Rabbi Daniel Gordis was at Brandeis University, a guest of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, this past Tuesday to discuss the American-Jewish relationship in a talk entitled, “From Dual Loyalty to Offended Liberalism: Continuities and Discontinuities in the American Jewish – Israel Relationship.” Gordis, who received his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, is the author of more than 10 books, many of which touch upon life in Israel. In 1998 he and his family moved to Israel, where he founded Shalem College in Jerusalem, a liberal arts institution of higher learning. Part of Gordis’ talk at Brandeis presented a preview of his upcoming book, “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.”
Throughout his 45-minute talk, Gordis expertly guided his audience through the history and complexities of the American-Jewish relationship with modern Israel. He began with the observation that the American-Jewish and Israel relationship is currently in a “very fraught condition.” That tension, he asserted, is not necessarily new as much as it has evolved. The current state of affairs, which is partially based on information garnered from the Pew Research Center, portrays an American Jewry that is increasingly less religious and less attached to Israel. And those numbers noticeably slip for Jews under 35. Gordis noted that if the trend continues, “there will be a significant number of Jews not only not very attached to Israel, but not attached at all.”
Gordis then went back to mid-century America, when Israel was a brand-new state and there existed a tug of war between American Jewry and Israeli Zionists. Jacob Blaustein, the head of the American Jewish Committee in 1950, represented the prevalent views of American Jewry, while David Ben-Gurion, primary founder of the State of Israel, embodied the hopes and dreams of Israeli Zionists. The two men were at odds over Israel’s place in the Jewish world at large, and in American-Jewish hearts in particular. Blaustein’s misgivings had to do with considering whether Israel was the center of the Jewish world. Ben-Gurion was convinced that the Jewish center of gravity had moved to Jerusalem; Blaustein saw American Jewry’s future firmly in America. Both men agreed to disagree by shaking on the Blaustein-Ben-Gurion agreement. The agreement called upon North American Jews to fundraise for Israel and lobby on Capitol Hill on its behalf. In return, Israel would agree to abandon its efforts to recruit American-Jewish immigrants and claims of centrality.
Blaustein’s other chief concern had to do with accusations of dual loyalty leveled at American Jewry. To repudiate those charges, Gordis noted, “there was a fundamental shift in the Jewish historical narrative. Home, exile and redemption were rejected as the classical Jewish narrative. The future of American Jewry was linked entirely with the future of America.” To clarify his observations further, Gordis explained that many mid-century Jews did not see the creation of Israel as a purely Zionistic enterprise, but a practical solution for the millions of Jews displaced by the second World War.
What seems to concern Gordis most, however, is the current tension between old-style Zionists and young Jewish liberals. To illustrate his point, he turned to the writer and thinker Peter Beinart. As things currently stand, charges of dual loyalty have receded into the past for young American Jews. Nor do they still fixate on whether Israel should be the center of the Jewish universe. Their dilemma is reflected in a different kind of struggle—loyalty to humanity versus loyalty to one’s people; one’s loyalty to the Jewish state or one’s loyalty to liberal values. Beinart posits that these opposing views are in contention with one another.
Gordis ended his talk where he began: with Jewish millennials. Their objection to Israel, he said, “is not about dual loyalties or Israel’s role as the center of the Jewish world. The battle now is about the fundamental idea of the Jewish state that is at odds with liberal values that are now the religion of young American Jews.”