10 Years of Ten Minutes of Torah

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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10 Responses to “The state of Israel in America (Part 1 of 3)”

  1. avatar

    Rabbi Weinberg says that the great masses of American Jews don’t engage at all with Israel and he says that America is not the promised land.

    This kind of doublethink is one of the keys to the problems Israel faces. The great masses of American Jews don’t engage at all with Israel precisely because at least for them, America IS the promised land.

    We need to remember why our ancestors came to America and then look at how it has worked out. They came for acceptance, security and opportunity. All of these America has granted us in abundance.

    Yes, there is anti-Semitism, but in fact it is just not a significant factor in the lives of American Jews today.

    One of the reasons that Zionists continue to misunderstand American Jews is that they seem unable to deal with the inevitable result of our situation in America: here, a person who is Jewish is not always Jewish first! The freedom we have been granted is the freedom to make the best deal for ourselves as we see it.

    (This is the reason for the high intermarriage rate. Intermarriage is obviously not the problem; lack of compelling reason to always choose the Jewish option is the problem and intermarriage is just one result.)

    So I am left with trying to figure out how to convince many American Jews (especially younger ones)that they should care at all about being Jewish. Why should they care about Israel? How can Israel help them?

    Yes, I know that this kind of thinking is distasteful and even embarrassing to some, but it is the first thing to be considered when thinking about the lives of Jews in America. It is the reality that must be dealt with. Until you do, you will get nowhere in your quest for much greater American Jewish support for Israel.

  2. avatar

    Interesting article, some good history as well. Thanks.

    However, I disagree on your view of the Promised Land. While Israel remains our biblical version, the USA most certainly remains the Promised Land for American Jews. Nowhere else in history has our religious minority succeeded and assimilated in diaspora so successfully — without loss of identity — than under American freedoms and culture.

    It’s not perfect; either is Israel. But if the latter were more beneficial a setting for all Jews, we in America would be a severely dwindling number.

    I’m an American; I’m a Jew; I live in the Promised Land.

    Jeremy Serwer
    Woodstock, CT

  3. avatar

    The entire point of contention about J Street is that many Jews believe that J Street is a
    “Trojan Horse” a group in opposition to the Jewish nation masquerading as a pro-Israel group. If it’s true that J Street is opposed to the Jewish nation, then, of course they should be excluded from umbrella organizations which seek to protect and advance Jewish interests. What’s problematic for the author of this piece is that there is evidence that indicates that J Street is a Trojan Horse, i.e., an enemy of Israel.

  4. avatar
    Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman Reply May 14, 2014 at 9:06 am

    “Zionism, right now, has to be about getting our two heads (Israel and North America) onto one body and working together.”

    When Joshua Weinberg writes this line, he is contradicting himself. Prior to this, he argues that a group like J Street ought to be included under the “Jewish big tent” not because it represents all American Jews, but because it represents only a portion of them, and not because it supports the Israeli government but because it seems only fair to bring all parties under the tent. Rabbi Weinberg may see J Street working together with the other Jewish organizations in America and Israel, but I certainly don’t.

    I disagree with Rabbi Weinberg on not a few levels. I do not see the recent vote on J Street in the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations as anything other than a self protective act of the majority of its members to block an organization whose agenda has consistently endangered the state of Israel and its purposes. Reform Jews who care about Israel and who care about Israel’s future understand that two of the main arguments about Israel’s future, the demographic and the democratic, have by now been debunked. Jewish Israel is not losing to the Arabs in population growth. In fact, Jewish growth has been gaining over that of the Israeli Arabs whose growth rate has been shrinking. Then, too, one can argue that Israel cannot forever live apart from its Arab neighbors and continue to be safe and democratic. The fact is that this simply isn’t true. While there are those in our movement who claim that Israel cannot live as an occupier, these fear mongers do not give proper credence to the fact that the territories of Judea and Samaria, known as the West Bank, were won in a defensive war, and that Israel has removed the threat of terrorism that comprised the Second Intifada. Her citizens live in relative safety compared to that time.

    Israel doesn’t need an organization telling her that she must negotiate with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas. She doesn’t need a push to accept a U.S._Iranian deal that might enable Iran to produce a nuclear weapon almost at will and in a relatively short amount of time.

    And as far as Israel’s democracy is concerned, I believe that its legitimately elected government is performing all those duties that a duly elected body is supposed to, including a court system which just convicted a former Prime Minister of bribery. Would that the Palestinian Authority so so constituted and capable. This Israeli democracy isn’t threatened now; nor will it be for the foreseeable future.

    I can tell Rav Weinberg that most American Jews aren’t contemplating aliyah, but that many of us do very much care about Israel. I say this as one who is writing this while visiting in Jerusalem and who is only slightly amazed to have read his pro-J Street remarks on Ten Minutes of Torah.

