The universalist impulse and Israel's being

A PALESTINIAN boy is carried as he looks at the scene of an Israeli air strike, south of Gaza City, March 2018 (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS)
A PALESTINIAN boy is carried as he looks at the scene of an Israeli air strike, south of Gaza City, March 2018
It’s not often that the entire State of Israel goes through two air-raid drills within a 12-hour period, as it did last week. In fact, I cannot remember the last time that the Home Front Command ordered such an exercise. In many ways, the exercise is routine, and in others, it is not.
No one doubts that the winds of war are beginning to blow in our region; the Israeli press is abuzz with reports that the IDF is busily preparing for a possible war on multiple fronts. In retrospect, we may come to see Israel’s downing of an Iranian drone over Israeli territory and Syria’s subsequent downing of an Israeli jet fighter as the first skirmish in a war about to erupt.
Time will tell.
Should such a war break out, it will be a war not over territory but over Israel’s very survival. Iran has, for decades, announced its intention to destroy the Zionist “germ” in the Middle East, and it has been making steady inroads into Syria and Lebanon. The vacuum created by the absence of American military might in this region, a vacuum fostered by both the Obama and Trump administrations, has allowed Iran to position itself much closer to Israel’s borders, while Russia’s Putin limits Israel’s options with virtually no American pushback. The situation is explosive.
SHOULD WAR erupt, how will the American-Jewish community respond? Obviously, the days of wall-to-wall American Jewish support for Israel, of the sort we saw in 1967 and 1973, are long gone. If Israel preempts (as it did in 1967), right-wing American Jews will rally around the Jewish state, but what about progressives? Will they acknowledge that a state has a moral obligation to protect its citizens before rockets rain down on many of its cities, or will they accuse Israel of aggression? Israel has announced that if Hezbollah attacks, Israel will reduce Southern Lebanon to rubble, so that Hezbollah is finished once and for all. How might we expect American-Jewish progressives to respond then? Sadly, we know. During Israel’s 50-day 2014 war in Gaza, Hamas fired some 4,800 rockets at Israel, which even Amnesty International (normally no friend of Israel) called a war crime. How did American Jewish progressives respond? Some of them, even as the war was being fought, established IfNotNow, an organization dedicated to “ending the war on Palestine” (but notably not on Israel) and which said explicitly that it could take “no stand on statehood” (meaning Jewish statehood).
WHAT HAS changed? many people ask. Contrary to what we usually imagine, not much. Despite a bubble of passionate support for Israel between 1967 and the 1982 massacre in Sabra and Shatilla, the truth is that the roots of American-Jewish distaste for Israel antedate even the Jewish state itself. Examples abound.
The Reform movement’s Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 stated, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine....” The Reform movement has changed somewhat since then, but the universalist impulse of American-Jewish life, which prefers to see Judaism as a religion and not as an ethnicity or people (thereby making a Jewish state exceedingly problematic), has not given ground.
Joseph Proskauer, president of the American Jewish Committee (which is also dramatically different today), said in January 1948, as the Jewish state was on the verge of being established, “Since we hold that in the United States as in all other countries Jews, like all others of their citizens, are nationals of those nations and of no other, there can be no political identification of Jews outside of Palestine with whatever government may there be instituted.”
American Jews could identify with Jews in Palestine, but not with a Jewish state.
That antipathy to Israel continued even with Jacob Blaustein, who succeeded Proskauer at the AJC. The Committee, he wrote in 1950, had cooperated with the establishment of the Jewish state, “in the conviction that it was the only practicable solution for some hundreds of thousands of the surviving Jews of Europe.”
Nowhere was there mention of the fulfillment of a dream thousands of years old. Nowhere was there reference to a renewed flourishing of Jewish and Hebrew culture. Israel would be a solution for the displaced persons – whom many American Jews had no desire to welcome to their own shores.
So powerful has the universalist drive of American Judaism been that, in extreme cases, it has even contributed to attacks on Jews. American Jewish Bundists, after the 1929 Arab riots which destroyed the centuries- old Hebron Jewish community, came to the defense of the Arab attackers.
Today’s universalists are perhaps more muted, and the Reform movement, AJC and others have changed dramatically, but the instinctive antipathy of American- Jewish progressives to the very idea of Jewish sovereignty is not all that different. Some of them recognize that, many do not.
That is the real reason for the lambasting of Israel by many young American Jews who spend much more time worrying about Palestinians than they do about the African-Americans or Native Americans in their own communities. Ultimately, their cause is not justice for all; their cause is an assault on Jewish sovereignty, which itself is a challenge to their universalism and their need to feel utterly comfortable as Americans.
What can be done to change that? For now, probably not very much. But at least we should understand that the root cause of their critique is not Israel’s policies in the conflict or the Kotel or any related matters, but Israel’s being.
If war breaks out and Israel suffers great losses, it is likely that many progressives will not stand by our side. Should that happen, we will have every reason to be saddened, but no cause whatsoever for surprise.  The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 Book of the Year. He is now writing a book on the relationship between American Jews and Israel.