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Women on Israeli Kibbutz, Library of Congress photo

The Deepening Rift In American Judaism And The Turn Toward Revisionist Zionism (Martin Katchen)

One aspect of the 2016 American election that has gone largely unnoticed has been the way this election has deepened an already existing rift within American Judaism, and Judaism in general.

The election of Donald Trump and the appointment of Breitbart News head Steve Bannon as Trump’s Chief Strategist prompted the Bnai Brith Anti-Defamation League to condemn Steve Bannon as anti-semitic and a conduit for white nationalist Alt Right viewpoints. Two days later, Steve Bannon attended the dinner of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).  Other major Jewish organizations such as American Jewish Committee and Jewish Federations declined to support the ADL while Jewish luminaries such as Alan Dershowitz defended Bannon and the ADL was finally compelled to partially walk back its comments.

The sight of a major American Jewish organization denouncing a single person  –  in this case, Bannon – and an organization – i.e., Breitbart – with a bureau in Jerusalem and a following among a segment of Jews in both the United States and abroad laid bare the schism.  The sources of the schism go back to the 18th Century, but the current split became apparent in 1967 and 1968 as a result of Israel’s victory in the 6 Day War along with the 1968 New York Teachers strike. It has resulted in a situation in which Orthodox Jews and Liberal Jews are finding themselves having less and less in common.

From the time of the Christian Byzantine Empire Jews were treated as a despised, downtrodden but segregated and autonomous underclass in both Christendom and Islam.  Jews were not equal before the law (treated as dhimmi, or “protected”, under Sharia).  But in Christendom nobles, clergy and commoners made up differing estates and were not equal before the law either.  Judaism had a number of messianic movements during this period (led by false messiahs) including Shabbatai Tzvi in the 17th century and Jacob Frank in the 18th century.

Unlike previous messianic cults, the Frankist movement occurred during the 18th Century and reached it’s culmination toward the end of the 18th Century. The Frankists (and the Shabbataeans) were antinomian, preaching a rebellion against Jewish Law in order to bring the coming of the Messiah.  And unlike previous “false messiahs”, Frank lived to see actual insurrection and the achievement of equality before the law as a result of the French Revolution, which two of his nephews participated in.  When Frankism collapsed following the death of its leader his daughter Eva, many of the rank and file,, according to historian Gershom Scholem joined the nascent Reform Movement in Judaism.

Thus the liberal tradition in Judaism was born.

Equality before the law for Jews was something many Christians were uncomfortable with in the 19th century. Many Christians had a cultural phobia about Jews. And antisemitism might properly be called” Judeophobia” since the heart of it seems to be a fear of Jews.  Jews, however, prospered under the new regimes only to find the gates start to close to them after the 1850sy even in Western Europe. And in the Russian Empire, such Judeophobia often resulted in murderous riots (pogroms) against Jews.

It was in Russia that Jews first began to see the possibility of a Jewish nation centred in what is now the land of Israel through the work of Leo Pinsker. A steady stream of Jews had started to settle in Eretz Yisroel from the early 19th Century.  These were mainly Talmudic scholars sustained by donations from abroad, who had joined Sephardic communities and who had come earlier to Palestine. Many were Jews whose ancestors never left the land.

By the early 1900s this movement had fused with Marxist socialism, which was also sweeping Russian jewry and the first kibbutzim, which constituted an on-the-ground attempt to realize the communist  and the Zionist national dream at the same time.  But most Russian Jews, who were alienated and prompted to leave Russia, were more interested in migrating to the United States and Canada, where there was relatively little Judeophobia until the turn of the 20th century (except in New York City where most Jewish immigrants lived) and where they were offered a chance to start businesses.

Even in the United States anti-semitism became a factor by the 1900s with universities and other institutions increasingly barring Jews.  Relegated to the working class, Jews became increasingly interested in progressive social reform, particularly in the area of labour organizing during this period. At the same time, an already transplanted German Reform Judaism looked increasingly attractive to the marginalized Jews who made the trip to the US.  Jews more integrated in their communities tended to remain in Europe.

Thus, during the first half of the 20th Century, the settlement of Palestine was not particularly relevant to American Jews, who would help Palestine financially but rarely send their sons and daughters to pioneer in the land of their ancestors. Even the independence of the State of Israel, something few Jews believed could happen until the 1949 cease-fire, did not change this calculus. The Jewish communal priorities after World War II became a combination of using their GI benefits to good purpose to finally attend universities, which were expanding, and a mutual alliance with African-Americans to break down the remaining barriers of prejudice.

