American Jews and Israel in the Post-War Period

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

Print this page Print this page

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.

American Jews did not believe that their reluctance to exchange Brooklyn and Los Angeles for Tel Aviv meant that they were less than wholehearted champions of the Zionist undertaking. Reinterpreting Zionism, they preferred to view Israel as a refuge for persecuted Jews and not as a national homeland for all Jews.

There was much truth to the joke that defined American Zionism as a movement in which one person gave money to a second person to send to a third person to Israel. As Daniel Elazar noted, fund-raising for Israel had become "the most visible Jewish commu­nal activity.” This was especially noticeable after 1967. Even Jews who did not belong to synagogues or Jewish organizations contributed to the United Jewish Appeal. "I am because I give" became the existential definition of American Jewishness, and status within American Jewry depended to a large extent on one's annual gift to the United Jewish Appeal campaign.

For American Jews, Zionism was a philanthropy, the most important of philanthropies, and one to which they were tied largely by contributions and by the purchase of bonds issued by the Israeli government. Jews voted with their wallets, if not with their feet, for Israel. Fund-raising became the most important barometer of the relationship between American Jews and the state of Israel. During his first term as Israel's prime minister, Ben‑Gurion made only one visit outside of Israel, and that was in May 1951to the United States to launch the first Israel bonds campaign.

Fund‑raising in America for Israel increased during periods of crisis in the Middle East and subsided during times of quiet. Contributions to the United Jewish Appeal, the major fund‑raising campaign for Israel, rose dramatically in the years prior to the establishment of Israel and in 1956, the year of the Sinai war between Israel and Egypt. Previous fund­raising efforts were dwarfed, however, by the contributions of Jews in 1967to help pay for the Six‑Day War.

1967 was a watershed year in the history of American Jewry. While Jews had supported Israel from its founding in 1948, the depth of their emotional involvement with the Jewish state only became fully evident 19 years later. Not even they themselves realized just how important Israel had been to them. There had been clues. One of these was the incredible popularity of Exodus (1958), Leon Uris's potboiler about the establishment of Israel. It sold more than 20,000,000 copies in hard­cover and paperback, and was probably read by more Jews during the 1950sthan any other book. Those Jews who did not read the novel saw the movie version by Otto Preminger. But not even the most astute observers of American Jewry were prepared for 1967. "American Jews, try as they may," Morris N. Kertzer wrote on the eve of the Six‑Day War, "find difficulty in feeling the peoplehood of Israel, the mystical bond that unites them with their coreligionists outside the United States. . . . The boundaries of Amer­ica are the limits of their creative Jewish concerns.”

Feelings toward Israel that had been suppressed or ignored by American Jews gushed forth because of the particular circumstances preceding the June 1967Six‑Day War. With Israel surrounded by Arab enemies threaten­ing genocide, American Jewry faced the prospect of witnessing a Holocaust for the second time. For American Jewry, Israel had been a tragically belated and partial answer to Auschwitz. The establishment of the Jewish state meant that the martyrdom of the 6,000,000 European Jews was not totally in vain and that Jewish history still had meaning. Should Israel be overrun by the Arabs, the psychological blow to American Jews would have been devastating.

They were determined to do whatever was possible to prevent it. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, writing two months after the war with its memories still fresh, noted that the crisis had united American Jews "with deep Jew­ish commitments as they have never been united before, and it has evoked commitments in many Jews who previously seemed untouched by them. . . . There are no conventional Western theological terms with which to explain this,” he said, "and most contemporary Jews experience these without knowing how to define them. . . . Israel may . . . now be a strong focus of worldwide Jewish emotional loyalty and [serve] as a preservative of a sense of Jewish identity."

The response of American Jewry to the Six‑Day War surprised even those most sanguine about the depth of American Jewish identity. In June 1967 alone, more than 7,500 American Jews volunteered to take over the civilian jobs of Israelis serving in the armed forces. One man and his two sons approached an official of the Jewish Agency in New York on June 5, the day the war broke out. "I have no money to give, but here are my sons," he said. "Please send them over immediately." The outpouring of money by American Jews (and some Gentiles) to help Israel was unprecedented in the history of Jewish and American philanthropy

In 1966, over $136 million had been pledged to the various community fund drives, and an article in Fortune magazine discussed “the miracle of Jewish giving."  In 1967, the figure was $317 million: $15 million raised in fifteen minutes at one luncheon, and over $100 million was raised in a month. Money came in faster than it could be tabulated; and donors, overcome by the urgency of the situation, often insisted on giving cash rather than checks. Numerous persons donated the cash-surrender value of life insurance policies. Contributions were made to the United Jewish Appeal in lieu of anniversary, birthday, graduation, Bar Mitzvah, and Father's Day gifts. Jewish youth organizations turned their treasuries over to the UJA.

The reaction of American Jews to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 dwarfed their response to the Six‑Day War, as once again American Jewry was engulfed by memories of World War II. American Jews were particularly angered by the fact that Egypt and her allies chose Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year, to launch a surprise attack. In 1973, in contrast to 1967, Israel was thrown on the defensive early in the war and faced a far more difficult economic and military situation than six years earlier. American Jews responded accordingly. This time over 30,000 American Jews volunteered to work in Israel. $107 million was pledged to the UJA during the first week of the war, and a total of $675 million was pledged during the entire campaign.

There were Jews both in Israel and America critical of this "checkbook Judaism.” William Zuckerman argued that American Jewishness had degen­erated into “campaign Judaism.” American Jewry, Zuckerman said, “has almost consciously emptied itself of all higher aspirations and spiritual needs and has willingly limited itself to the role of a financial milk cow for others. . . . How can a community…whose highest ideal is mechanical fundraising, be the source of nobility and greatness?” Writing checks might be a salve for the conscience of Jews who felt guilty that they were not better Jews, but they were no substitute for making aliyah, observing the Sabbath, and keeping kosher.

While true, these complaints missed the point. People pay for those things they value, and the vast sums contributed in 1967 and 1973 demonstrated, as nothing else could demonstrate, the priority of many American Jews. 

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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