The Myth and the American Jewish Community

Until the 1930s, a sizeable portion of the U.S. Jewish community was skeptical, at best, about the Zionist project.  America was their promised land.   Knowledge of the Holocaust gave a great boost to support for a Jewish state.  But once that state was established in 1948, the passion for Israel subsided here.  In the 1950s, when sociologists asked Jews what made them different from gentiles, the answers they got rarely mentioned any special affinity for the state or land of Israel.  In fact, most people said that there was no special value or belief or behavior that made them different from their gentile neighbors.  The only thing that made them different was that their friends were Jews.  Being Jewish was mainly a social thing.  Jews hung out with other Jews.

These Jews did not complain a whole lot about anti-semitism either.  Many of them had experienced significant anti-semitism in the pre-World War II days.  They knew it was still around.  But they knew that things were far better than they had been, and they looked forward to even more social acceptance in the future.  So it made sense to overlook the vestiges of anti-semitism, to assume it would keep on diminishing until it gradually disappeared.

When did Jews begin to tell the myth of Israel that prevails today?  This is a rare situation where a historian of religions can point to a very precise time, in fact a precise week, when a new story became the official story of a community.  It was the second week of June, 1967, when Israel and its Arab neighbors fought a six-day war.  Jews flocked to their synagogues, not only to pray for Israel, but to inaugurate (though they did not know it) a new form of Judaism based on their new official story.  America’s most eminent historian of Judaism, Rabbi Jacob Neusner, has called this new form “the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption.”  The “Holocaust” part represent the belief that anti-semitism is an eternal threat to Jews everyone.  The “Redemption” part represents the twin beliefs that Jews have a special relationship with the land of Israel and that only in Israel can they hope to be safe, redeemed from that eternal threat.

These beliefs, and the myth built upon them, were certainly not totally new.  All of the elements had been around for a long time.   Yet those elements had not been fused so tightly into a single integrated myth.  Nor had they been so central in American Jewish life before the six-day war.  Every history of American Jewish life describes this dramatic change.  So far, there is no commonly accepted theory to explain why it happened.  So I want to offer my own theory.

Several factors came together in June, 1967.  One was a kind of emptiness in American Jewish life, a sense that no one quite knew what special values Jews were supposed to hold just because they were Jews.  For most of them it was just a matter of socializing with other Jews.  Perhaps there was an unconscious sense that Judaism ought to mean something more than that.

Of course, 1967 was a time when many people in the U.S. were beginning to explore new possibilities for meaning and identity.  Issues of individual and group identity became more urgent than before.  Our whole society was entering a brief era when everything seemed open to question.  Remember, June, 1967, wasn’t only the time of the six-day war.   It was also the beginning of San Francisco’s summer of love.  For many Americans, it was a time of cultural confusion, a time when U.S. society seemed to be falling apart.  In such a time, it is quite common that individuals and groups will seize upon one particular story that gives them a highly structured sense of meaning.  If the story seems to answer their questions and make sense out of confusing times, they will cling to it tightly, no matter what happens.

For Jews, the question of ethnic identity was especially acute.  African-Americans were asserting their right to equality more powerfully than ever before.  Some Jews had expressed their Jewish identity by working with the civil rights movement.  By 1967, many of these Jews were disturbed, or even scared, by the rise of the black power movement.  They were no longer sure that the cause of racial justice had any place for white people.  Yet they could see that it was becoming acceptable in liberal circles to assert one’s ethnic identity.  African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and native Americans were all standing up as oppressed people demanding their rights.

This placed the Jews in a real quandary.  As white people, they could easily be classed with the oppressors.  When tensions broke out in inner city ghettos, individual Jews were sometimes identified as oppressors.  This was an uncomfortable feeling, of course, especially for the many Jews who genuinely sympathized with the cause of people of color.

At the same time, the growing antiwar movement was raising another very disturbing question:  Perhaps the United States itself was not a force for freedom, but rather a force for oppression, in Vietnam.  If the U.S. was the oppressor in Vietnam, this would make all Jews, along with all other Americans, oppressors as well.  By 1967, a new story was emerging to shape the experience of all Americans as they watched the events of the day unfold.  This story said that every person was either with the oppressors or the oppressed.  In Camus’ terms, everyone was either an executioner or a victim.   It was the most fundamental moral choice, and no one could avoid making it.  So how could Jews be sure that, when oppression arose, they were on the right side?  How could they be sure they were victims and not executioners?

One possibility was to depict themselves as perpetual victims of anti-semitism.  However, American Jews did not want to believe that they would always be threatened by anti-semitism simply because they lived in the diaspora.  They hoped that anti-semitism was gradually fading away, allowing them to live fully and freely as Americans.  How could they feel fully accepted, yet still count themselves among the oppressed?

The events of June, 1967, solved that problem.  For Jews around the world, and here in the U.S., there was no doubt that the Arabs were the aggressors and Israel the victim.  By picturing Israel as a small, weak, victimized nation, and then identifying themselves with Israel, Jews could feel certain that they were among the oppressed.  They could see the U.S. as a place where Jews were increasingly accepted, but still view themselves as victims of persecution.  So American Jews “discovered” a special, almost mystical tie between every Jew and the holy land.  If they were tied to Israel, and Israel was being persecuted, they were being persecuted.  So they could not be among the persecutors.  There could be no doubt about which side of the moral divide they were on.  That question was laid to rest.

Six days later, however, a new problem had emerged.  The Israeli army had proven itself superior in every way to the Egyptians, Jordanians, and Syrians combined.  Israel now possessed not only Jerusalem, but all of the West Bank and Gaza.  In the Jewish community, it seemed obvious that this was something to celebrate.  Few people consciously addressed the problem, but it was obvious if you stopped to think about it.  How could such a triumphant military power call itself a small, weak victim?  If Israel was so powerful, could Jews still be sure they were on the side of the oppressed?

This problem was especially acute for American Jews, who could not express their tie with Israel in political terms.  Politically, they wanted to be 100% American.  They had to express their Jewishness as a religious or cultural identity.  So they had to make support for the political state of Israel a religious or cultural value.  For virtually all of them, that meant making support for Israel a moral and ethical value.  They could not celebrate Jewish power and military victory as good in and of itself.  They had to give it an ethical meaning.

Power could have an ethical meaning as long as it was used only to fight oppression.  Jews could give Israel’s power a moral value as long as they viewed Israel as a victim of aggression.   They could celebrate Israel’s military victory as long as they believed it a justified and necessary act of self-defense.  By identifying with Israel, they could participate in that act of power and feel perfectly moral at the same time.

Identifying with Israel meant making Zionism the center of Jewish life.  Few American Jews became Zionists in the full sense, since that would require actually moving to Israel.  For most, Zionism meant simply supporting both the concept and the reality of the Jewish state.  It meant equating the fate of Israel with the fate of every Jew, everywhere.

It is no coincidence that, just when American Jews “discovered” their unbreakable bond with Israel, they also “discovered” the unique importance of the Nazi Holocaust in every Jew’s life.  Until 1967, Jews did not talk a great deal about the Holocaust.  But the six-day war catapulted the memory of the Holocaust into the center of Jewish life.  The Holocaust was offered as crucial proof that anti-semitism is indeed eternal, that Jews are indeed perpetually threatened by irrational hatred and oppression.  This, in turn, became the supposed proof that all Arabs were motivated by the same hatred that had moved the Nazis to their murderous project.

Once this premise was accepted, there could be no doubt that Israel’s military victory was a necessary act of self-defense, and therefore absolutely morally justified.  This is why the Holocaust and Israel were linked so closely in what Neusner calls “the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption.”  The memory of the Holocaust provided the crucial link between the perception of Jews as oppressed victims and the sense of pride in Israel’s achievements and its power.

Most Jews still do not have to live differently from their gentile neighbors, because too much difference might make them potential targets of stigma, discrimination, and oppression. Yet in order to sustain their new-found form of Judaism, Jews must exaggerate or overestimate their own experience of anti-semitism. Many seem eager to trade stories of anti-semitism and hear their leaders do the same, as if they enjoy hearing bad news.  That is how they convince themselves that Israel’s motives are always pure and innocent, which means that Jewish power is always morally justified—even when the facts on the ground (or, more precisely, viewed on television) seem to raise troubling questions about the morality of Israeli policies.

Within the terms of the dominant doctrine, every threat must be countered.  Fighting back is a way to prove both that Jews are being victimized and that Jews have power.  Since Israel has the most powerful military in the Middle East, when it responds to threat it usually uses major force.  Naturally, this evokes angry, sometimes violent, responses.  Jews take those responses as proof of threat and reason for even more forceful response.  Military conflict serves as a kind of ritual performance, a way to act out their beliefs and confirm their basic premise that Jews, the perpetual victims, always use their power in a morally justified cause.

Tragically, this performance is a ritual sacrifice in which far too many real people die. Most of them are Arabs. Some are Jews. This hardly makes Israel more secure.  On the contrary, it perpetuates the physical facts of insecurity.  Here in the U.S., as well as in Israel, it also perpetuates and exacerbates the psychological facts of fear, anxiety, and defensiveness in Jewish life.  It demands a sense of perpetual victimhood.  It creates a culture of victimization.  This is a high price to pay.

Yet many Jews have been, and still are, willing to pay that price.  Perhaps this tells us that human beings find security not in physical safety, nor in freedom from fear, but in beliefs that offer a firmly fixed, immutable, unquestioned sense of meaning and identity.  As long as “the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption” gives them meaning and identity, Jews will cling to it and repeat its ritual performances, regardless of the price.

Since the early years of the 21st century, a steadily growing number of Jews have been questioning—and some overtly rejecting—the myth of Israel’s insecurity with all that it entails. Whether this trend will continue, and if so how rapidly it will accelerate, is the great question for the American Jewish community.

8 Responses to The Myth and the American Jewish Community

  1. Samaki says:

    Mr. Chernus, I just want to thank you for your bravery in presenting these views which sorely need to be published. This topic is a painful one for me as my best friend of 20 years who I considered my brother recently cut himself out of my life because I am a gentile who sides with the Palestinians. I was married to a Palestinian and learned straight up about life in the West Bank and the difficulties Israel and its illegal settlements impose on them daily. I was shocked when I was called Anti-Semitic for opposing Israel policy but this is the standard response to discredit any criticism on this rogue government. I learned intelligence has nothing to do with rational thought when it comes to discussing Israel and it’s Zionist roots. Thanks again and keep up the powerful work!

  2. Douglas Mailly says:

    I very much enjoyed your essays. I recently read ( but unfortunately cannot recall where ) the phrase ” the divine right of vengeance” meaning the belief that the actor has, by virtue of having been previously wronged, an unlimited license to visit devastation on any and all who might oppose him. I think the phrase applies to many Zionists, and unfortunately to many Americans, most especially since 9/11.

  3. Teri says:

    Amen! The truth must be told.

  4. California Bob says:

    No one says it is antisemitic to oppose various political aspects of the Israeli government.

    Various Israel-haters like to pretend that’s the case, but it isn’t.

    But when people who seem to have a lot of information about Israel seemingly intentionally twist it in dishonest fashion for the sole purpose of excessively bashing Israel, the thought of antisemitism does pop up.

    Ira Chernus, for example, writes insane anti-Israel articles. This guy seems to pretend that Israel has no reason to fear countries that have made repeat wars against Israel and to this day still hate Israel. Chernus seems to pretend that rockets flying into Israel have no reason to cause feelings of insecurity in Israel. Chernus seems to feel that thousands of terrorist attacks against Israel have no reason to cause any feelings of insecurity in Israel. Chernus seems to feel that antisemitic hate promoted across the Middle East should not in any way cause feelings of insecurity in Jews in the Middle East.

    His views are crazy.

    So does he really believe that a country whose security is violated almost every day by rockets or terrorist attack attempts has no reason to feel insecure? Does that even make sense?

  5. Molly says:

    I have long felt Jewish persecution of palestinians & our support of same to be a travesty. This has very much colored my view of Judaism & sadly ruined my respect & admiration for a noble, ethical, religion.

  6. [...] the U.S. presidential campaign, Republicans were eager to play on the traditional American belief in Israel’s insecurity: an innocent victim surrounded by vicious Arabs eager to destroy the little [...]

  7. Larry says:

    No matter what, there is a sovereign power, Israel, and there is a people, Israel, and since the beginnings of Christianity, hatred against both has flourished. First to consolidate Christianity against Judaism, then to dislike the foreigner in their midst, then to despise the Jews when they began to finally take destiny into their own hands. War sucks, it creates casualties. But history goes on; only the Arabs in all the upheavals of the last 100 years continue to cling to their loss in war. And a part of that is because according to Islam, Jews are inferior. The thought of Jewish sovereignty, and in their midst, is anathema. It is more than the land, it is this belief of the inferiority of the Jew, and how dare he succeed against the Moslem.

  8. Troy says:

    Dr. Chernus:

    I appreciate your attempt to fill a desperate void in the Jewish/Palestinian dialogue. As a religious studies student a couple hours north of yourself, I am saddened to see how modern Israeli secularists and religious alike have responded so poorly to the centuries of injury heaped upon the Jews. Their myth is one of limitless retribution and uninformed reaction, a myth that will always be self-perpetuating so long as Israel seeks retribution as a means to solving unfathomably difficult historical crises. It is a myth of fear that has unfortunately become the driving force behind Israeli decision making.

    Yes, there will always be anti-semitism, just as anti-black, anti-communist, anti-capitalist, anti-white, anti-indigenous, anti-gay, and anti-EVERYTHING sentiment will also continue to exist. People refuse to live in peace. It is our sad history.

    But Israel has a unique place in history. It possesses the influence, technology, funding, and other resources necessary to be an example for peace and cause, at the very least, a hiccup in our history of war as a tool for self-justification. I would hope that they will eventually recognize that they need not live by that dangerous myth of fear and find a vehicle for exercising peace with their Palestinian neighbors. I will hold out hope for that day because I know the people of Israel are good people, not the malevolent subhumans that history has too often made the Jews out to be.

    Thanks again for your contribution. Happy to see that civilized intellectual conversation is not yet completely dead in America.

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