  5. avatar

    It was not only the Classical Reformers who declared “America is our Zion.” Throughout Jewish history Jews have declared and made the land of their *home* to be their “promised land.” This meant all the sacrifice of confronting virulent anti-Semitism where they found themselves. This meant building glorious Jewish civilizations wherever Jews lived.

    To call America our promised land is not to fail in standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the state of Israel. We must move away from notions of “diaspora” versus eretz Israel. The notion of galut, exile, is dead. We have continuing work to do to combat anti-Semitism in the lands we call our homes. We can support our brothers and sisters in Israel, the historic roots of the Jewish people and a place where Jews live today, without articulating Jewish life outside of Israel as second-best to Jewish life in Israel. As a Jew I will never accept that premise.

    While I may stand in solidarity with my fellow Jews in Israel, and particularly remember the ideals in creating a great state, I stand in equal or greater solidarity with every Jew throughout history who sought to make their home country a place where Jews could live Jewishly.

    Let us free ourselves from this unhelpful and misguided belief that outside of Israel, we remain in exile.

  6. avatar

    The idea that ‘Zionism’ for American Jews consists of telling those who have chosen to live in the Jewish state what to do is offensive.
    I don’t believe every Jew is obliged to make aliyah, but the rockets are falling on Israel, not J Street.

  7. avatar

    Just a historical note. Noah’s plan was to rally Jews to Grand Island, NY, raise a Jewish army there, then travel to the land of Israel and conquer it. Not really a territorialist philosophy. Perhaps inspired by Napoleon’s actions in Jaffa and Akko at the end of the 18th century and then the French Emperor’s convening of the Assembly of Notables and a “Sanhedrin?” By the way, Shlichim from Eretz Yisrael were already fundraising in the American colonies before the Revolution and funds for the poor of Israel were to be found in several communities.
    [Best to my classmate, Rabbi M Weinberg]
    Lance Sussman
    Elkins Park, PA

  8. avatar

    In the early days of the Jewish State, Zionists wanted all American Jews to come to Israel essentially as cannon fodder — more bodies to militarily strengthen the Jewish state.

    Today Zionists continue to be troubled by American Judaism’s existence because it contradicts their philosophical premise: that only in Israel can Jews prosper. This hostility to American Judaism is akin to Christian’s historical hostility to Judaism: if Judaism is true, can Christianity be valid?

    The fact is that for Jews American has been the Golden Land that our ancestors imagined. It is the land where they can be safe (in fact, safer than in Israel), prosperous, and Jewish. And in America, unlike in Israel, they can be Jewish in whatever way they define being Jewish — not only in ways that the Government sanctions. In America there is no Chief Rabbi to tell us what to do, and the Rabbinate are not Government employees.

    Why are Zionists so troubled by the fact that there continue to be multiple strong centers of Jewish life in the world. At the very least, these guaranty Jewish survival regardless of the acts of some lunatics int he Middle East with access to nuclear weapons. At most, it provides multiple environments in which Judaism may develop along different paths.

    Remember that the most widely thought of Talmud was written in Babylon, not Jerusalem!

    • avatar

      Charlie has a good point, namely that it is possible for Judaism to flourish in multiple locations throughout the world, and not only in Israel. My one quibble (a relatively minor one) is his use of the term “Zionist.” I am an American Jew who happens to have close family ties to Israel. My grandfather was from Jaffa, and I have many relatives who are native-born Hebrew-speaking Israelis. While I have no intention of relocating either to Israel or anywhere else in the world, I still consider myself a Zionist, in this sense: I believe that Jews, like other peoples, have the right of self-determination and the right to govern themselves. Just as Swedes have their country, the Swiss have their country, and the Arabs have their 22 countries. I’m also aware that the term “Zionism” does not refer to a monolithic ideology. Charlie seems to be using it to refer to some monolithic bloc, which it is not.

  9. avatar

    Being a jew is not about being rich in a materialistic sense…just like in the time of hellenism then later germany we were seduced and led into assimilation by career aspirations and fitting in with the goy…at that time our people were persecuted and terrified in evil europe….I can understand reform and assimilation then,there …NOT in America…were Chabad rabbi s can walk in public safely even in hostile areas in Brooklyn..I think lazyness and arrogance as well as the pursuit of materialism is the primary cause….I go to Hillel at universites on occasion and am shocked how many young jews do not know who Hillel was or even Rambam….We need to maintain our traditions and halachic law(or at least knowledge of such) if we are to survive…Chabad is open to all Jews and Beatles who wish to learn Judaism…to me they are the most sucsessful group in hundreds of years and are growing all over the world….I studied with all types of jews and felt welcome even though I was totally secular…Lets all stay together and not divde up..Shalom

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