The state of Israel in America (Part 1 of 3)

By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

My heart is in the East
by Yehuda HaLevy (Toledo, Spain 1085 – 1140)
My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West;
How can I taste what I eat and how could it be pleasing to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I am in the chains of Arabia?
It would be easy for me to leave all the bounty of Spain –
As it is precious for me to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

In 1815, Mordecai Manuel Noah was removed from his position as American Ambassador to Tunis by then Secretary of State James Monroe, citing Noah’s religion as “an obstacle to the exercise of [his] Consular function.” In 1825, with little support from even his fellow Jews, and as a precursor to modern Zionism, Noah tried to found a Jewish “refuge” or sovereign entity at Grand Island in the Niagara River. It was to be called “Ararat,” after Mount Ararat, the Biblical resting place of Noah’s Ark (all narcissism aside). He purchased land for $4.38 per acre to be used as a refuge for Jews of all nations. A cornerstone was placed there, which read, “Ararat, a City of Refuge for the Jews, founded by Mordecai M. Noah in the Month of Tishri, 5586 (September, 1825) and in the Fiftieth Year of American Independence.”

Needless to say, Noah’s radical reactionary vision never took and we are all left to wonder ‘what if…’? Sadly, this precursor to the Territorialist camp of political Zionism never made it onto the short list of other ideas floated for Jewish sovereignty, including Argentina, Madagascar, Birobidzhan, and Uganda. Noah’s pipe dream of founding a Jewish State near Niagara never came to fruition, and the Jews of [North] America pledge allegiance to either her majesty’s branch (in the North) or to any one of the 50 United States of America. Just a century and a quarter after Noah’s failed attempt at Jewish political sovereignty, the family of nations was blessed with a Jewish State.

Fast forward 66 years. The United States houses the second largest Jewish community in the world. Many of its members do not aggressively seek to live in a Jewish society. Even more Jews find their connection to the Jewish State a source of controversy and divisiveness. Some have taken the extreme measure of sidelining and silencing all debate and discussion on Israel in order to stave off any potential uncomfortable confrontation, while others search for new and creative ways to engage, educate, and advocate for Israel.

The fact of the matter is that when living in the United States (or anywhere outside Israel), one is not faced with having to constantly think about and contemplate the issues facing the Jewish State. However, for a loud and present group, one’s stance on Israel and its issues serves as a litmus test for belonging to and remaining an active member of the Jewish community. Let us take, as a case study, the recent vote for J Street’s admission into the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. The secret ballot has now been outed and we know who voted and how. My thoughts on this are that we, as Zionists, need to do all that we can to include those who care about Israel – not alienate them. It occurs to me that we should all worry far less about how others engage with Israel, and confront the more daunting issue of the great masses of American Jewry who simply don’t engage at all.

This is a precious moment and an unparalleled opportunity to step up and be proud that we have diverse opinions (as we always have), and to say that part of being a Reform Jew is to care deeply and passionately about what happens in the Jewish State. Perspective never hurts either, and we must take into consideration that few Israelis have heard of this past fortnight’s vote, and don’t really put all that much stock into what appears to be much ado about nothing.

In terms of Israel activity on our side of the pond, I think that many Israelis are asking the following questions: Do American Jews care about us here in Israel? Are all American Jews going to come on aliyah to Israel or are they at least wrestling with the idea (even though when all is said and done they may not)? Do we [Israelis] have anything to gain by viewing the American Jewish community as more than one large ATM? What would it look like to separate religion from State, and what if our existential threats were slightly diminished, allowing us to worry about other matters?

While some of the answers to these questions are complicated and some are straightforward, Zionism, right now, has to be about getting our two heads (Israel and North America) onto one body and working together. While I look up from Haaretz or YNet sometimes, I gaze dreamily, wishing that Manuel Noah had been successful, saving us all a lot of tsuris (troubles, suffering). Then I hum a few bars of Ehud Manor’s classic “Ein Li Eretz Acheret” (I have no Other Country), and realize that despite what some of the classical Reformers believed, America is not the Promised Land. It is upon us to be thoughtful Zionists, engaged and willing to put in some work so that we can firmly state that the Jewish State is for us and all Jews.

To be continued…

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).


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