One of the best speeches at the National Summit to Reassess the Special Relationship between the U.S. and Israel last month was by Allan Brownfeld. The summit has now posted the speech in video and transcript. Here are extended excerpts. –Ed.
We all know that Zionism has distorted American policy in the Middle East. At the same time, it has had a terribly negative impact upon Jewish life in the United States and throughout the world. And it is important to remember that, historically, Zionism was a minority view within Judaism, particularly in America.
The organization whose journal I edit, the American Council for Judaism, was established in 1942 and it was established primarily because the established Jewish organizations, which had previously opposed the concept of Jewish nationalism, had changed course. So the Council was organized to maintain this older view that, first, Judaism is a religion, not a nationality, that American Jews are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other people are Protestant, Catholic, or Muslim.
This was the view maintained by the vast majority of American Jews all through history. In my opinion, it’s the view of the silent majority today. Zionism gained a foothold largely because of the reaction to Naziism. Something had to be done in the wake of the horror of Europe.
But I just want to give you a little bit of the history so you understand where we’re coming from. In 1841, at the dedication of Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, the oldest reform synagogue in America, Rabbi Gustav Posnanski declared, “This country is our Palestine. This city is our Jerusalem. This house of God is our temple.”…
One of the leading Jewish theologians of the 20th century, Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Judaism is not a religion of space and does not worship the soil. So true the state of Israel is not the climax of Jewish history but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people and the competence of Judaism.”
And in 1929, a respected Orthodox rabbi, Aaron Samuel Tamarat wrote that the very notion of a sovereign Jewish state as a spiritual center was a contradiction to Judaism’s ultimate purpose. He wrote, “Judaism is not some religious concentration that can be localized or situated in a single territory. Neither is Judaism a nationality in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the threefoldedness of homeland, army, and heroic songs. No, Judaism is Torah, ethics, an exaltation of the spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines of any particular territory, for as scripture said of Torah, it’s measure is greater than the Earth.”
It is my opinion that what has happened to American Judaism has completely corrupted its religious nature. What we are witnessing today, synagogues flying Israeli flags, programs urging American Jews to immigrate to Israel, their real homeland, is a form of idolatry, making the sovereign state of Israel the object of worship, rather than God.
In 1999, the Union for Reformed Judaism adopted a resolution saying Israel is central to our religion. Israel, not God. And one of the prominent Zionists, Professor [Ruth] Wisse of Harvard University, said at one time, “I would rather surround myself with Jews who loved Israel and didn’t believe in God at all than with those who believed in God and did not love Israel.”
It is also my view that Zionism is a subversive enterprise. What would we, as Americans, think of any religious institution in our society that flew a foreign flag in its houses of worship, that told young Americans that this is not really their homeland, that some place else is their homeland, and that the highest form of their religious expression is to immigrate to that country?
Now, I doubt that very many American Jews believe any of that. Very few American Jews are immigrating to Israel, yet their religious institutions manifest that sensibility.
If you read the Jewish press, whether the Forward or the Washington Jewish Week or local Jewish papers in Los Angeles or Cleveland, you get the feeling that you are reading the papers of an expatriate community. It’s as if you were reading the papers of recent immigrants from El Salvador who are reading about the daily events in their home country and were being urged to return.
Now, there have been many distortions in American Jewish life. Consider the hypocrisy of American Jewish organizations which have gone to court to remove voluntary school prayer from our schools, remove Christmas trees from our schools, yet support a theocracy in Israel where there is no separation of church and state. The Israel calls itself a Jewish state, yet non-Orthodox Jews have fewer rights in Israel than any place in the Western World. Reformed rabbis have no right to perform weddings or funerals. Conversions by reformed rabbis are not recognized. Israel is not a free society with regard to religion.
The question then arises, American Jewish organizations who have dedicated themselves with such fervor to a strict separation of church and state seem not really to believe in separation of church and state when Jews are a majority. It’s interesting that when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom, they were not members of a persecuted minority. They were people who believed in religious freedom. One wonders if the American Jewish establishment shares that belief.
Consider how Israel has infiltrated American Jewish life to the extent when resolutions were proposed in Congress to recognize the Armenian genocide by Turkey, Jewish organizations led the crusade to remove that legislation and defeat it because Israel, at that time, was allied with Turkey. I suspect if the same resolution came up today, these organizations might take a different, different position.
In Israel itself, there is a growth of racism, there is a growth of religious extremism. The book The King’s Torah was a bestseller. This is a book that said Jews and non-Jews are basically different in nature, Jews are much closer to God than non-Jews, who are referred to as uncompassionate….
We understand there’s religious extremism in many parts of the world. My point is why don’t American Jews say a word about this? Not a word of criticism of the racism and extremism growing in Israel. It has distorted Jewish values. It has distorted American Jewish life.
Now, I’m not a pessimist because, as I said earlier, I believe that the position I represent represents a silent majority of American Jews, not those who are members of AIPAC or the American Jewish Committee. But the vast majority of American Jews believe they are Americans, believe that Judaism is their religion, do not believe that Israel is their homeland. Zionism is in retreat, in my opinion, within the Jewish community.
We’ve seen a number of events. Hillel foundations in various parts of the country are rejecting the guidelines set down by the Hillel Foundation officially. And Eric Fingerhut, the former congressman from Ohio who is now the head of Hillel, said, “According to our guidelines, no anti-Zionists will be permitted to speak at Hillel foundations.” Mr. Fingerhut must not be aware of the long tradition of Jewish opposition to Zionism that I have just recited…
So among young people, there’s a great belief in freedom of speech, in freedom of debate, and a desire that moral values, treating each individual with human dignity, be applied everywhere: in Palestine, as well as in Israel, as well as in our own country.
So I think Zionism within the Jewish community is in retreat, and time will tell whether I’m right. Thank you very much.