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Why American Jews Mostly Shrugged Off the Ultimate Insult

Daniel Gordis

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When news broke last week that a right-wing member of Israel’s government, Rafi Peretz, had remarked that assimilation of American Jews is a “second Holocaust,” a column in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper braced for the worst reaction, proclaiming, “Israel’s Education Minister Just Said Most American Jews Are Dead to Him.”

The response from American Jews, though, has been mostly muted. Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, chastised Peretz in a tweet, saying: “It’s inconceivable to use the term ‘Holocaust’ to describe Jews choosing to marry non-Jews. It trivializes the Shoah.” But as for the impact on relations between American Jews and Israel, Greenblatt was almost gentle, saying Peretz’s comment “does little other than inflame and offend.” The American Jewish Committee also tweeted a slap at Peretz, calling his comment “offensive and unhelpful.” More telling, however, was its acknowledging that “assimilation challenges Jewish continuity and Diaspora identification with Israel and must be grappled with.”

The tame response was due, in part, to the recognition that Peretz is hardly one of Israel’s most nuanced politicians. Indeed, just days after his swipe at American Jews, Peretz found himself in serious political trouble after he called for conversion therapy for gays and lesbians. That led to widespread calls for his resignation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forcefully distanced himself from Peretz’s stance on gays, yet said nothing about Peretz’s comment on American Jews. Netanyahu evidently saw no need to step away from that remark: Criticisms of American Jews are not a political liability for him in this election season and, even more important, many Israelis agree with Peretz. He may be impolitic, they acknowledge, but the numbers, they said, speak for themselves.

When Israel was founded in 1948, more Jews lived in New York City than in the entire Jewish State. Some 70 years later, Israel has become the world’s largest Jewish community; there are more Jews in Israel than in the U.S., and the gap is growing. Sergio Della Pergola, Israel’s leading demographer of world Jewry, predicts that in 2043, there will be 10.6 million Jews in Israel, and only half that, 5.3 million Jews, in the U.S.

Many Israelis, despite their admiration for American Jews’ organizational and political accomplishments, harbor a deep-seated sense that the Jewish faith in the U.S. is hemorrhaging believers. With intermarriage outside the Orthodox community now at 70 percent, Israelis believe that the erosion of American Judaism is but a matter of time. Even among non-Orthodox women, Israel has a higher birthrate than any other developed country. American Jews married to other Jews have birth rates are similar to those of Americans at large (1.8 births per woman), and cannot sustain the current Jewish population.

Demography, though, is hardly the only reason for Israelis’ attitude to U.S. Jewry. Indeed, mutually dismissive attitudes are part of each community’s DNA.

In 1915, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson reminded newly naturalized citizens that the country would welcome immigrants, but only if they dropped any other national attachments. “A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American, and the man who goes among you to trade upon your nationality is no worthy son to live under the Stars and Stripes,” he said. Only two years later, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, endorsing the creation “in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” For European Zionists, Balfour was cause for celebration, but for American Jews, it was a complication. How could they both be faithful to Wilson’s demand to drop other national allegiances and be passionate Zionists? They couldn’t.

No one expressed American Jews’ lack of Zionist enthusiasm back then better than Jacob Blaustein, who was president of the American Jewish Committee. Blaustein warned David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, that Israel should not overestimate American Jewish enthusiasm about Jewish statehood. “We had cooperated” in the approval of the United Nations’ 1947 Partition Plan, the AJC’s president said, “in the conviction that [a Jewish state] was the only practicable solution for some hundreds of thousands of the surviving Jews of Europe.” That was hardly a full-throated endorsement of Jewish national rebirth in the Jews’ ancestral homeland.

The feelings were mutual. In 1926, Chaim Nachman Bialik, the poet-laurate of the Jewish people, said, “The Remnant of Israel, which has been tried in fire and water and which over the generations has withstood, with pride, manifold trials and tribulations without ever surrendering … must recognize its responsibility to save itself from the rot and destruction of life in exile.” He continued: “Every Jew must certainly recognize that even the little that we are thus far doing in the rebuilding of Jerusalem is a thousand-fold more consequential than everything we are building in the Exile.” Bialik has iconic status among American Jews because of the beauty of his poetry; that status would be tarnished if American Jews read his prose.

In 1960, when American Jews criticized Israel for having captured the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, spiriting him out of the country to stand trial in Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion — who saw Eichmann’s capture as an enormous Israeli accomplishment — was apoplectic with anger. His ire at the criticism had not subsided month later, when he said to the World Zionist Congress that “Judaism of the United States … is losing all meaning” and that in free and prosperous countries Judaism “faces the kiss of death, a slow and imperceptible decline into the abyss of assimilation.”

That was Ben-Gurion, the socialist, politically left hero of American Jews, not Netanyahu, whom they love to loathe. That was Ben-Gurion, the arch-secularist, not Peretz, the Orthodox rabbi. That was the 1960s, long before Israel had supposedly “lurched to the right.”

The relatively muted response to Peretz may stem in part from a long overdue but growing realization by American Jews that the world’s two largest Jewish communities were fashioned on utterly different foundations. The U.S. is a liberal democracy, committed to a country with no inherently privileged ethnicity, race or religion, while Israel was always intended to be a “national home for the Jewish people.” American Jews believed that in the U.S., they would prove an exception to the anti-Semitism and assimilation that had always plagued diaspora communities, while Zionists thought that belief a foolish misread of history, and were certain that only in a Jewish State could Jews flourish for the long haul.

Politicians like Peretz will come and go, but his sentiments will always hover just beneath the surface. If both communities could appreciate how deeply they hold their resentment of the other, that might finally engender a serious conversation that both acknowledges the chasms between their visions for Jewish life and considers how to move forward with more respect for each other’s accomplishments.

To contact the author of this story: Daniel Gordis at dgordis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."

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