n June 2007, the American Jewish World Service held a massive fundraising gala headlined by Bill Clinton to support its philanthropic work, which, at the time, was centered on the genocide in Darfur. When Clinton finished his speech, he hopped off the front of the stage and embraced Elie Wiesel. The symbolism could not have been clearer; “Never Again” might as well have been in flashing neon lights above the Lincoln Center hall.
As the editor of a Jewish newspaper at the time, I attended the event and gave it fairly prominent placement in the paper. Almost immediately, complaints started pouring in along these lines: Imagine how much money the AJWS could have raised for our brothers and sisters in Israel, who were still recovering from the previous summer’s two-front war that saw rockets raining on Israeli population centers from Gaza and south Lebanon and forced many Israelis to spend the summer in bomb shelters.
Our readers, it turned out, were far from the only ones made uncomfortable by the American Jewish community’s philanthropic scope, as epitomized by AJWS. Michael N. Barnett, international-affairs and political-science professor at George Washington University, was moved to write The Star and the Stripes, a history of American Jews and their views on foreign policy, by the Darfur campaign as well.
“This might be the first book ever conceived as a result of driving kids to religious school,” he writes of his surprise at seeing that his temple’s banner in support of Israel had been replaced by one that said “Save Darfur.” It got him wondering about the priorities of American Jews, touched off by the AJWS’s distinctive humanitarian campaigns—which are by Jews and of Jews but not for Jews.
Barnett wants to understand how the tension in Judaism between particularism and universalism—or tribalism vs. cosmopolitanism, as he often states it—has played itself out with regard to American foreign policy from the time of the founding. And what he finds is that until the establishment of the State of Israel, American Jews spent nearly two centuries watching in horror as their co-religionists were wiped out.
Barnett notes that the Jews of Europe began feeling less powerless in the wake of the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, when “the European governments at the Congress of Vienna received an appeal from German Jews to maintain the rights they had gained under French occupation. From this moment on, the Jewish Problem was discussed at every major European multilateral gathering, and, during each and every conversation, Jews, often represented by new transnational bodies such as the AIU and the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden, pushed the European powers to restore, extend, and enforce the rights of citizenship to Jews in illiberal lands.”
Appealing to humanitarianism dominated the approach of the Jewish community from then on. And a pattern was established: New efforts to oppress Jews, and new acts of mass violence against Jews, would lead to Jewish activism in response. That pattern would assert itself with Eastern European anti-Semitism throughout the 19th century, culminating in the pogroms in the 1880s in the Russian Empire following the assassination of Czar Nicholas I in 1881. The pogroms were appalling in their wanton violence, as if the public had been building up reserves of Jew-hatred until the bottle was finally uncorked.
It was a watershed moment for America as well. Until this point, American (non-Orthodox) Jews were guided by what Barnett terms “prophetic Judaism”—in which they assumed that their communal role was to live among the Gentiles as a kind of external conscience. The Jew was there to encourage the better angels of his host’s nature, and to serve as the canary in the coal mine, since how a nation treats its Jews is a barometer for its civic health. Prophetic Judaism led by example and was far less concerned with rituals and history than with ethical mascotry.
Without abandoning prophetic Judaism, American Jews were finally convinced by the pogroms that universalist humanitarianism—securing rights for Jews by securing the rights of ethnic minorities in general—wasn’t going to be enough to save their brethren. In 1906, Jewish-American banker Jacob Schiff called a gathering of prominent American Jews to plan the formation of what would, a few months later, become the American Jewish Committee, an unprecedented organizing of American Jewish clout in the advocacy for and protection of global Jewry. “The AJC,” Barnett writes, “became one of the most important Jewish organizations in the country and arguably the most important foreign-policy voice for American Jews for the next several decades.” (It also founded and published this magazine until 2007.)
American Jews had prospered and matured to the point where they were ready to accept the responsibility of serving as their brothers’ keeper. This led to a kind of Jewish Wilsonianism, in Barnett’s view: They sought to make the world safe for Jews where they were. Barnett attributes part of this to snobbishness—Western European Jews (mostly Germans, like Schiff and Adolph Ochs and others) were “embarrassed” by their unrefined Eastern cousins and wanted them to stay put. This interpretation is profoundly niggling. Aside from the fact that their embarrassment did not prevent Schiff and the others from making enormous and expensive efforts to help immigrant Jews in the United States, these leading American Jews were also trying to avoid reinforcing the idea that there was no place for Jews in Europe. They wanted to serve as living proof that Jewish assimilation into Christian populaces was possible and, if their own success was any indication, desirable.
