The Inherent Conflict between American Judaism and Zionism

By: Pete Zubof

During the recent Memorial Day season, I had the honor of speaking at several local synagogues about the holiday itself and my experiences in the military.  Each of these speaking engagements presented the opportunity to interact with members of our local Jewish community, which provided fertile ground for blog topic generation.  At my last Memorial Day event of the season, a member of the congregation asked me a question:  If the United States ever had a falling out with the State of Israel, which country would I side with?

This question does not actually surprise me.  In fact, it is a question that gets asked often of Jewish service members by both their fellow Jews and, perhaps more importantly, by concerned non-Jewish citizens.  A recent Anti-Defamation League survey suggested that while anti-Semitism in the United States is fairly low (about 9 percent) compared to in other nations, a whopping 31 percent of Americans interviewed had concerns about the loyalties of American Jews, which suggests that they are more loyal to the State of Israel than to the United States.

We should not be overly surprised with these statistics.  A side effect of Zionism within the United States is that American Jewish institutions do seem to show, at least on the face of things, a public preference for the Israeli state.  On Memorial Day weekend, the congregation that I was speaking at sang “America the Beautiful” as part of the Shabbat service to honor one of its member’s recent acquisition of U.S. citizenship.  As a serviceman, I was very moved, yet it was the first time in my life that I heard an American patriotic song sung in a Jewish assembly.  By contrast, I know the words to “Hatikvah” by heart.  It was how we opened each day at the Jewish Community Center summer camp that I was a counselor at for many years.

I do take issue with the idea that all American Jews are, by their very nature, Zionists.  I am certainly not.  The State of Israel certainly fascinates me.  As a Jew, how could it not?  It’s the only place on earth where a Jew is not a minority figure.  Yet I hold no special affinity for Israel aside from its cultural and historical significance.

Now before the hate mail begins, I am certainly not saying that I am anti-Israel.  Ideologically and theologically, Israel represents the Promised Land.  In my mind, however, I differentiate biblical Israel from the state itself.  It is this part of Zionist thought that I take issue with.  We are (and should be) capable of being very critical of our own government, yet often Zionists may romanticize the Israeli state and forgive its own political transgressions.

To be sure, Israel (the state) provided the bedrock for Judaism to thrive after the horrors of the Holocaust.  I believe that Israel has played an important historical role in the preservation of the Jewish people, a fact that I’m certainly grateful for.  What I am suggesting, however, is that as grateful as I am for the contributions of Israel to Jewish history, I am more grateful for the contributions of the United States to my own well being and that of American Jews.

After all, I am not Israeli.  Truth be told, I have never even been to Israel.  By contrast, the United States has given me all that I have.  Although I do not debate that Israel has provided a refuge for millions of Jews, it was America that provided a refuge for my immigrant family (and likely for the families of most of you reading this article).

You can guess my answer to the question of which side I would take in a hypothetical Israeli-American conflict.  Hopefully such a situation never comes to pass, yet I do think it’s important periodically to revisit the conflict between American Judaism and Zionism.  In my opinion, they are not intertwined, nor do I think they have to be.  Being Jewish is about a religious and perhaps ethnic identity, but it is not inextricably tied to the State of Israel.  While some of you may disagree, I believe that being a good American Jew does not, by definition, require you also to adopt a Zionist agenda.

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