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PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
AMERICAN JEWS AND THE MYTH OF ISRAEL
I want to talk about the American Jewish
community from two perspectives, as an insider and an outsider. I am a member of the Jewish community. I was raised among the people I’m talking about.
For many years, I was an active participant in Jewish affairs.
I have close personal attachments to Israel. My sister and her husband have been living
there for 30 years and have raised three sons who live there. My wife lived there for several years, and we still
have strong attachment to close friends she made there. So I know Jewish life
from the inside.
My other perspective is my professional
view as a historian of religions. In
that role, I have to pretend that I am an outsider.
I have to study American Jews the way I would study any other religious
group, as if I had never met these people before.
When scholars of religion visit a new group for the first time, we’re
most likely to notice the anomalies, the paradoxes, the things that don’t quite
make sense. It usually turns out that
those are the clues to our most interesting findings.
You have probably noticed that American
Jews often tend to be liberal on most political and social issues, but not on
Israel. I’m sure many of you have at least one Jewish
friend who shares your views on every other subject. But you just can’t talk to that friend about
Israel. Your friend may tell you that it’s about Jewish
survival, or a guarantee of security for the Jews in
a world full of anti-semitism. But you might think that doesn’t make much sense.
When you watch the news on television, it’s hard to believe that Jews
in Israel are
more secure than Jews here in the U.S.
If you probe into the life of the average
American Jew, the discrimination he or she suffers usually turns out to be quite
mild, if there is any at all. It hardly
ever comes close to the kind of persecution that African-Americans, Native Americans,
or Latinos must endure. In fact, the
U.S. today is
probably the safest, most welcoming environment any diaspora Jewish community has ever known. If Jews really want to be secure, you would
think they would all leave Israel
and move here. Yet so many American
Jews will tell you that they support Israel
because it’s their only protection against anti-semitism. That’s a curious point that should catch our
Let me tell you a story that reveals
another paradox. A few months ago, a
prominent national Jewish leader came here to Boulder,
Colorado, to speak
A friend of mine who was there told me that every time the speaker came
up with another example of what he claimed was anti-semitism,
the audience cheered. My friend couldn’t
understand it. It seemed to that they were happy about to hear about discrimination
against Jews, as if they wanted to celebrate it.
So American Jews tend to be liberal about
most everything except Israel. Many of them support Israel
as a safe haven against anti-semitism, even though
they are safer here. They tend to exaggerate
or overestimate their own experience of anti-semitism. And they often seem eager to hear their leaders
do the same. Tonight I hope we can make
some sense out of these facts.
One way we historians of religion make
sense out of things is to listen to the stories the people tell. Every group has a handful of stories that are
especially important to it. Those are
the official stories the group uses to represent itself. We calls those official
stories “myths.” In the academic study
of religion, when we use the word myth, we don’t mean a lie. We
mean a story that shapes the group’s experience, because it expresses their
most important values and most central beliefs. People use myths to interpret their everyday
lives, to organize their experience, to give it some kind of meaningful shape
So the people who tell a myth don’t ask
whether it is literally true. They don’t
try to prove it with empirical facts. To
test a myth against empirical facts is to miss the point.
It is the myth, not the facts, that tells people what can count as true.
People view the facts through the lens of myth and make the facts fit
the myth. This is what American Jews
do when they talk about Israel. The American Jewish community has a story about
serves as its guiding myth. I’m not going
to focus on whether it is empirically true or not. I am going to focus on how it helps Jewish people
get a sense of meaningful order in their lives.
A good historian of religions knows that
there is never one single version of a myth.
Lots of people tell the myth, and each on can
tell it a bit differently. But it can
be helpful to hear many versions, see what they all have in common, and then
create a sort of abstract skeleton version.
I have heard the American Jewish myth of Israel
told a zillion different ways. Here is
my brief skeleton version. It’s not a
story that every American Jew believes in, by any means. But it dominates organized Jewish life, so just
about every American Jew knows it. And
many cling to it.
The story says that we Jews have had
a special relationship with the land
of Israel for 3,000 years or more.
Even today, it says, every Jew feels a special connection with the land,
one that we can’t explain logically to ourselves, much less to others. For all those thousands of years, we have been
the victims of unprovoked and unjustified persecution. To be a Jew is to be an actual or potential
target of an inexplicable hatred, a hatred that reached its peak in the Nazi
Holocaust. Miraculously, just three years
after the holocaust ended, we got our land back, the independent state of Israel. There was no end to the hatred. Israel
has become the favorite target of the anti-semites. But Israel
gives us a place of refuge, a place of our own where we can be secure no matter
how bad the anti-semitism gets. That is why we must all insist on total, unswerving
dedication to the preservation of Israel
and its security. If Israel
goes down, the Jewish people go down, forever.
