American Jews and Israel in the Post-War Period

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

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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.

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