In exploring the topic of American Jewish alienation from Israel, the New York Times has twice gone to relative outliers as a focus of articles. In May, Paul Vitello interviewed members of a secular humanistic congregation in Farmington Hills, Mich., who were described as “more or less inactive” by their rabbi.
On Saturday, Sam Freedman focused on the extremely marginal American Council for Judaism in order to discuss the ”intense criticism of Israel now growing among a number of American Jews.” Even Sam acknowledges that new members aren’t exactly “flocking” to the ACJ:
The group’s mailing list is only in the low thousands, and its Web site received a modest 10,000 unique visitors in the last year. Its budget is a mere $55,000. As [president Stephen] Naman acknowledges, the council’s history of opposition to Zionism renders it “radioactive” for even liberal American Jewish groups, like J Street and Peace Now.
So why bestow such visibility on a group that essentially lost the argument more than 60 years ago when the Reform movement, from which it sprang, embraced Zionism?
Because, writes Sam, “the arguments that the council has consistently levied against Zionism and Israel have shot back into prominence over the last decade.” Brandeis prof Jonathan Sarna articulates those arguments as ”dual loyalty, nationalism being evil” and ”the point that Zionism is no panacea” for the problems of Jewish life in the diaspora.
In other words, ACJ doesn’t represent the argument over the right of Jews to critcize Israeli policy, à la J Street or Peace Now. Rather, it operates in the spirit of Tony Judt and Philip Weiss, who question Israel’s very legitimacy and suggest its brand of religio-ethno-nationalism (as opposed to its neighbors’) is an anachronism that dooms it to constant conflict.
Except I don’t think that’s what the ACJ is really about either. In its statement of principles, the ACJ doesn’t question Israel’s legitimacy — in fact, “as a refuge for many Jews who have suffered persecution and oppression in other places,” they wish Israel and its citizens well. The chief concern for the ACJ is asserting the American identity of its members. To wit:
As American Jews, we believe that our nationality is American. We are tied both geographically and emotionally to the United States and to its values of democracy, freedom, liberty and justice. We believe we can be Jews and Americans.
Their quibble does not appear to be with Zionism, or with Israeli policies, but with those who believe they can be Jews, Americans, and passionate supporters of Israel. ACJ wants the Israeli flag removed from synagogues, not from Israeli soil.
If ACJ represents anybody, it is the Jews who are comfortable in their Jewishness but disengaged from the idea and reality of Israel. Some of those are merely apathetic, or had parents who didn’t emphasize Israel as a component in Jewish identity (see Marjorie Ingall’s much discussed article). I am sure there is a cohort of those who, like ACJ, actively promote or identify with the notion of a distinctly American Jewish identity, either because they are fed up with Israel politically or are philosphically committed to the notion of exile as the peak Jewish condition. I’m sure they are out there.
But where are those folks, exactly? The Times articles don’t provide the data or anecdotes to nail down the notion that such peoople exist beyond the few and exceptional examples they selected.