This story expresses the three beliefs
that have become the pillars of American Jewish life.
First, Jews have an unbreakable emotional bond with the land
of Israel. Second, anti-semitism
is a permanent threat to every Jew. And
is the Jews’ only dependable refuge against that threat.
Like every religious group, Jews will
generally tell you that they have always believed in the same myth. But a historian of religions soon discovers
that every myth has a history. The people
have not always told the same story that they tell today.
That is certainly the case with the American
Jewish myth of Israel. Take the part about the special connection all
Jews supposedly feel with the land. 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.
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
Jewish American 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, for what it’s
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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.
This is not to suggest in any way that
the Holocaust should be forgotten, or that Jews should not care about it. It is only to say that there are many ways to
remember the Holocaust and many ways to interpret its significance. The particular way that most American Jews chose
makes perfect sense when seen as part of the myth of Israel. And it offers a crucial clue to why that myth
became so central in American Jewish life. “The
Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption” resolved the conflict between power and
morality. When it claimed a permanent
bond between every Jew and the land, it allowed all Jews to participate in Israel’s
power and thus overcome the shame of Jewish weakness. When it claimed that every action taken against
Jews anywhere is an act of anti-semitism, another
Holocaust looming on the horizon, it turned every act of Jewish power into an
act of morally justified self-defense.
Was the six-day war in fact necessary
self-defense? Was Israel
was a victim of unprovoked attack? Careful
historians still hotly debate the question, and the debate will probably never
be settled. Nor is there any clear answer
to the question of the Arabs’ motives. There certainly was, and is, far too much anti-semitism
in the Arab world. Yet it is too simplistic to see Nasser
as another Hitler. Though both may have
been anti-semitic, there were vast differences between
When we are talking about a myth, though,
the empirical facts are no test of truth. Facts
are shaped and reshaped to fit the myth. The crucial thing is not factual accuracy.
It is to create a structure that gives meaning to life and supports a
sense of identity for the individual and the group.
The myth of Israel
which emerged in June, 1967, certainly did that for American Jews. It also gave Jews a set of values that could
be held up as uniquely Jewish values, although they did not require Jews to
live differently from their Gentile neighbors.
Now, when Jews gathered to socialize together, they could proclaim and
celebrate their memory of the Holocaust and their commitment to Israel.
The Jewish community was unified by its
new myth. That myth gave Jews a clearly
defined sense of identity and meaning, in a society where identity and meaning
seem increasingly difficult to find. It assured them that, since they are eternally
tied to an oppressed nation, they could not be among the oppressors.
Earlier I mentioned four puzzling anomalies
of Jewish life. Now we can see how the
myth of Israel
created and sustained those anomalies. In
order to believe in their myth and sustain their culture of victimization, Jews
must present evidence that they are eternally victimized. So they exaggerate or overestimate their own
experience of anti-semitism, and they are often eager
to hear their leaders do the same, as if they enjoy hearing bad news. In order to sustain their belief, they must
insist that Israel
is an innocent victim, no matter what it does.
So they can take a liberal or progressive stand on any issue except Israel. When they speak of Israel
as a safe haven, a guarantee of security against anti-semitism,
they are convincing themselves that they need this guarantee, that anti-semitism is indeed a constant menace. At the same time, they are convincing themselves
again that Israel’s motives are pure and innocent, which means that Jewish power
is always morally justified, because Jews are always victims and never executioners.
myth of Israel
Every myth has very practical effects. In order to believe in their myth, American
Jews must constantly see Israel
threatened. That means Israel
must always have an enemy. For the purposes
of myth, the name and nature of the enemy hardly matters. So it is not surprising that it is always changing.
For decades the enemy was a generic faceless mass called “the Arabs.”
made peace with Egypt
and clearly had peaceable relations with Jordan,
the enemy was reduced to specific Arab states, most notably Syria
and Iraq. During the 1980s, the sense of enmity focused
more on the Palestinians. After the 1993
Oslo agreements, the enemy became
Hamas and other Palestinian Islamist groups. Recently, Yasir Arafat
and his ruling circle have been put back in the category of enemy, along with
Saddam Hussein, of course. Given the
influence of Israel
and its supporters in the U.S.
government, this act of identifying an enemy has enormous political consequences.
Regardless of who is labeled the enemy,
every act of that enemy is labeled, by definition, a threat.
