American Jews and Israel: authors in dialogue

October 4, 2019

Though rifts between Israeli and American Jews have possibly never been higher, the tensions are anything but new or simple, according to a dialogue between Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies Dr. Jonathan Sarna (NEJS), and Senior Vice President of Shalem College in Jerusalem Dr. Daniel Gordis, writer of the book “We Stand Divided: the Rift between American Jews and Israel” on Thursday afternoon. 

After a brief introduction of the two speakers, Dr. Sarna began the talk by calling attention to an older text called “We Are One!” by Mel Yurovsky. The title mirrors a once common sentiment in Jewish culture, but this sense of togetherness has since been replaced by Dr. Gordis’ contemporary slogan “We are Divided.” 

“We are one Jewish people, but we face a very serious rift that we should try to bridge, which was the purpose of the book,” said Dr. Gordis after stating that “We are One and We are Divided are not mutually exclusive.” 

Much of Dr. Gordis’ speech attempted to clarify many of the polarized talking points that plague the American-Israeli cultural dialogue. Early in the talk, Dr. Gordis placed much emphasis on the idea that the current divide is not a direct result of the Jewish occupation of Israel. 

“The conventional wisdom can’t be right because this battle predates occupation, predates conflict with the Palestinians,” said Dr. Gordis.

Dr. Sarna responded to this with a summary of Jewish migratory history. He stated that if he were to write a book about this subject, he would call it “Promised Land Versus Golden Land,” alluding to the choice that many Eastern European Jews faced between resettling in America or the region surrounding the Holy Land. Dr. Sarna said that “80 percent [of Jews] actually chose America.” He went on to explain that the first year that Jewish movement to Israel surpassed movement to America was in 1925, the year after America imposed the Johnson-Reed act restricting mass immigration.

“In my personal opinion . . . had America said we will take in all Jews forever, wherever they live, whenever they want to come through the golden door, I have my doubts . . . whether there would be a state of Israel,” said Dr. Sarna.

The talk then turned to the chief differences, politically and culturally, between Israelis and Americans. In answering the question “Why are we so different?” Dr. Gordis explained that “the countries have fundamentally different purposes . . . American Jews are Americans, Israeli Jews are Israelis.”

“We have pretended for a long time that Israel was a kind of Hebrew speaking, falafel eating version of the United States in a very bad neighborhood,” said Dr. Gordis. The two populations of Jews are divided ideologically between American “Pluralism” and Israeli “Zionism,” Dr. Gordis continued.

Where Jewish liberalism has a strong political footing in America, Dr. Sarna explains that liberalism across the Atlantic in Israel has largely been erased as a result of the Holocaust and then the Second Antifada. The ’90s marked a time of peace in Israel, but according to Dr. Sarna, “[The Second Intifada] destroyed liberalism in Israel.” American Jews in 1948, and again in 2000, were largely unable to grasp the impact of these tragedies on European and Isreali Jews.

Dr. Gordis concluded the discussion portion of the talk by stating that “the idea that either one of these two communities can do without the other is beyond foolish.” It is not only American dollars that the Israelis require, explained Dr. Gordis, but that, without American influence, “[Israel] has a danger of moral callousness, it has a danger of ethnocentrism.” 

At the core of Israeli colleges and universities are “American ideas,” said Dr. Gordis. In return, Israel can provide American Jews with “a sense of purpose.” “Israel enriched American Jewish Culture,” said Dr. Gordis, “We desperately need each other.”

The talk was set to begin at 5:30 p.m. in the Mandel Reading Room, but the space reached capacity while an equal amount of attendees waited outside to be seated. “We somewhat underestimated all the enthusiasm for Dr. Daniel Gordis!” said Dr. Sarna. The event was quickly relocated to Olin Sang (nearly filling the hall), and the talk was underway before 6 p.m. The talk was followed by a round of questions.

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