During the interwar period a non-socialist version of Zionism grew in Poland, as Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands points out, with the sponsorship of the Pilsudski regime. This was Jewish Revisonist Zionism, led by Joseph Trumpledor and Ze’ev Jabotinski, and it advocated complete independence for Israel on both sides of the Jordan River by any means necessary. The Pilsudski regime, seeing Zionism as an extension of its program of Prometheanism (i.e., independence for all the subject peoples of Russia) sponsored Revisionist Zionism to the point of permitting its youth movement Betar to train militarily on Polish soil before migrating to British Palestine.

With the end of World War II and the formation of Israel Zionism temporarily receded in importance for American Jewry. Israel had a lot of legitimacy, though perhaps too socialist for American tastes But American Jews were most concerned with supporting civil rights – theirs along with those of African-Americans. The American Jewish loyalty to the Democratic Party was cemented during these years, especially after 1964 when the Democrats basically repudiated segregation, at least in public facilities.

A turning point and a parting of the ways were reached in 1967. Israel’s victory in the Six Day War was a complete shock. Suddenly Jews were not embattled and in danger of being thrown into the sea, as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had threatened in the run-up to the conflict.  On the contrary, they were actually ruling Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai.

It was a jolt for the Arabs, the USSR and the US. And this was at a time when African-Americans were shifting from the ideals of the Civil Rights movement to Black Power. Martin Luther King was pushing toward economic justice and a unified front for the working class.  But King was assassinated in 1968, ushering in the ascendancy of Black Nationalism.

Black Muslims began to garner a great deal of respect in the African Community.  After Elijah Muhammad’s son Wallace (now Warith Dean) Muhammad) made the haj to Mecca, links with Wahabi Sunni Islam were forged, even if the son did not take on all the customs of Wahabism.

The pivotal event in the breach between Jews and African-Americans turned out to be a strike by New York City teachers over the involuntary transfer of ten of the members by the Ocean-Hill Brownsville Community School Board. During this strike Alfred Shanker, President of the United Federation of Teachers, attributed the firing of the ten teachers to anti-semitism. Anti-semitic statements were made by some students, and the events of this strike were instrumental in motivating Meir Kahane to form the Jewish Defense League.

Militant, and later labelled a terrorist group, the Jewish Defense League played a major role in popularizing Revisionist, right-wing Zionism in the 1970s.  During the 1970s and 80s, the JDL was soon joined by Aish Hatorah and other Orthodox Jewish organizations, particularly after 1974 when the Israeli political party Likud under Menachem Begin ended 26 years of labor-left dominance of the nation’s politics. The rise of Gush Emunim in Israel lent an Orthodox accent to Jewish settlement of the West Bank.

Gradually, in the United States, the Baalei Teshuva movement competed head to head with cults from the Hare Krishnas to Jews for Jesus to Unification Church for the allegiance of disaffected young Jews. Whether they were Aish Hatorah, Chabad-Lubavitch or other groups, this movement increasingly developed a politically conservative, Revisionist Zionist outlook that revitalized Jewish Orthodoxy.  It also found itself increasingly at odds with the Liberal Jewish, Conservative, and Reform and Reconstructionist mainstream. This all happened at a time in which the American secular left became increasingly anti-Zionist.

Over the course of the 20th century, the support for the conservatives deepened. Jews, whose backing for the Democrats was in the 80 percent range in the mid-1900s dropped to the 70s during the early 2000s. Much of the reason for this shift was demographic. Orthodox Jews have large families, and those families tend to stay Orthodox, while liberal Jews have smaller families and their intermarriage rates are at half or more, depending on the community.

Despite outreach and conversion efforts, over the course of generations, intermarried Jews tend to lose their Jewish identity. So over time, the proportion of Orthodox Jews increases. And both in Israel and the US, Orthodox Jews are increasingly right-wing Zionist.

Martin Katchen is an independent scholar, teacher, and researcher living in California.  He specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, particularly the state of Israel.  He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney (Australia).


One thought on “The Deepening Rift In American Judaism And The Turn Toward Revisionist Zionism (Martin Katchen)

  1. I think the birth of Reform Judaism is a lot more complex and nuanced than just the collapse of Jacob Frank’s messianic movement. Nevertheless, the recent U.S. election has exposed and deepened a rift in Judaism that until now has gone largely unnoticed. The old status quo has collapsed, and the next few years will reveal the full diversity, and unfortunately, some animosity within the greater Jewish community.

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