In this respect, they were mirroring the attitudes of cultivated Jews in (parts of) Western Europe, who were basking in the spoils of the Enlightenment and the possibilities of their “emancipation” from their religious and social roots. It was a devil’s bargain: The Jews could be freed from second-class citizenry (or worse), but only if they simultaneously freed themselves from the bonds of their faith, or at least the outward practice of it.
As World War I dawned, “the Jewish Problem entered its bloodiest chapter.” After the war, in the middle of the bloody nationalism of the interwar years, Jews would again be prime targets.
A great many prominent American Jews were less than pleased and took to thundering against what Barnett calls the “Zionist threat.” Isaac Mayer Wise, the leading rabbi in the United States, dismissed Herzl’s “Ziomania.” In 1898, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations declared: “We are unalterably opposed to political Zionism. The Jews are not a nation, but a religious community. Zion was a precious possession of the past, the early home of our faith where our prophets uttered their world-subduing thoughts and our psalmists sang their world-enchanting hymns. As such, it is a holy memory, but it is not our hope of the future. America is our Zion.”
American Jews were finding acceptance, and Zionism rocked the boat. Their goal remained making the world safe for Jews. But the world would not cooperate. As World War I dawned, “the Jewish Problem entered its bloodiest chapter.” After the war, in the middle of the bloody nationalism of the interwar years, Jews would again be prime targets, murdered by the tens of thousands. All the noble efforts at humanitarian universalism—the Paris Peace Conference, the failed League of Nations—ended with the Second World War and the Holocaust. It is no wonder American Jews became increasingly open to Zionism.
One man who played an outsize role in this was Louis Brandeis, who would later serve with distinction on the Supreme Court. Brandeis took a somewhat novel approach to his advocacy. He argued that Zionism didn’t just need American Jews; American Jews needed Zionism. To pretend otherwise was to deny a crucial part of their identity. Brandeis was a perfect example of a Jew living the American dream, and yet he was a Zionist. Almost single-handedly, he made Zionism safe for American Jewry: You could be a great American and a Zionist, and you wouldn’t spontaneously combust or get blacklisted.
Brandeis helped move the ball downfield, but Zionism would not succeed in time to prevent the Shoah. In 1948, with American-Jewish nudging and nagging, the State of Israel was born and recognized immediately by President Harry Truman. Even then, American Jews were still not quite ready to embrace Zionism. “The Holocaust and the creation of Israel realized every single fantasy, both phantasmic and redemptive, that Jews had privately held and publicly shared for centuries—and now they fused into a single moment,” Barnett writes astutely. “If American Jews had responded to this rapid-fire sequence of destruction and creation by becoming mistrustful, reconsidering the permanence of the American promise and buying real estate in Israel, it would have been understandable. In fact, they did just the opposite.”
It is startling to be reminded of the fact, but Barnett does so: In less than a decade after Israel’s founding, Zionist membership in America declined by 75 percent. American-Jewish financial support for Israel fell by 40 percent.
But then everything did change, for reasons both positive and negative. Universalism, Barnett says, ebbed, and tribalism surged. The positive cause was Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, a seemingly miraculous turn of events that began with the Jews encircled by Arab armies and that ended less than a week later with the reunification of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty.
The Jews survived an attempted annihilation. How? They had an army of their own at last. Jews always knew they could never depend on others to save them, that they had to depend on themselves and one another. And they did so by force of arms. They rejoiced. They had finally cracked the code for Jewish survival. The Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi describes the feeling in Like Dreamers, his astonishing 2013 book on Israeli life after the Six-Day War: “It was impossible, but here they were, sovereign again in Jerusalem, just as Jews had always prayed for and believed would happen. Strangers smiled at each other: We are the ones who made it to the end of the story.”
