which asserted, “the feature of the Zionist program objected to proposes to invest Jewish settlers in Palestine with special rights over others. This would prove a calamity to the whole Jewish people who hold that the principle of equal rights for all denominations is essential. The [Zionist program] is all the more inadmissable because … it might involve them in most bitter feuds with their neighbors of other races and religion.”

— Hannah Arendt, one of the most insightful Jewish political philosophers of the twentieth century, characterized the Zionist movement in a 1945 essay as a “German-inspired nationalism.” The result of this was a modern form of tribal ethnocentrism that led to virulent, politicized racism. In 1948 she and 27 other prominent Jews living in the United States wrote a letter to the New York Times condemning the growth of right-wing political influences in the newly founded Israeli state.

— Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein warned that “the attitude we adopt toward the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people.” An investigation of the conclusions drawn by every human rights organization that has examined Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians over the last 50 years, leaves no doubt that the Zionists have failed Einstein’s test.

Yet that is just the conclusion that today’s Zionists cannot face. Any revival of these early and prescient objections as part of a contemporary critique of Zionism represents, to the ardent Zionist, the promotion of supposedly traitorous anachronisms that are not only an embarrassment, but also politically dangerous. Jews who express such concerns are systematically denigrated and non-Jews who are critical of Zionism are slandered with charges of anti-Semitism.

Judaism Divided

Thus, Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the latest in a long line of important critics. Now that he has joined their ranks, the question is, Will Jacobs be able to popularize his critique while withstanding the enormous pressure that is certainly about to befall him? He will be libeled and threatened in an effort to force him to back down.The movement of Reform Judaism might itself come under fire as subversive. After all, officially Israel doesn’t even see Reform Jewry as real Jews.

Though an effort to discredit Jacobs and the Reform movement will be made, it will only make matters worse for the Zionists and Israel. Thanks to its racist policies and brutal aggressiveness, the Zionist state has become the most divisive issue for Jews  throughout the Western world. Jacobs’s pronouncement is a sure sign of this. A Zionist counterattack on Reform Jewry will make it more so.

The truth is that Zionism has always divided Jews. On one side have been those sensitive to humanitarian issues and the religion’s traditional championship of egalitarianism and justice. And on the other side have been those who have committed themselves to a Jewish future defined in Zionist ideological terms. Before World War II those on the humanitarian side were mainly outspoken intellectuals. At that time the Zionists were better organized than those who opposed them and they were politically savvy and assertive. However, apart from areas of Eastern Europe, the vast majority of ordinary Jews remained neutral. With the advent of Nazi persecution the entire balance shifted in favor of the Zionists, who saw vindication for their statist philosophy in the Holocaust. By 1948, few Jews said a word against Zionism and the state of Israel.

But that pro-Zionist balance could not last. Eventually Israel’s combining of religion and state power produced the worst of both worlds. In the name of defending Judaism, Israel has conquered, persecuted, and massacred, and it has self-righteously refused to acknowledge its own culpability for the ongoing tragedy of both itself and its victims. Now, more and more Jews are disgusted and alienated, or just mightily confused, by the ongoing malfeasance of a movement that was supposed to create their ultimate safe haven.

As the journalist Laurie Goodstein noted in a 22 September 2014 article in the international edition of the New York Times, ever greater numbers of younger American Jews are turning against the Zionism and Israel. However, older and more conservative Jews still remain ardent Zionists. These are the big donors not only at their local congregational level, but also when it comes to politics. They will continue to try to intimidate Jewish skeptics into silence and to sway members of Congress. Hopefully, the efforts of men like Rabbi Jacobs will make it easier for those Jews who support more progressive and humane policies to stand up and compete for influence. 

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