Does Zionism help or hurt Jews in the Diaspora?

Allan C. Brownfeld of The American Council for Judaism and political pundit Pamela Geller have very different views. Photo: Associated Press

OCALA, Fla., October 2, 2013 — One of the most controversial issues facing the international community is Zionism.

These days, the word gets thrown around quite often, almost always by those who have strong opinions on the matter. Stripping away any political agendas, Zionism is the philosophy of building and supporting a Jewish state. While certain religions such as Roman Catholicism have a nation to call their own, Zionism takes the matter to an entirely different level.

It calls for Israel to be the home of every Jew, and extends from a strictly theological perspective to the realm of culture and ethnicity. With all of the religious, ethnic, and nationalistic differences among Jews, such a thing generates a treasure trove of opinions.

In America, Zionism was opposed by the majority-Reform Jewish community for generations. This has changed over the last few decades, though.

“For Reform Jews, the idea of Zionism contradicted almost completely their belief in a universal Judaism,” explains political columnist Allan C. Brownfeld. “The first Reform prayer book eliminated references to Jews being in exile and to a Messiah who would miraculously restore Jews throughout the world to the historic land of Israel and who would rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem.  The prayer book eliminated all prayers for a return to Zion.”

Brownfeld is the publications editor at the American Council for Judaism, one of our country’s longstanding Jewish-interest political groups. He says that the Council “opposes the Zionist philosophy of Jewish nationalism which holds that Israel is the ‘homeland’ of all Jews and  that Jews living outside of Israel are in ‘exile.’   

“It is the Council’s view, which we believe represents the thinking of the majority of American Jews, that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality.  American Jews are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Catholic, Protestant or Muslim.

“The Council has been advocating this view for more than 70 years–but this belief is much older than that.  In 1841, at the dedication ceremonies of Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski declared:  ‘This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple.’”

Of course, a perspective like this has its counterpoints.

“Zionism is only a controversial issue because its opponents have made it so,” states Pamela Geller, one of America’s most outspoken Jewish political pundits. “The Jews have a historical claim to the land of Israel. Contrary to myth, they began returning long before the Holocaust, bought the land fair and square, and were determined to live in peace with their neighbors. The Arab leaders called on the Arabs to leave the area in 1948, thinking they would return in peace when Israel was annihilated. They were wrong. 

“After centuries of persecution, subjugation and oppression, the international mandate of the White Paper and San Remo a Jewish homeland is an absolute right, a human right. 

“[According to the Council on Foreign Relations,] (t)he San Remo Resolution ‘agreement between post-World War I allied powers (Britain, France, Italy, Japan) was adopted on April 25, 1920 during the San Remo Conference. The Mandate for Palestine was based on this resolution; it incorporated the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the Covenant of the League of Nation’s Article 22. Britain was charged with establishing a ‘national home for the Jewish people.’’ 

“Nonetheless, antisemites and their useful idiots viciously fight this still, almost a hundred years later. There are scores of Muslim countries - scores. Why is that sanctioned, but not one tiny Jewish state?”

Some say that by replacing Jewish religious philosophy with a nationalistic focus on Israel, diaspora Jews will not fully partake in the societies where they were born. Is this true? 

“It is important to remember that Zionism is a rather recent phenomenon in Jewish life.  Prior to the mid-20th century, the overwhelming majority of Jews rejected Zionism,” Brownfeld tells. 

He later says that “American Jews, in the very fabric of their lives, reject the Zionist philosophy which some in the organized Jewish community proclaim in their name. Jews have been an integral part of America from its earliest days, and never suffered the disabilities their ancestors endured in Europe….When George Washington led an expedition in 1754 to warn the French away from the Falls of Ohio, two Jews, Michael Franks and Jacob Myers, accompanied him.

“Thomas Jefferson credited a Jew, Dr, John de Sequeyra, with introducing the custom of eating tomatoes, which previously had been grown only as ornamental plants. Jews have been engaged in every event in American history, from Valley Forge to the Alamo to Normandy.

“The Zionist narrative of Jewish history, largely crafted in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries exhibited no knowledge or understanding of the Jewish experience in America.  

“As ideas of Jewish nationalism began to emerge in Europe, the leader of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, speaking of Theodor Herzl and the nascent movement, declared:  ‘We denounce the whole question of a Jewish state as foreign to the spirit of the modern Jew in this land, who looks upon America as his Palestine and whose interests are centered here.’ 

“Since most American Jews reject the Zionist view of Jewish nationalism, they are, and will remain, full participants in every aspect of American society.”

Geller’s opinion is different for the most part, yet bears one striking similarity: “Why ‘replace’? Why are they mutually exclusive? This would only be true if the values of Jewish religious philosophy were incompatible with those of the larger society. This has never been true in the U.S., where Jews have participated in the life of the nation from the beginning.”

Far-left? Far-right? Get realRead more from “The Conscience of a Realist” by Joseph F. Cotto 


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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