American Jews and Israel in the Post-War Period

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

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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.”

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