October 12, 2009
Israel After Utopia
— Martin E. Marty
Israel, its politics and policies and its religion(s) past and present, is the subject of so much pro and con (never neutral) comment in media, politics, and religious circles, that we could do enough sighting each week to fill this column. In such a complex scene, one trusts commentators who have won our trust already on other themes. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis, in his American Judaism, writes the best history of the subject that I have seen, and is a respected participant in most projects which deal with American Judaism. I count him a wise and trusted friend. So when he writes from his sabbatical in Israel, I pay attention. And he does write, in the October 9th Forward, “After Utopia, Loving Israel.”
That he loved and loves and will love Israel is clear from this and other writings. That he is pained by many of its actions in recent years is equally obvious, but his point in this week’s column is to assess the issue of what happened to the Zionist dreams, which he sees as having been Utopian, impossible to see fulfilled. His opening line jolts: “Why are American Jews abandoning us?” is a question he is frequently asked by his this-year colleagues in Israel. There many refer to Steven Rosenthal’s 2001 book Irreconcilable Differences, especially about “the waning American Jewish love affair with Israel.” The “dangerous neighborhood” and threats to Israel’s survival count for less, he observes, especially among younger American Jews, in their perceptions.
Israelis take notice when Steven M. Cohen, sociologist at Hebrew Union College in the U.S., warns of “a growing distancing from Israel of American Jews…most pronounced among younger Jews.” This is not a problem for the ten to twenty percent of them who are Orthodox, but the waning-love syndrome among others is troubling. Forward columnist Jay Michaelson has written that in his social circle “supporting Israel is like supporting segregation, apartheid or worse.” Brandeis researcher Ted Sasson contends that the waning-love pattern is not new, but it is newly intense. In olden days American Jews who supported the dream of an eventual Israel or of Israel in its early times were, in Sarna’s term, Utopian. The great Justice Louis Brandeis once gasped, “Our aim is the Kingdom of Heaven” in Israel. Things did not turn out their way. They never do.
Sarna writes that “that dream…lies shattered beyond repair.” Young Jews see Israel not as Utopia manqué but through the eyes of hyper-critical media. The Israelis who question Sarna understand the disillusionments in the face of “middle-aged realities” which have replaced “young love.” Sarna is concerned that Jewish critics, like many middle-aged people when relationships are in trouble, “prepare for divorce.” Sarna counsels cautiously: “The deepest and most meaningful of relationships, however, survive disappointments. By focusing upon all that they nevertheless share in common, and all that they might yet accomplish together in the future, American Jews and Israelis can move past the crisis in their relationship and settle in…for the long haul ahead.”
Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr drew his ironic view of history from the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 2:4, referring to God sitting in the heavens and laughing in the face of human pretensions. Yet Niebuhr used that vision not to show what fools mortals are but to call for repentance, revision, renewal – always possible when Utopian dreams and uncritical present-day outcomes are replaced by nitty-gritty actions in “the long haul ahead.” Sarna, “middle-aged” with his generation, is not settling for divorce or even separation, but he is plumping for action that mixes realism and hope.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.