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American Jews believe in separation of church and state, not ‘theocracy’

Israel/Palestine
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Wall separating Israeli road from Palestinian road under occupation

Wall separating Israeli road from Palestinian road under occupation

Editor: There are more and more indications that the American Jewish establishment is losing power because of a growing Jewish alienation from the establishment’s main project, support of Israel. Allan Brownfeld of the American Council for Judaism is quoted at length in the Washington Times, “What do American Jewish voters want?” Reporter Joseph Cotto emailed questions that Cotto responded to. He shared that typescript with me; and I publish the answers that touch on Israel. I’ve left out Brownfeld’s first few answers, that there is no “Jewish vote,” that Jews reflect typical urban/upper-middle-class voting patterns (liberal), and that AIPAC is wrong when it says there’s a Jewish bloc of voters politicians can capture.  

Q:  Have you known any political issue, above all others to resonate with a majority of American Jews?

A:  The only issue which seems to resonate, in particular, with most American Jews is a commitment to religious freedom and to separation of church and state.  But even here, Orthodox Jews seem to embrace collaboration between religion and government and have urged, for example, forms of government aid to religious schools.  The Orthodox, however, represent only about 10% of American Jews.

In my view, there is an element of hypocrisy in American Jewish organizations taking legal action against even non-sectarian, voluntary prayer in our public schools while supporting a theocracy in Israel.   In Israel, Orthodox Judaism is, in effect, the state religion.  Jews and non-Jews cannot marry, since there is no such thing as civil marriage.  Reform rabbis cannot perform weddings or funerals.  There is less freedom for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel than anyplace in the Western world.  This leads to the inevitable question:  Do Jewish organizations promote separation of church and state in the United States as a matter of principle, or because it serves their own narrow interests?

Q:  Today, the American Jewish political establishment is fixated on Israel.  Judging from your research, does this reflect the priorities of most American Jews?

A: In many respects, the American Jewish establishment is engaged in a form of idolatry, having substituted the state of Israel for God and Judaism’s moral and ethical teachings as the object of worship and the focus of attention.  Israeli flags can be found in many American synagogues and all three major branches of Judaism—Orthodox, Conservative and Reform–have adopted the Zionist philosophy which believes that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews and that Jews living outside of Israel are in “exile,” and should make “aliyah,” emigrate to Israel.

The American Council for Judaism believes that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality and that Americans of Jewish faith are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim.  We believe that we represent a silent majority of American Jews who are not represented by those who speak in their name.

The first major study of American Jews in more than ten years shows that 48% of those polled don’t think Israel is making a sincere attempt to make peace.  The survey, by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, found that a quarter of all Jews ages 18-29 believe that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel.  Among Jews younger than 30, only 32% said that “caring about Israel” was an essential part of their Jewish identity.  Steven M. Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College and a consultant to the Pew study, says, “Younger Jews are considerably less supportive of Israel and the differences are very large.  I think we’re seeing a shift, not just a gap.”

The evidence is clear that Jewish voters vote on the basis of the same issues as other voters, not on the basis if a candidate’s view of Israel and U.S. Middle East policy.   A study of Jewish voters in 2010 found the following priorities:
                         Economy—–62%
                          Health Care—–31%
                           Deficit and government spending—-18%
                            Social Security and Medicare—-16%
                             Taxes——14%
                             Terrorism and national security—-13%
                              Education—-12%
                              Israel——7%

When it comes to the war in Iraq, strongly promoted by AIPAC and other Jewish groups, pollster Jim Gerstein found that 77% of American Jews opposed the war—-larger than the public as a whole (52%).

Clearly, the priorities of most American Jews are not being reflected by national Jewish organizations which speak in their name.

Q:  Why does the American Jewish political establishment prioritize Israel to such an extent?

A:  If you adopt a philosophy which holds that Israel is your real “homeland,” then making it a priority is understandable.  Of course, we live in a free and open society.  Those who believe that another country is their real homeland are free to move there at any time. Few American Jews who hold this view have seen fit to do so.  The overwhelming majority of American Jews reject this view and are perfectly at home in America.  It is sad that so many in the Jewish establishment believe that America is not enough.  And it is a strange and disturbing enterprise to see young people in our religious schools being taught not about their religious heritage and what living a righteous and meaningful life involves but, instead, being taught that a distant country should be the object of their attention and loyalty.

All of this may be, in part, a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, a belief that Jews cannot be safe anyplace but in a country of their own.  This, however, learns what I think is the wrong lesson.  The goal of all men and women of good will are the creation of  societies which promote religious freedom  and a common citizenship for people of all backgrounds.  American citizenship is not based on common race, religion or ethnic background but on a willingness to live in a free society and fulfill its responsibilities.  How sad that Israel has court cases to determine who is a Jew, who can be married or buried even, in the occupied territories, who can drive on which roads.  Judaism believes that God created all people in His image. Israel claims to be a “Jewish” state but to the degree that it separates people on the basis of faith and ethnicity, it is violating the ethical mandate  of prophetic Judaism.  

Q:  Since the mid-20th century, ethnic identity has replaced religious commonality in American Jewish politics.  Do you know if any reason for this.

A:  This is an intrinsic part of defining Jewish identity in Zionjst terms.  It is a rejection of the traditional American view of Judaism as a religion.  But  if Judaism is an ethnicity, how can people convert to it, as they have been doing since Biblical times?

Q:  During the years ahead, do you expect to see the American Jewish political establishment grow in power, of just the opposite?

A:  Those who pretend to wield power in the name of the Jewish community, which they have no mandate to do, have already seen their influence decline dramatically.  They did their best to prevent Chuck Hagel from becoming Secretary of Defense, but failed.  The fought any interim agreement with Iran over nuclear weapons, and have failed.  The latest polls show that an overwhelming majority of American Jews support such an agreement.  And when AIPAC, the ADL and the American Jewish Committee attempt to speak in the name of American Jews, there are other vocal Jewish groups, such as J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace, making clear that there is no united Jewish view on these issues.  The playing field has been changed and the political dynamics in the future will be far different.

Allan C. Brownfeld
About Allan C. Brownfeld

Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and serves as Associate Editor of THE LINCOLN REVIEW and editor of ISSUES. The author of five books, he has served on the staff of the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President.

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17 Responses

  1. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    January 7, 2014, 2:35 pm

    Doesn’t the American Council for Judaism follow something close to a “non-Zionist” form of Judaism?

    As to the main topic, I would pose this: A very large number of the community sees the idea of a Jewish state in the Holy Land as the ideal, don’t they? And they also seriously support it, while in polls a small majority does not agree with the idea of having a state for Palestinians at all.

    Meanwhile, a large majority, 60% considers that one cannot remain Jewish while changing religions. Doesn’t this in fact lead to the conclusion that a Jewish state would be based around a community that belongs to a particular religion or came from it and has not joined a different one? Thus, does not the state by extension become the state of one religious community?

  2. annie
    annie
    January 7, 2014, 2:48 pm

    The American Council for Judaism believes that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality and that Americans of Jewish faith are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim.

    well this is interesting in light of an interview w/michael oren we featured the other day http://mondoweiss.net/2014/01/questioning-imagines-campaign.html (albeit we cover the iran part of the interview).

    anyway, i read the whole thing and by far i found this the most interesting part, here’s oren (my bold):

    I’ll sit with American Jewish Reform and Conservative leaders who care passionately about Israel. But they’ll say to you: I can’t tell you how hurtful it is that the state of Israel doesn’t recognize my form of Judaism. It is the worst pain when you say something like that. It’s something we have to address as a society if we are to remain the nation state of the Jewish people.

    [When I returned as ambassador in 2009,] I had not lived in the United States for a quarter of a century. I had this Rip Van Winkle experience of this guy who wakes up after a long… I consulted with a lot of guides in the American Jewish community about what had happened in those 25 years. I had some wonderful people helping me. I got very sage advice. There was a big question about this notion of “the nation state of the Jewish people.” At the time, I think the prime minister was referring to Israel as the Jewish state. They came back to me and said the locution, the formula, that would be most acceptable to a majority of American Jews would be Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. And I conveyed this to the Prime Minister’s Office, and we adopted it. We got this from these American Jewish leaders.

    I take it very seriously: the nation state of the Jewish people. But we’ve got to stand behind it. Now we’ve accepted the formula, let’s live up to it.

    http://www.timesofisrael.com/iran-doesnt-take-obamas-military-option-seriously-says-oren/#ixzz2pkAaIqoc

    so what does “we adopted it” mean in 2009? this ‘jews as a nation’ has been a heavily empowered narrative injected into the national discourse. one had had personally been unaware of until hearing it from commenters on mondoweiss and i recall many arguments about it, when this idea was adopted. because the idea of nation states is fairly new anyway and ‘peoples’ as ‘nations’ is not an old concept, to my understanding.

    • Hostage
      Hostage
      January 7, 2014, 11:11 pm

      The American Council for Judaism believes that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality and that Americans of Jewish faith are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim.

      That has been the position ever since Rabbi Elmer Berger’s days. But it basically denies the possibility of a non-Zionist secular or socialist Jewish culture with universal values.

    • Hostage
      Hostage
      January 8, 2014, 12:05 am

      so what does “we adopted it” mean in 2009?

      Almost nothing at all, since it is a restatement of the theory contained in Herzl’s 19th century political tract about “The Jewish State” (Der Judenstaat). Herzl himself was simply restating ideas about nation-states that had been around since the 15th century. Emigration figures do not lie, and American Jews have never had any intention at all of “living up” to the idea.

      ‘peoples’ as ‘nations’ is not an old concept, to my understanding.

      On the contrary, it’s very old. But the fringe theory that scattered ethnic or religious groups, nations, and states are synonymous terms is much more recent and not widely accepted, since states are strictly territorial constructs.

      The fact that Zionists have always wanted to control territory occupied by other ethnic or religious groups and nations will always prevent the establishment or existence of a strictly Jewish nation-state. At one time the WZO was smart enough to acknowledge that simple truth:

      Berlin (Aug. 28, 1930) In a speech that appears to pave the way for a rapprochement with the Arabs and with the British government, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization and of the Jewish Agency, speaking at the session of the World Zionist Actions Committee, created a sensation when, in using the word “binational’ for the first time in referring to Palestine, he declared that “we must agree to Palestine becoming a binational state. It is impossible to continue the talk about a Jewish State as we did during the period when the world was engaged in war. Our present slogan must be ‘peaceful cooperation.’”

      Pointing out that is is necessary “to change our mental outlook and to consider reality,” Dr. Weizmann said, “We cannot drive the Arabs out of Palestine. Two nations must exist in Palestine.”

      — Palestine Must Become Bi-national State, Weizmann Tells Actions Committee http://www.jta.org/1930/08/29/archive/palestine-must-become-bi-national-state-weizmann-tells-actions-committee

  3. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    January 7, 2014, 2:49 pm

    The survey, by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, found that a quarter of all Jews ages 18-29 believe that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel.
    25% is a small percent. And what do the rest say? How many then are going to say on the contrary, “Not Supportive enough”?

    “not on the basis if a candidate’s view of Israel and U.S. Middle East policy.”
    Maybe that is because the candidates’ positions really don’t differ so much on IP?
    And maybe they should vote on the basis of Mideast policy. It says 77% were against the Iraq war, so maybe they should want to vote for peace candidates.

    It was an interesting interview in any case, and nice to have someone talk from a religious viewpoint who was not a religious nationalist.

    • American
      American
      January 7, 2014, 4:08 pm

      ‘“not on the basis if a candidate’s view of Israel and U.S. Middle East policy.”
      Maybe that is because the candidates’ positions really don’t differ so much on IP?
      …Jones’

      Yes, its really impossible for any polls to determine Jewish voting priority on Israel because both parties claim support for Israel.
      We can determine they vote liberal (Dem) causes in general but only if the Dems were to disavow support, aid, protection of Israel would we be able to see if Israel plays a large enough part in their voting to sway them away from the Dems.

    • annie
      annie
      January 7, 2014, 4:37 pm

      Maybe that is because the candidates’ positions really don’t differ so much on IP?

      if that were the case w.jones what would be the rationale of have an israel lobby? you do know it’s the 2nd most powerful lobby in DC, after the NRA. what kind of logic would be behind maintaining a lobby if everyone already agrees with you? that’s makes no sense. there are no lobbies where people think in lockstep with no dissenters. not that i can think of.

      • American
        American
        January 7, 2014, 5:27 pm

        ”there are no lobbies where people think in lockstep with no dissenters. not that i can think of.”..annie

        Lobbies are for those who do think in lockstep or have a certain goal—-and it doesnt mean there are no dissenters in the rest of the population.
        But what Jones was saying and I agree with is that it’s impossible to rank importance of Israel in the Jewish vote when both parties, particulary the dems, claim support of it.

      • W.Jones
        W.Jones
        January 7, 2014, 10:56 pm

        “if that were the case w.jones what would be the rationale of have an israel lobby?”

        To weed out the dissenters like McKinney and keep individual pols in line?

      • W.Jones
        W.Jones
        January 7, 2014, 11:12 pm

        …as a result of which the candidates’ positions on IP do not significantly vary.

  4. seafoid
    seafoid
    January 7, 2014, 4:39 pm

    It’s hard to see the grandkids of today’s 20 year old US Jews following Israel blindly given the way things are going over in JDisneyland .

  5. yrn
    yrn
    January 7, 2014, 4:54 pm

    So we as Jews, too, are proud to be Germans in this epic era, in which the fate of nations is at stake, for we have become aware of the task that should convince all our fellow Jews throughout the world of the religious significance of Germanness, of its impact, of the legal claims that it exerts on Jews among all the nations of the world, both for their religious development and for all their cultural activity. Thus we feel ourselves to be German Jews, conscious of a central cultural power that has been called upon to bring the people of the world together in the consciousness of a messianic humanity, and we may reject the reproach made against us [as Jews] that it is our historical nature to corrupt the nations and tribes of the world. When it again comes to a serious effort at international conciliation and really well-founded international peace, our example may properly serve as model for recognizing German predominance in the deepest domains of all intellectual and spiritual life. And without this willing precondition, we do not believe that there is a sufficient foundation for genuine international understanding.
    We are delighted in the confident belief that through the heroic victory of our Fatherland, the God of Justice and Love will put an end to the yoke of barbarism that weighs upon our Jewish brethren in the Russian empire, whose entire political existence mocks all justice, all political rationality, all religion and morality, all human compassion, and all respect for the nobility of mankind. We are hoping as well for the triumph of German arms – that it will raise these people up to the dignity of man, which they, through their glorious martyrdom, have preserved in themselves.

    And for ourselves, too, we hope above all else to achieve the further establishment of full equality for our confessional community alongside the other religious communities in the German state – that the reluctance will disappear that permits us to participate in the highest and most holy tasks of our state, [but] without love or trust; that the moral and religious equality of our religion will find unqualified recognition; that on the basis of this free insight, this true enlightenment, the religious community will be recognized that binds us to the Christian confessions, in which our special character still forms the irreplaceable foundation for the further ethical development of monotheism; that accordingly the gates of the university will finally be opened to the scholarly study of Judaism, which is the only means by which the state’s interest in the continued existence and spiritual and moral development of our religion will be put into practice.

    We are living amid the high emotions of German patriotism, the conviction that the unity between Germanness and Jewishness, for which the entire history of German Jewry has paved the way, will finally shine as a cultural historical truth in German politics and in the life of the German people, and even in the spirit of the German people.

