The Zionist enterprise and American Jewry

Together we will train intelligent adults who will be able to conduct a frank and true dialogue without arrogance.

Student with laptop at Bezalel library 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Student with laptop at Bezalel library 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
At the end of the 1920s my grandfather and grandmother immigrated to Palestine from Lithuania and set up Kibbutz Afikim which lies about three kilometers south of the Zemach Junction. They were Zionists and socialists who came to the Land of Israel in order to build it and to rebuild their own lives. My grandfather tilled the land of the Jordan Valley and my grandmother worked in the communal kitchen.
As a child, I loved to spend my school holidays at the kibbutz. I enjoyed the limitless space, bicycle riding, the swimming pool, and especially the quality time I had with them. They were modest people, honest, hardworking, satisfied with the little they had, all of which embodied the very essence of the Zionist ideal. Their way of life, which I came to know at first hand, corresponded perfectly with what I learned from the history books in school. I negated the exile and thought that the Jews around the world should come to the Land of Israel and take part in its rebuilding.
When I grew up and started my studies at the Hebrew University in the history of the Jewish people department, I began to understand that the story of Zionist success was far more complex and that it had many generating factors. My grandparents, as representatives of a generation, had made an important contribution to the rebuilding and restoration of the State of Israel, but they were not alone. Behind them stood magnificent American Jewry which supported Jewish settlement in Palestine from its earliest days. I understood this for the first time when I learned of the tremendous contribution of the Jews in the United States to the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine during the First World War and the British Mandate period.
The generous funds that were raised and transferred via circuitous means by Henry Morganthau, the Jewish-American ambassador in Constantinople, saved it from extinction; the JDC that was founded in 1914 and took upon itself to assist Jews in distress throughout the world; the establishment of Hadassah and its activities in the medical field and in social work in Palestine before the founding of the State of Israel and afterwards; and the billions of dollars that flowed during all the years from Jewish- American organizations for health, welfare, education and security.
The Israeli history textbooks do not mention enough the contribution of American Jewry to the Zionist enterprise.
The influential Jewish community in the world is barely given a footnote and its activities to the Jewish Yishuv and the Israeli society is downplayed as if it never existed. The reasons for this are many and varied, but it seems to me that the main reason is that American Jewry contradicts the idea of “negation of exile” on which Zionist ideology was based. If this idea was right for European Jewry after the Holocaust, it was certainly not right for American Jewry. Through the successful integration of millions of Jewish immigrants in the United States and their absorption into the surrounding society, the story of their migration is a dramatic and fascinating accomplishment equal to the story of those who immigrated to Palestine.
THE UNITED States like the State of Israel preserved and protected its Jews. From the viewpoint of the 21st century, it may be said that the decision to migrate from Eastern Europe to Manhattan was no less good for the Jewish people than the decision of those who chose to come to Palestine and settle there.
The Jews of the United States did not retire into their own sphere, but regarded themselves – like the Zionist movement – as responsible for the fate and felicity of the Jewish people and of the Jews in Palestine.
The time has come to teach the history of Zionism as a joint enterprise in which many Jews took part, and not only those who came to Palestine and settled in it. American Jewry made a contribution that is no less important than that of my grandparents and their fellow Zionists.
The attempt to examine the Zionist project from a wider perspective that extend beyond the narrow borderlines of “Gedera to Hadera” is the historically correct one and can lead to a welcome change in the discourse of Israeli society regarding American Jewry. It seems to me that perhaps we shall no longer hear tasteless expressions such as those of David Rotem speaking arrogantly about Reform Jewry as not being Jews, and by a single pitiable statement – according to the latest Pew survey – thrusting 35 percent of American Jewry outside Judaism.
MK Rotem is not the only person who thinks so, and his words are representative of many Israelis who tend to disparage American Jewry and to regard it as an assimilated community of no worth. It may also be that had the directors of Hadassah learned a little more about the history of the organization operating in this country for nearly a hundred years, they would have made more careful use of the contributed funds, and would not have treated them as self-evident. This is Israeli arrogance at the extreme, exemplifying a culture of “you owe me.”
American Jewry is changing. The founding generation that arrived at the beginning of the previous century and that had felt a love for the settlers in the Land of Israel no longer exists. Even their children are not with us any more. The affinity of their grandchildren and great grandchildren for the State of Israel has weakened and is not what it once was.
The feelings of inferiority and esteem of the first and second generation have disappeared and are replaced by criticism toward Israel in the best case and indifference at worst. A danger lies in wait at the door of Israel. American Jewry is distancing itself from Israeli society and in certain instances is even turning its back on it. If this trend continues, the implications will be fateful and will have an impact on the social, economic and defensive strength of Israel. The weakening of ties between American Jewry and Israel is one of the most serious strategic threats that is liable to place the very existence of the State of Israel in question.
In order to bring about the desired change and to create closer ties between American Jewry and Israeli society, it is necessary to act – the sooner the better – on both the educational and research level. Schools should teach about American Jewry not only in the Zionist connection but also through exposing the students to this special community in all its variety and diversity, to its important achievements and its contribution to American society. There is much to be done in the universities as well. Anyone who casts a glance today at the map of higher education in the State of Israel will be surprised to find that there are programs for Asian, African and European studies but astonishingly no coherent study program (except for a few courses) on the study of American Jewry. In other words, there is a direct relation between the dwindling of this field of study in Israel academia and the ignorance shown by Israeli society toward American Jewry.
The Ruderman Program for American Jewry that opened this year at the University of Haifa in which 25 students are studying, is the first pioneering step, and it may be hoped that other universities will follow in the same direction. Together we will train intelligent adults who will be able to conduct a frank and true dialogue without arrogance with the largest and most important of all the Jewish communities outside the State of Israel.
The author is director of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa.