| || |
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
SIX-DAY WAR TRANSFORMED AMERICAN JEWISH LIFE
The Six-Day War transformed the world of Palestinians,
Israelis, and also -- lest we forget -- American Jews. Here in the U.S. “Jewish” and “Israel” have
been linked so closely for the last forty years, it’s easy to forget that it
was not always so. Before the Six-Day War, when social surveys asked American
Jews what set them apart from their gentile neighbors, the answers rarely
mentioned any special affinity for Israel. They didn’t say much about
antisemitism or the Holocaust either. Most
Jews said that there was no special value or belief or behavior that set them apart
from non-Jews. The only thing that made
them different was that all their friends were Jews.
That changed dramatically
in a matter of a few days in June, 1967.
Jews flocked to their synagogues to show unprecedented support for Israel. Though
they did not know it, they were creating a new form of Judaism. The eminent historian of Judaism, Rabbi Jacob
Neusner, has called it the “Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption.” It rests on four basic beliefs, which combined
to create a sort of vaguely defined creed:
Antisemitism always has been and always will be a
threat to Jews everywhere.
Jews have a special relationship with the land of Israel.
Only as long as the Jewish state exists, with a
Jewish majority population, can Jews everywhere feel safe and redeemed from the
threat of antisemitism.
Thus the secure existence of Israel is the one and only symbol
of the secure existence of Jews and Judaism, forever.
No one can say for sure why the Six-Day War triggered
this turnabout. Here’s my theory:
By 1967, Americans of color were standing up as
oppressed people, demanding their rights.
As white people, the Jews could easily be classed with the oppressors.
At the same time, the antiwar movement was casting the United States as the oppressor in Vietnam. How
could American Jews be sure that, when oppression arose, they were on the right
One possibility was to depict themselves as perpetual
victims of antisemitism, always among the oppressed. But Jews wanted to live fully, freely, and safely
as Americans. How could they feel fully
accepted, yet still count themselves among the oppressed?
The Six-Day War solved that problem. By picturing Israel
as a small, weak, victimized nation, and then identifying themselves with Israel, Jews could see the U.S. as a place
where Jews were increasingly accepted, yet still view themselves as victims of
persecution. Then they could not be among the persecutors. So American Jews “discovered” a special,
almost mystical tie between every Jew and the holy land.
now occupied all of the West Bank and Gaza.
Could Jews still be sure they were on the side of the weak and the oppressed? Yes -- but only if they viewed Israel as an
innocent victim of aggression. By
identifying with Israel,
they could participate in Israel’s
acts of power and feel perfectly moral at the same time. But identifying with Israel meant making Zionism the
center of Jewish life. 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. The Holocaust was offered as crucial proof
that that Jews are perpetually threatened by irrational hatred and
oppression. This, in turn, became the
supposed proof that Israel’s
foes were motivated by the same hatred that 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. The slogan “Never
Again” seemed to justify every kind of Jewish violence.
In order to sustain their new-found form of Judaism, Jews
must exaggerate their own experience of antisemitism and believe that Israel is
always threatened. That means Israel must
always have an enemy. For many Jews in
the U.S. as well as Israel, military
conflict serves as a kind of ritual performance. It’s a way to act out and
confirm their belief that Jews, the perpetual victims, now have power but always
use that power in a morally justified cause.
Tragically, this performance is a ritual sacrifice in
which far too many real people die. Although most of them are Arabs, some are
Jews. This hardly makes Israel
more secure. On the contrary, it
perpetuates the Jews’ insecurity. Nevertheless, many Jews cling to and repeat this
deadly ritual performances because the “Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption” gives
them a comforting sense of meaning and identity.
Whether you accept this theory or some other to
explain the dramatic change in American Jewish life forty years ago, one point
is clear. Many Jews will tell you that support for Israel is the eternal and essential
linchpin of Jewish identity. But the
intimate link between Jews and Israel
is hardly eternal. For a people who have three thousand years of history behind
them, the focus on a political state is a relative newcomer. It’s hardly
essential, either. It emerged from specific historical conditions. Historical
conditions might diminish, or even dissolve, the link to Israel in the
future. But Jewish life would continue.
In fact, the moral outrages perpetrated by Israeli
occupation forces are already diminishing support for Israel’s
policies among American Jews. There is a
growing voice of dissent within American Jewry.
Those of us who do not cheer for Jewish military victory are as
concerned as anyone else to insure Israel’s survival. Indeed, we feel
that we show more concern than anyone else for
peace and security. We argue that it
makes little sense to seek secure survival and peace by pursuing the risks of
war, when other options are surely available. Yet we are bitterly attacked by
right-wing Jews, who have managed to commandeer the label “pro-Israel.” Now
that label usually means “pro-Israeli power and might,” when it should mean
“pro-genuine peace and security for Israel.”
Over the past forty years, countless numbers of thoughtful,
morally sensitive Jews have decided that they cannot in good conscience be part
of a community dominated by a reactionary “Judaism of Holocaust and
Redemption.” How much energy and talent
might have enriched American Jewish life if the organized community had been
willing to accept the kind of debate that is commonplace in Israel, where
Israeli government policies are subject to radical criticism every day?
The blame for this loss falls partly on the right-wingers
who dominate most Jewish organizations. They make the institutional Jewish voice
sound more hawkish than the community as a whole really is. But some of the
blame must fall on the huge number of politically moderate American Jews. They cannot completely shut out the images
they see on television from the Occupied
Territories. Neither can they completely give up the “Judaism
of Holocaust and Redemption” that has shaped their identity for so long.
Caught between two competing psychological demands,
they are confused and paralyzed. They
hesitate to say anything about Israel’s
current policies. Whatever they might
say seems, to them, a half-truth at best, and quite possibly just wrong. So they censor themselves and remain silent,
leaving the strident right as the only voice clearly heard in the organized
Some of them go a step further. In order to avoid
facing the moral dilemma posed by Israel,
they move Israel
from the center to the margins of their Jewish identity. They find a way to be
actively, even ardently, Jewish with scarcely a mention of Israel. And it
may be this group, not the critics of Israeli policy, who do the most to weaken
the link between American Jews and Israel in the future.
But support for Israeli policies has inflicted a
grievous moral wound on the U.S.
Jewish community over the last forty years. Wounds do not heal by being
ignored. They heal only by t’shuvah -- repentance,
reversing course and doing the right thing. It is never too late for repentance.
And a community can do an about-face very quickly, as American Jews proved
forty years ago.