OCALA, Fla., August 8, 2014 — The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine has renewed tensions over Zionism not just in Middle Eastern countries, but the United States.
Last October, long before the present crisis began, Pew Research found that “[American] Jews’ feelings for Israel are equaled or even exceeded by those of white evangelical Protestants.” 82 percent of these Protestants “say that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God”, while 40 percent of Jews held the same belief.
Even then, support for religious Zionism was largely defined by which denomination of Judaism one belongs to. 84 percent of Orthodox Jews agreed with white evangelicals, as did 54 percent of Conservative Jews. In the Reform community, support plummeted to 35 percent. Only 24 percent of Nondenominational Jews agreed with the idea of a Jewish divine right to Israel.
In late July, the advocacy group Jewish Voices for Peace released an Internet video condemning human rights violations supposedly committed by Israeli forces. The video depicted celebrities, including feminist academic Gloria Steinem, film director Jonathan Demme, and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, protesting violence against Palestinians.
“Israeli leaders seem sincere when they say they believe that their actions are appropriate. Apparently, one of ‘us’ is worth many more of them,” veteran actor, essayist, and playwright Wallace Shawn said in a press release. “American leaders know they are lying when they defend the murder of children in their beds. And we, the public, pay for the bombs, pay for the airplanes, and pretend not to notice what’s going on.”
Shawn, while narrating the video, claimed that “(f)or decades, Palestinians have endured statelessness, occupation, dispossession, and a lack of basic rights while Israel has steadily taken their land and denied their freedom. Holding the people of Gaza under a seven-year siege has only brought more suffering, not peace.”
According to JVP, from July 7 to July 18 alone, Israel ended the lives of more than 250 Palestinians. All of these fatalities occurred in the Gaza Strip, and 80 percent of those killed are said to be civilians. Of the casualties, 44 apparently are children.
While it is rare to hear much in opposition to Israel among the ranks of America’s leading Jewish-interest organizations, this was not always so. Until World War II, the American Jewish establishment was decidedly anti-Zionist or, at the very least, not prone to public gestures of support for the ideology.
The Holocaust changed this completely. Its ramifications on American Jewish life were so wide-reaching that Reform Judaism, which stressed social assimilation so much that its services were often conducted on Sundays, began to take an entirely different liturgical approach.
Congregations increased the use of Hebrew, advanced arguments of ethnic Jewish peoplehood, and emphasized religious rituals thought to be long outdated, such as the bar mitzvah. Ethical universalism and an outright refutation of ethnocentrism, both of which had been central to Reform since its establishment in 19th-century Germany, were generally abandoned.
An organization called the “American Council for Judaism” was founded as a counterreformation of sorts. Not only was it opposed to prevailing liturgical shifts, but it passionately campaigned against the possibility of Israeli patriotism among American Jews. The ACJ was mainly backed by affluent, if not wealthy, native-born conservatives who lived in the South, Midwest, or Pacific West.
The ACJ never found great support among American Jews. No small number were immigrants themselves, far from financially stable, and prone to the need for ethnic identity; typically as a consequence of life in tribalistic Eastern European societies. The ACJ’s robust anti-Zionism sparked such outrage that council members sometimes kept their affiliation secret.
Ultimately, the ACJ became a pariah among most who would become the next generation of American Jewish leaders. Today, it has scant membership and is often treated as a non-entity by most American Jews, if they even know of its existence.
“You know, it’s my view that if the Nazi period had not existed, if the Holocaust had never happened, none of what we’re facing in the Middle East would occur,” Allan C. Brownfeld, a nationally syndicated columnist who serves as the ACJ’s publications editor, said on the August 3 broadcast of Cotto & Company, an online radio program. “You know, the Palestinians say, ‘Hitler killed six million Jews. This was a terrible thing. We didn’t do it. Why was our land taken from us to make up for what the Germans did to the Jews?’ This is a difficult question.
“The Holocaust has made many American Jews feel that they must support Israel whatever it does, somehow identifying the Palestinians as a group in a long line of anti-Jewish forces in history. But this is not true. You remember in 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Catholic Spain, they were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire, of which Palestine was a part. Jews and Muslims have lived peacefully for thousands of years together.
“There is no ancient enmity between Jews and Muslims, and I think as a result of the Holocaust, many Jewish attitudes have been altered … unfairly, and maybe as we get further away from that period, we will go back to a more normal and humane Jewish tradition.”
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Allan C. Brownfeld, veteran foreign policy journalist, talks about the Middle Eastern crisis on Cotto & Company.