Within the terms of the dominant myth, 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 responses. Seeing events through the lens of their myth,
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 the myth and confirm its basic
premise that Jews, the perpetual victims, always use their power in a morally
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 a story that offers a firmly fixed, immutable, unquestioned sense
of meaning and identity. As long as this
myth gives meaning and identity to Jews, they will cling to it and repeat its
ritual performances, regardless of the price.
I have been making some sweeping generalizations
about “most Jews” and about the organized Jewish community. I don’t mean to say that all Jews believe fervently,
or at all, in the dominant myth. In fact,
the history of this myth, like most myths, involves a history of contestation
among competing views. By the early ‘70s,
an organization had formed called Breira, meaning
“there is an alternative.” Breira’s story saw the Palestinians in the newly occupied
territories as the oppressed people. It
said that the Jews, having been oppressed for so long, had a special obligation
to respond to Palestinian suffering with more conciliatory policies. However this group and its story were very
efficiently suppressed by an organized effort of Jewish groups that could not
stand to hear their dominant myth called into question.
For fifteen years after the six-day war,
it was hard to hear any significant questioning of the dominant myth. The first,
very tentative, questions began during Israel’s
invasion of Lebanon
in 1982. American Jews saw the violence
on their TV screens, and they heard about Peace Now, Israel’s
first antiwar movement. Criticism of
Israeli government policies had always been much more acceptable among Israeli
Jews than among Americans. When Peace
Now raised the criticism to a new level, a few U.S. Jews began to think it might
be permissible to have moral qualms about Israel’s
Those qualms were quite marginal on the
Jewish scene here until the Palestinian intifada of
the late ‘80s. Israel’s
Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, sent his soldiers into the Occupied
Territories with orders to “break
their bones,” if necessary, to suppress the revolt. U.S.
television showed Israeli tanks facing down teenagers armed only with stones,
and Israeli soldiers shooting and beating those teenagers and carting thousands
off to prison. The myth of Israeli innocence
began to fray around the edges. For the
most part, though, it held firm among American Jews.
When Rabin became prime minister, signed
the Oslo accords, and shook hands
with Arafat, the Jewish community here breathed a great sigh of relief.
The question of power versus morality, which the intifada
had begun to raise, would not have to be answered.
The current intifada,
which began in the fall of 2000, has shown that the relief was premature. The old myth has revived and proven its enduring
strength. Many Jews who were starting
to question the role of Israel
in their lives have once again “discovered” a deep enduring tie to the Jewish
state. They tell us that this tie binds
all Jews together, that in times of crisis Jews must put aside their differences
to stand united against their oppressors. They
use the enduring myth once again as the lens through which all facts are seen.
The most important example is the crucial
negotiation at Camp David, in the summer of 2000, when
the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak,
met with Yasir Arafat under the watchful eye of Bill
Clinton. Most Jews will tell you that
Barak made an amazingly generous offer,
that he was willing to give up everything the Israelis had seized in
the six-day war in return for peace, that Arafat simply refused the generous
offer. That is the official story told
throughout the organized Jewish community. It
was also the official story of the U.S.
government and news
media at the time.
When you look carefully at the facts,
they are just as complicated as the six-day war or any other moment of confrontation
and its neighbors. All sorts of interpretations
are possible. Many of them find good
reasons why Arafat turned down Barak’s offer.
Even the New York Times,
many months later, admitted on its front page that Arafat, Barak,
and Clinton all shared blame for the breakdown of the talks.
By then, though, it was too late. The
official story was so widely believed that other views could scarcely be heard,
especially in the Jewish community. Nor
is it often remembered that when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met again,
at Taaba, in January 2001, it was Barak
who broke off the talks. That fact would
not fit into the prevailing myth. It
would raise questions about Israel’s
innocence, its moral justification, and its desire for peace. So it is simply forgotten.
The mythic version of these events, putting
all the blame on Arafat, has been very useful for Barak’s
successor, Ariel Sharon. Sharon
had often stated his opposition to the principles of the Oslo
agreement. He has used two main strategies
to destroy that framework. One is sheer
force, trying to intimidate the Palestinians into giving up the intifada
and accepting peace on Israel’s
other crucial approach is to attack on the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority,
and especially its leader, Arafat. In
the fall of 2001, the Sharon government
set out to promote the idea that Arafat is no longer a “partner for peace,”
that he is “irrelevant” and no longer wields legitimate authority. This plan has been quite successful, to say
policies have had a complicated effect on the American Jewish community and
its prevailing myth. Everyone here knows
has dramatically stepped up its military violence, and most know that the daily
mechanisms of occupation have become more repressive. I suspect, though I can not prove it, that most
American Jews have been troubled by this. When
Jewish power exceeds a certain level, there is no way to avoid the moral questions
completely. But the responses to this
potential dilemma have been quite varied.