How could American Jews remain unmoved? Answer: They couldn’t. They too swelled with pride. And, simultaneously, were deflated by disappointment. Jews had thrown themselves into the struggle for minority rights around them, the capstone of which was the civil-rights movement. The picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King Jr. became a cherished image for American Jews and one they have never forgotten. But in very short order African Americans did forget, or so it seemed. When Israel’s back was to the wall, the friends Jews had sought to cultivate were nowhere to be found: “American Jewry gazed upon these events with a frightful sense of déjà vu. Just as before, murderous anti-Semitic forces were gathering and advertising their intentions, and the world was shrugging its collective shoulders.”
The victory in the Six-Day War would plant the seeds for the current American-Jewish left’s disenchantment with Israel. A new generation of Diaspora Jews arose, and they did not know Israel the weak, only Israel the strong. They do not remember waking up in 1967 or 1973 in tears praying that Israel still existed, that the Jews hadn’t been wiped out while they were sleeping. They see Israel’s victory in 1967 as legitimate but not its ensuing stewardship over the land it won in that defensive war or the settlement project that followed in which Jews returned to the land east of the Jordan River. (Gaza too, though Israel’s occupation of the Strip ended definitively in 2005.)
American Jews are also, famously, liberal. And today American Jewish leftism is driven by a myopic adulteration of the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. It has been subsumed by generic Western leftism, a grievance industry that regards Jews as enjoying the illegitimate fruits of white privilege. Jews are the oppressors in this warped view.
And Barnett, alas, seems to believe it, too. One point of conflict between American Jews and Israel, he says, is the concept of religious freedom. America’s pluralist tradition venerates religious liberty, while Israel privileges Orthodox Judaism over other branches and other traditions.
This is undoubtedly true, and there is vast room for improvement, to say the least. And the Israeli rabbinate has almost papal influence over certain elements of Diaspora Jewry as well, most notably conversion. American Jews are well within their rights to protest.
But Barnett also exaggerates, and his argument quickly becomes cartoonish. On the issue of religious liberty, he says Israel “has much more in common with many of its neighbors in the Middle East than it does with Western democracies such as the United States.” Which neighbors—Egypt? Gaza? Jordan? Syria? Turkey? Does Barnett think being a non-Orthodox Jew is easier in those countries than in Israel? Does he think being a religious or ethnic minority is easier in those authoritarian Islamic police states than being a minority in Israel? One hopes not, but then, why write it?
Moreover, American Jews were broadly supportive of Barack Obama just as they are broadly supportive of the Democratic Party. And yet to suggest that the Democratic Party in the age of Obama is anything but hostile to religious liberty is preposterous. The American left wants not freedom of religion but freedom from religion—and the two are not the same thing.
Barnett at times resorts to outright falsehood to make his case. He says it’s nearly impossible for a Christian or a Muslim to be an Israeli nationalist. His proof: “The very fact that only Jews (with the exception of the Druze) can serve in the Israeli army speaks to the segregation.” This is factually incorrect: Christians and Muslims can and do serve in the IDF. They aren’t forced to, however. You might think Barnett would approve of such liberty. In fact he doesn’t seem to know it exists.
Barnett also routinely exaggerates Israel’s democratic faults while underplaying global threats to the Jews. For example, he attempts to answer his own question about what might bring Jewish solidarity back in vogue: “In the future it might be a Europe that abandoned its Jews to the new anti-Semitism, an Israel that became surrounded by radical Islamic forces actively attempting to destroy it, or an Israel that made the Arabs second-class citizens or attempted to cleanse the territories of non-Jews.”
But these threats he posits as a disquieting possibility are already a reality! Only Israel’s potential future crimes remain hypothetical. What’s more, anti-Semitism is becoming increasingly acceptable in America, and it’s likely to become far more so in the coming years as American college campuses unashamedly incubate and excuse rank Jew-hatred, training the next generation of American politicians and professionals in the theory and practice of overt bigotry.
But Barnett is right in at least one reassuring way: The history of the relationship tends to be cyclical, with peaks and valleys as events paddle the U.S.-Israel pinball about. Yesterday’s Jewish Zio-skeptics (and in some cases, outright anti-Zionists) are remembered as cranks who failed to stop the tide of Jewish solidarity. It’s the Brandeises whom history views as visionary. If history is any guide, groups like J Street, as well as those American Jews running down Israel’s reputation and advocating boycotts or partial boycotts of the Jewish state, will be remembered as obstacles Israel overcame in its continuing quest to make the world safe for Jews.