American Jews and Israel in the Post-War Period

Nice place to visit, wouldn't want to live there.

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Israel was founded as a site for the ingathering of Jewish exiles. But what about those “exiles” who did not want to “gather,” at least not permanently? American Jewry dealt with this complicated aspect of Zionism in the post-war period by redefining their relationship to the Jewish state. The following article recounts the development of American Jewish responses to Israel in the post-war period. It is reprinted from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II with permission from The Johns Hopkins University Press

Enthusiasm for the idea and reality of a Jewish state was widespread among American Jews after 1945. This had not always been the case. Prior to the 1930s, Zionism had little appeal for American Jews. They believed that they were already living in what Zionism hoped to create‑-a nation in which there would be no restrictions on the social, economic, and intellec­tual advancement of Jews. When American Jews referred to “the golden land,” they meant the United States, not Palestine. "The United States is our Palestine," Rabbi David Philipson asserted in 1895, "and Washington our Jerusalem." Evidently European Jews agreed. Between 1880 and 1920, for every one who migrated to the Promised Land, over forty crossed the Atlantic to the land of promise. American Jewish leaders feared that Zion­ism would lead to legitimate suspicions among Gentiles regarding the loyalty of America's Jews.

american jews and israel The destruction of European Jewry combined with the refusal of the Western nations, particularly the United States, to do anything meaningful to rescue the remnants, convinced American Jews that a Jewish state was necessary. The Zionism of American Jews was, however, sui generis. It did not encompass the most important element in Zionist ideology‑-aliyah [in Hebrew, literally “going up”--immigration to Israel]. Despite the claim of Israeli Zionists that every Jew was obligated to relocate to Israel, less than 100,000 American Jews settled in Israel, and most of those who did eventually returned to the United States. More American Jews chose to be buried in Israel than to live there.

Israeli spokesmen viewed this refusal of American Jews to leave the fleshpots of the West with a mingling of contempt and fear. It not only deprived the Jewish state of the large Jewish population that would guarantee its existence, but it also denied the fundamental tenet of Zionist ideology regarding the abnormality of Diaspora life once a Jewish state had been established. The result was, as zionist Nahum Goldmann stated in 1954, that Israel was the only state in the world where 90% percent of its people lived outside its borders.

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Edward Shapiro is a Professor of History at Seton Hall University.