Many Jews have stilled their doubts by
reaffirming the familiar myth. They have
focused on the visible images of threat to Israel—most
notably, of course, the suicide bombers—which give the myth more credibility.
Every time a bus or restaurant is bombed, it becomes easier to see Israel
as the innocent victim, using violence only in self-defense. This makes it easier to see increased repression
as a regrettable necessity. If the myth
now serves, more than ever before, to assuage moral qualms, we can understand
why the deligitimizing of Arafat has succeeded so
well. According to the myth, anyone who
is not clearly a friend of Israel
must an enemy of and a threat to Israel. The more enemies Israel
has, and the bigger those enemies seem, the more convincing is the myth.
With Arafat and the Palestinian Authority
cast as the prime source of terror and the prime obstacle to peace, the impending
threat seems huge. That makes the myth
all the more convincing. So it is easy
to overlook the fact that Arafat and the PA , who still
command the allegiance of most Palestinians, are the only people capable of
making peace. It is equally easy to overlook
the fact that Arafat’s Islamist opponents have benefited most from Israel’s
policies. By denying these facts, Jews
can cling to their mythic vision that Israel
is pursuing peace, while Arafat and all Palestinians pursue only Israel’s
Jews who uphold this myth most strongly
speak in strident, sometimes even hysterical, tones.
This is a sure sign that they are trying to suppress not only the questions
of others, but their own inner doubts. Only they can know how well they succeed in
stifling their own doubts. But they certainly
are stifling the questions of others. Jews
who are active in synagogues and Jewish organizations often report a chilling
effect coming from the right. They might
want to discuss openly the moral issues raised by Israeli policies.
But they fear that even raising the issue will subject them to vehement
criticism. Some are willing to brave the criticism; many
are not. So it is hard to generate full
and open debate in the organized Jewish community.
If debate is often stifled, the blame
should not be placed entirely on right-wing supporters of Israel’s
policies. There is also a kind of self-censorship
that comes from a huge community of politically moderate Jews.
They are disturbed by the disparity between the myth and the facts.
They can not completely shut out the images they see on television from
the Occupied Territories. Neither can they completely give up their belief
in the myth that has shaped their Jewish 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 remain silent, leaving the strident
right as the only loud voice to be heard in the organized Jewish community.
There is another voice emerging, however. It is still small and hard to hear, but it is
getting louder. This is the voice of
Jews who are actively questioning, and sometimes rejecting, the dominant myth.
It is obvious that this movement is a direct response to Israeli violence,
because it took a quantum leap in the spring of 2002, when Israeli violence
took a quantum leap in the West Bank, especially in Jenin. The television images of that spring sparked
new Jewish organizations throughout the country, supporting Palestinian rights
and a viable Palestinian state as the only way to security for Israel.
These organizations have a hard time
getting their message heard. Since they
offer an alternative story, the shrill right-wingers try to drown them out. Since they present disturbing facts, the confused
moderates often find them frightening and turn away from them. Yet in the last year they have become a fixed
part of the American Jewish scene, and they are not likely to go away. At the very least, they are making Jewish life
here more diverse and interesting than before.
The same debate is now being played out
in another arena. It is the middle of
March, 2003, and we are waiting to see whether U.S.
troops will invade Iraq. The prevailing Jewish myth has made it easy
to justify war. In that myth, the axis
of evil runs from the Nazi axis to Hamas to Yasir Arafat to Saddam Hussein. It is all the same war. According to one recent poll, U.S. Jews as a
whole have pretty much the same views on the war as the whole U.S.
population. That means 40% or more of
us are opposed to war now. This may be
evidence that the grip of the dominant myth is weakening, and that is encouraging.
But it leaves well more than half of
us prepared to support a unilateral U.S.
war. That is discouraging for those of
us who see war against Iraq
as a moral and political disaster. We
say to our fellow Jews, “Don’t you see that Israelis are at terrible risk, that
they may suffer even more from such a war, while we here in the U.S.
remain perfectly safe?” Often, though, the enduring power of the myth drowns
out our question. It prevents many Jews
from looking beyond the simplistic notion that Saddam Hussein is out to get
us, and we must get him first.
