Should American Jews care about Israel?

Allan C. Brownfeld of the American Council for Judaism and pundit Pamela Geller share their views on Israel's influence in U.S. Jewish life. Photo:

OCALA, Fla., October 3, 2013 — The question of Zionism’s role in twenty-first century America continues to press itself.

While many of those with extreme political ideologies speak of Zionism in heated terms, it has a fairly simple definition: The desire for a Jewish state, the continued support of that state, and policies which encourage Jewish emigration to said state.

SEE RELATED: Does Zionism help or hurt Jews in the Diaspora?

This state is Israel.

Over the last several years, free birthright trips to Israel for American Jews have become quite popular. These trips build sympathy for Zionism. What can be said about them?

“Since its founding in 1999, the Birthright Israel program has sent more than 260,000 young Jews from around the world to Israel at a cost of more than $600 million,” explains Allan C. Brownfeld, publications editor at the American Council for Judaism. His longstanding group has opposed ethnocentric Jewish politics since its founding in the 1940s.  

“The goal,” he continues, “in the words of co-founder Charles Bronfman is ‘the selling of Jewishness to Jews.’  His partner in founding Birthright, Michael Steinhardt, who describes himself as an atheist, says that identification with Israel is ‘a substitute for theology.’”

SEE RELATED: Does Zionism help or hurt Jews in the Diaspora?

Later, Brownfeld remarks that “Birthright seeks to tie its participants not to Judaism, but to Israel, which it proclaims to be their ‘homeland.’  

“What would we think if other religious groups sponsored trips for their young people which urged them to identify with and emigrate to another country?  It is as if the Episcopal Church or the Presbyterian Church, concerned about declining membership, sent young people to England or Scotland to rejuvenate their faith.  If they did, one supposes, they would expect them to return home and join local churches–-not emigrate.”

Pamela Geller, one of America’s most vociferous Jewish political pundits, disagrees: “I love [Birthright Israel trips]. Why shouldn’t American Jews come to know and love their ancestral homeland?”

Beyond Birthright Israel, the line between Jewish religious ethics and an Israeli national identity has become blurred in American politics. What is going on here?

SEE RELATED: ENGELHARD: Losing Israel peace by peace

“The Israeli government,” Brownfeld tells, “sadly, has never recognized that Jewish Americans are very much at home and are not ‘Israelis in exile.’  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly called upon American Jews to make a ‘mass aliya’ (emigration) to Israel.  No other foreign government argues that millions of Americans, because of their religion, are in “exile” in the United States and that their “real” homeland is that foreign country.  

“While we wish Israel well and hope for a lasting peace in the Middle East, we believe that Israel should content itself with being the government of its own citizens.

“Some Jewish groups, in our view, have engaged in a form of idolatry by placing Israel, rather than God, at the center of Jewish life.  For religious organizations to be engaged in political activity, such as promoting military attacks upon Syria and Iran, is to dangerously confuse the realm of religion and politics.  

“It has corrupted Judaism.  As one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, Abraham Joshua Heschel (who accompanied Martin Luther King 50 years ago at the March on Washington) said:  ‘Judaism is not a religion of space and does not worship the soil.  So, too, the State of Israel is not the climax of Jewish history, but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people and the competence of Judaism.’”

Geller challenges the question itself: “Are you saying that support for Israel has become part and parcel of Jewish religious ethics? I disagree. Look at the overwhelming percentage of Jews who voted for Obama, despite his career-long identification with foes of Israel. And on the other side, isn’t the overwhelming evangelical support for Israel a refutation of the idea that Zionism is merely a Jewish issue?”

Irrespective of one’s views on these issues, both Birthright Israel and Israeli identity among diaspora Jews speak to the heart of concern over sociocultural assimilation.

Brownfeld believes that there really isn’t much to fear.

“In a free and open society such as ours, religion is part of an open marketplace of ideas,” he says. “If Judaism is relevant and meaningful, it will retain members, and attract new ones.  Some Jewish groups express concern about the growth of inter-faith marriage and some have even called it a ‘silent holocaust.’  

“This is an unfortunate response to the challenges of living in freedom, as if the ghetto walls of medieval Europe were preferable because they kept the group together.  Judaism is moving toward being more open and welcoming, which is a good thing, although this subject is not the focus of the ACJ’s attention.”

Geller has a quite different perspective.

“Israel was founded by non-religious Jews,” she begins. “Sociocultural assimilation is a problem but has never been absolutely correlated to anti-Zionism. Many Jews are concerned about sociocultural assimilation; are sociocultural assimilation and a love of freedom mutually exclusive? 

“The orthodox betrayers of Jews and Israel, the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta, are hardly assimilated, but they still work with Israel’s enemies who want a new genocide of the Jews. Neturei Karta stand with ‘Palestinians’ calling for annihilation of Israel. They have gone to Iran and met with the former President of the Islamic Republic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for “the cancer” of Israel to be ‘wiped off the map.’

“There is nothing Jewish or righteous about these imposters in Jewish garb.”

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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