    Hermann Cohen 1915

    • Hostage
      Hostage
      January 8, 2014, 8:46 am

      Welcome to the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world: Germany
      Jewish Voice from Germany, published by former Israeli, marks renaissance of long-dormant culture.

      Nice try but it was the beliefs of the defunct Nazi regime that were an aberration, not the views of Hermann Cohen.

      JAFI and Nefesh B’Nefesh should probably study the fastest growing Jewish community in the world. There are about a quarter of a million Jews, including Americans and Israelis, who opt to live in Germany: See Welcome to the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world: Germany http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/welcome-to-the-fastest-growing-jewish-community-in-the-world-germany-1.409388

  6. oneof5
    oneof5
    January 7, 2014, 6:03 pm

    Typo in the article ?

    “Reporter Joseph Cotto emailed questions that Cotto responded to …”

  7. LeaNder
    LeaNder
    January 7, 2014, 6:23 pm

    ????

    Reporter Joseph Cotto emailed questions that Cotto responded to.

    ????

    In many respects, the American Jewish establishment is engaged in a form of idolatry, having substituted the state of Israel for God and Judaism’s moral and ethical teachings as the object of worship and the focus of attention. Israeli flags can be found in many American synagogues

    I have to admit that I was slightly shocked when I realized that about a decade ago. Yes, nationalism gives religion a peculiar twist.

  8. Stogumber
    Stogumber
    January 7, 2014, 7:49 pm

    “If Judaism is an ethnicity, how can people convert to it?”

    For all his merits, Brownfeld is wrong in this point. Persons can leave their tribe or people and join another tribe or people. Normally that’s combined with intermarriage.
    So, there isn’t a working argument against the construction of Jews as “a people” or ethnic community (“am” in Hebrew), and in fact, I think we should let everyone decide for himself if he joins a religious community or a people.

  9. hophmi
    hophmi
    January 8, 2014, 11:01 am

    “Clearly, the priorities of most American Jews are not being reflected by national Jewish organizations which speak in their name.”

    Except that Israel has never been high on the list of priorities for American Jews in Presidential elections.

    “The overwhelming majority of American Jews reject this view and are perfectly at home in America.”

    The overwhelmingly majority of Greek-Americans are perfectly at home in America. Does that mean that they don’t see Greece as a Greek country?

    “And it is a strange and disturbing enterprise to see young people in our religious schools being taught not about their religious heritage and what living a righteous and meaningful life involves but, instead, being taught that a distant country should be the object of their attention and loyalty.”

    Huh? I don’t think Mr. Brownfield has spent very much time in a Jewish Day School. They teach ethics. And about Israel. At like, the same time. Yeah, it’s like so disturbing that kids in public school are being taught science, but not math. (What? I’m being told that they actually teach both subjects.)

    “Those who pretend to wield power in the name of the Jewish community, which they have no mandate to do, have already seen their influence decline dramatically. They did their best to prevent Chuck Hagel from becoming Secretary of Defense, but failed.”

    Yes, and before that, we had a perfect record, and never lost anything, right? You should try managing your expectations.

    ” The fought any interim agreement with Iran over nuclear weapons, and have failed.”

    They? We also fought against AWACS to Saudi Arabia. We lost that too.

    ” The latest polls show that an overwhelming majority of American Jews support such an agreement.”

    The latest ones? How about every poll on the issue for the last two decades?

    ” And when AIPAC, the ADL and the American Jewish Committee attempt to speak in the name of American Jews, there are other vocal Jewish groups, such as J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace, making clear that there is no united Jewish view on these issues.”

    The AJC and ADL have plenty of J Street members and members who identify with the goals of J Street, and comparing J Street and JVP is like comparing an elephant and a mouse.

    ” The playing field has been changed and the political dynamics in the future will be far different.”

    You can keep saying that, but until more Americans actually support the Palestinian cause, it will be meaningless babble.

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