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Toward A More Perfect Union

By Joshua A. Kaufman

New York magazine wins the contest for stupidest headline of the week: "Is Israel Still Good for the Jews?" The April 27 cover story tells of a very real divide between American and Israeli Jews through the microcosm of a 50th anniversary celebration gone awry. But in the process--and just in time for next Thursday's celebration of Israeli Independence Day--journalist Craig Horowitz manages to confuse a cultural schism with political separation.

Horowitz's claim is that the co-chairs of Israel's 50th Anniversary Committee--Americans Merv Adelson, co-founder of Lorimar Telepictures, and Marvin Josephson, founder of International Creative Management--did not receive the promised monetary support from the Israeli government because their conception of an anniversary celebration differed sharply from Israelis.' That is, the planned events, including a celebrity-stocked show broadcast worldwide from the Ramat Gan stadium near Tel Aviv organized by the people who organized the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics opening ceremonies, were considered too flashy, shallow and expensive--in short, too American. Almost everything the Committee had planned, including an international gathering of distinguished Jews in Jerusalem and the shuttling of 50,000 Jewish teenagers to Israel for the summer, was cancelled or fell through. What was left was the CBS television special featuring Kevin Costner that you might have caught last week. I skipped it after seeing the Oscar-esque previews.

These Hollywood-style celebrations seem meaningless even to East Coast Jews, so it's no wonder Israelis found them difficult to stomach. More than a celebration, they seem to be a cultural imposition of American ideals--of celebrity and ostentatiousness--upon the rough-hewn world of the sabra (native Israeli). Many American Jews like to play down the differences between themselves and Israelis, but the New York intellectual will never be of the same mind as the organic kibbutznik. Philip Roth, this year's recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, makes exactly this point in Operation Shylock, in which the lead character named Philip Roth encounters his double, also calling himself Philip Roth, in the streets of Jerusalem. While the one Roth is enjoying the country as a tourist/researcher, the other is plotting a Jewish exodus from Israel ("diasporization"). Together, the two halves of the single Roth show the complexity of the American Jew's attitude toward the Holy Land: it is wonderful to visit, but I prefer to live abroad.

America, at the moment, offers a higher standard of living, greater economic opportunities and, what is perhaps most important, a physically safe environment for Jews. The American Jew, while enjoying the benefits of and contributing energy to the world's hegemonic nation, is plagued by a divided sense of fate: though America is most certainly his country, a great number of his people are sweating, fighting and dying to establish a secure home for all of the Jewish people--a home in which the Jew does not yet, but may some day, desire or need to live. A safe home ideology may not be the most lofty ideal for Jewish statehood, but in this post-Holocaust age, it is a political necessity nonetheless. Evidence of this in our generation can be seen in an article by Crimson editor Adam J. Levitin, "The El-Al Exodus Scenario," published on the web zine Muskeljuden ( Levitin proposes half-comically that El Al airlines offer a "oneway ticket to Israel that is good for use [within 24 hours] at any time...Although it would probably be an expensive investment, it should be viewed as a sort of emergency eject button for the Diaspora, a life insurance policy if you will."

The more meaningful argument for a Jewish state is that put forth by Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl a century ago: the normalization of the Jewish people. Herzl's dream of a sovereign Jewish nation was realized some 50 years later in 1948, and today the state of Israel thrives as a Jewish land. In Israel, Jews are not a minority, so no one questions whether there are too many Jewish columnists on a newspaper, for example. In Israel, the Jew is Jewish regardless of his religious beliefs, so whether or not one attends a synagogue is irrelevant to his membership in Jewish civilization. In Israel, the Jew is strong, a member of the armed forces at 18, and not subject to the blond-haired, assimilated sexual longings he is given to in the United States. This vision of a state which is the national manifestation of the Jewish people is what compelled Zionists from Minsk to London to Cambridge to push for the creation of and to then settle and fight for the state of Israel.

But as the journalist Horowitz mentions, American Jewish support of Israel has been on a downward spiral as of late due to the rise of the religious right through the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is unfortunate both that the Israeli Orthodox choose to act as fundamentalists in their control over religion and education, and that American liberals would base their support of the state on the political priorities of democratically elected government. It is unfortunate because American Jews and Israelis share a common fate as Jews. This is why the New York headline ("Is Israel Still Good for the Jews?") is a rhetorical question.

This common political fate transcends the evident cultural divide between American Jews and Israelis. What else could or should we expect from a people divided between lands so distinct? The United States is defined by peace and prosperity, and Israel by war and struggle, though the latter is increasingly realizing economic success with its burgeoning technology industry. The Jews in these two lands must be expected to have separate cultures, and each should be respectful of the other. Likewise, the Jews in these two lands must be expected to have different politics, and each should also be deferential to the other on this front. It is not up to American Jews to tell Israelis how to live--politically or culturally. If as Jews we choose not to live in Israel, then we must respect the political and cultural choices of those who have become part of that history. This is why such organizations as the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee support whichever party is in power in Israel. But American Jews and Israelis do have overlapping fates, and this is why it is necessary that there be a rapport and mutual exchange of support between the two groups.

To speak of the relationship between American Jews and Israel in terms of ominous overtones of divorce, as Horowitz does in the New York piece, is raising a false prospect: even if the two groups wanted to split with each other, they cannot. In this chapter of our history defined by proud nationhood, all Jews must do our best to support the state of Israel. In turn, Israel should return the favor of making itself truly a state for all the world's Jews to live or to visit.

This week, all Jews should celebrate the 50th anniversary of the birth of the state of Israel in whatever way their local community feels appropriate. And if Hollywood wants to haul out the stars, watch. If Tel Aviv wants to party on the Boardwalk, dance. If Jerusalem wants to have religious services, pray. If New York wants to have a parade, walk. If Harvard wants to have colloquia, participate. In any case, let's appreciate the commonalities held by all Jews, including and especially the state of Israel.

Joshua A. Kaufman '98 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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