It is not a historian’s job to predict
the future. But it is hard to resist
just a bit of speculation. If there is
war in Iraq,
there is a real chance of stepped up violence by Israel
in the Occupied Territories. Televised images of death and suffering throughout
the Middle East would probably fix all three American
Jewish groups more firmly in their positions. Right-wingers would assert the familiar myth
more insistently, to justify Israeli and U.S.
actions as necessary self-defense. On
the left, there would be more vehement calls for a new story and new policies.
The Jewish community would become more polarized.
The uncertain moderates would be caught in the middle
, more confused and paralyzed then ever.
Many of the hawks in the Bush administration,
who are pushing the president to war, have close ties to Israel. They see the world through the conventional
Jewish myth of Israel. If there is a war and it goes bad, if the U.S.
public turns against the war, many will be tempted to blame the so-called Israel
lobby and, by extension, the whole Jewish community. That will prove to some Jews how easily our
own myth can turn against us. It will
prove to others only that the premise of the myth, the eternal threat of anti-semitism, is an inescapable truth. Again, it will leave the middle group even more
Whether there is war in Iraq
or not, it seems likely that the future will bring intensified debate in the
Jewish community about whether to retain the dominant myth or adopt a new one.
Of course it won’t usually be discussed in those terms.
But beneath the polarizing views on Israel
and the Middle East, the crucial question will be the
question of what story to tell.
When I look to the future, I leave my
outsider role as a historian of religions and take on my insider role, as a
member of the Jewish community with very strong feelings and opinions. I feel so passionately about the question of
what myth we tell because for years now my own people have been dying—and killing.
We have been both victims and executioners.
I worry about my loved ones in Israel,
who live every day with anxiety. I worry
equally about the suffering of millions of Palestinians in the Occupied
Territories. And I worry about the future of my American
Jewish community. It is not only people
who have died because one myth has prevailed over others. Part of the moral sensitivity of the Jewish
community has died. The violence we commit
and the fear we feel have slashed a deep wound in the
conscience of the Jewish people. We have
lived for far too long in a culture of victimization. It has alienated some of our brightest and most
creative people from organized Jewish life. It has stunted our spiritual growth. No religion can flourish in a defensive stance
built on a foundation of fear.
I take the role of an objective, analytical
observer because it is one way to look for an alternative to fear. It allows me to discover questions that might
otherwise never be asked. When I talk
to people who still believe in the dominant myth, or who are afraid to question
it, I do not focus on the disturbing facts (though it is always worthwhile to
discuss them). Every fact can be interpreted
in so many different ways. Most Jews
are quite adept at fitting every fact into a comforting pattern.
So I ask about the pattern, the myth. I point out that we have chosen this myth, and
we are free to choose another if we want to. I ask: How
do we Jews benefit from enacting this myth rather than some other?
Isn’t it obvious that as long as we act out this myth the dying and killing
will go on? Wouldn’t we be more secure if we choose another
I ask those question especially urgently
as we face the possibility of war in Iraq. The Jewish community is not responsible for
that war. But we have not done everything
we could to stop it. We must ask the
same questions about Iraq
as we ask about Palestine: By letting our fear and victimization dominate
our communal life, do we make ourselves more or less secure? Just as importantly, do we lose sight of the
highest moral ideals that our tradition has bequeathed to us? Those ideals are not about fear, defensiveness,
and pre-emptive attack. They are about
peace and justice for our neighbors as well as ourselves.
Jews who want to promote moral ideals
above the prevailing myth are already creating a new story, a story of Jews
and Palestinians as peaceful neighbors and partners, each securing justice for
itself precisely because it cares about justice for the other. In our story, we do not take the role of victim
and point the finger of blame at the other side. We start by taking responsibility for our own
community’s deeds, its morality, and its myths.
Over the last twenty years, our story
has been slowly but steadily gaining a wider audience and more adherents. Thousands of Jews across this nation are already
telling it and building their Jewish life upon it. In the near future, those
of us who tell this new story must expect to be ignored at best. At worst, we will be told that we are enemies
of the Jewish people. Nothing could be
further from the truth. It is precisely
because we care so much about the well-being of Jews and the future of Judaism
that we are telling this story. We see
it as the only way that our people can achieve physical security and flourish
spiritually. We expect a long struggle
before our myth prevails. We are prepared
In the long run, we know that no myth
endures forever. One day, Jews may look back at the late twentieth
century and shake their heads, wondering how we could have made the myth of
Israel so central
in Jewish life. One day, this era may
well be seen as a strange aberration, a tragic detour on the road of Jewish
history. It is never too late, nor too
early, to choose a new myth, one that is more humane, more life-affirming, more
full of hope, more full of possibilities for a rich spiritual life.
And as the ancient rabbi still asks us:
Im lo achshav, aymatai? If not now, when?