Day 1 (Stefan Kanfer): Is Zionism Still Relevant to the American Jew?

From: Stefan Kanfer To: David Shneer Subject: Sleepwalking in a minefield Dear David, Years ago I was visiting a friend in San Francisco. I passed a temple bulletin board with the sign, “The Joy of Jewishing.” This is why I … Read More

By / November 29, 2006

From: Stefan Kanfer To: David Shneer Subject: Sleepwalking in a minefield

Dear David,

Years ago I was visiting a friend in San Francisco. I passed a temple bulletin board with the sign, “The Joy of Jewishing.” This is why I live in New York. Trendy neologisms like “Jewishly” are among my least favorite. And titles like Heeb are not only achingly arch, they are also ancient in impulse—though I doubt that this is known to the people who think it’s hip. To tell you the truth, the title of this punning website puts my teeth on edge.

In his book Jewish Wit, the Freudian psychiatrist Theodore Reik wrote that at his or her most desperate “the Jew sharpens, so to speak, the dagger which he takes out of his enemy’s hand, stabs himself, then returns it gallantly to the antisemite with the silent reproach, ‘Now see if you can do half as well.’” To me all such wordplay is strictly retro and very damaging. I have yet to see a magazine called “Nigger,” “Spick,” or “Wop,” and words like “negritude” belong to the 1950s. Woody Allen has had a lot of fun with such labels.

Back to the subject at hand. Is Zionism still relevant to American Jews? I disagree with your answer that most American Jews "would likely say 'no' if asked 'Is Zionism relevant to you?'"

Of course only a closely analyzed poll would settle this, but I have yet to meet a Jew in the New York area—which as you point out contains the largest number of Jews in the world—who regards Israel with indifference.

In part this has to do with the way the Jewish situation has been playing out in Europe. France, for example, used to pride itself on its history of post-revolutionary tolerance. Napoleon even insisted on a Sanhedrin for the Jews of his nation. Yes, in time there was the Dreyfus case, but that scandal was supplied with a happy ending; the gentile novelist Emile Zola raised hell, and justice prevailed.

There was even a Jewish prime minister, Léon Blum, before World War II, and one after it, Pierre Mendes-France.

French publicists failed to mention the enthusiastic cooperation of the Vichy government in handing over les Juifs to the Nazis. But it must be said that there was, in the wake of V-E Day, a national malaise, a discomfort with the way the local fascists had acted, and, for a while, all was well with French Jewry.

That is not so today. My Jewish friends in France are lining up to get out, to go to Canada, the U.S., and Israel. Several have told me that they don’t expect major trouble in their lifetimes, but that they cannot allow their children to grow up in the dangerously deteriorating nation.

The reason:

You know it as well as I. It is called Islam. Only a short while ago a Jewish youth was killed by Muslims in a banlieu outside Paris. The principal criminal was caught, but the fact is that scores of other Muslims in the building (and perhaps throughout the slum) knew that the young Jew was being held and tortured in a manner too inhuman to be described.

Another French Jew was murdered by a Muslim who then told friends, “I have killed my Jew, I will go to heaven.”

Well, you might say, that’s France, where there are at least five million legal and illegal Islamic immigrants who have not been absorbed into society—hence the riots of last spring.

Alas, the situation in the rest of Europe is not very different. I will not weigh down this initial letter with a laundry list of crimes against Jews in Sweden, Norway, or Italy—although Oriana Fallaci’s reportage on the last country is particularly valuable. You can read her in The Force of Reason.

Now, granted, Europe is not the United States. Here we have a great tradition of acceptance, dating from George Washington’s speech to the Turo congregation, guaranteeing freedom of worship and safety for all who would behave in the manner of good citizens.

Nevertheless, today a certain malaise can be detected by anyone with one eye open. Congressman John Dingell of Michigan refused to denounce Hezbollah, the organization responsible not only for the recent devastation in Israel, but also for the murder of American soldiers overseas. Could his refusal have occurred because he represents a portion of Michigan, the state with the largest number of Muslims in the U.S.?

And he is not alone. Seven congressmen (and one congresswoman) refused to vote for a resolution supporting Israel. They were joined by two senators, Robert Byrd and Ernest Hollings, both from the South. Why did they take this stance? You can bet one of the bedrock reasons was the sight of a strong Jewish nation in the Middle East. If you come from certain areas, the idea of Yids with guns makes you uncomfortable, especially if you’re being funded with Arab money.

All this is known to American Jews, many of whom prefer to keep their heads in the sand, especially if the sand is in East Hampton or Malibu Beach. Others know better. They know that Zionism signifies more than the three assumptions you quote. These are overstatements made by the straw men of the right:

“American Jews do not live at home. Rather they live in exile.” American Jews don’t believe this or they would be making aliyah.

“Israel will save Judaism from its perpetual demise.” Neurotic Zionists do believe this, assuming that intermarriage and inanition will eventually cause the disappearance of Judaism. Wiser observers can see a reawakening of the Jewish spirit, a resurgence of Yiddish, a new interest in Jewish history. But this in part is triggered by the very existence of Israel, the birthplace of Judaism.

“Israel is the center of the Jewish map.” This one is absolutely true! Here I wholly disagree with you. It is the center of the Jewish map. Where else would you locate the center? Copenhagen? Brooklyn? Warsaw? Moreover, Jews the world over know in their bones the truth of Eric Hoffer’s aperçu: “Lose Israel, and you lose the world.” (He was a goy, by the way.)

My grandfather—much engaged with the Yiddish theater and with the Jewish National Fund, and instrumental in backing Israel in the early days—used to say that when you awaken someone, you have stolen something from him.

So I’d hate to end with this observation. Those American Jews who find Israel irrelevant are sleepwalking in a minefield. What happens in Israel today will happen to the world soon enough, if that world does not stir itself. It’s all very well to celebrate the “diversity of Israel,” but right now Israelis are attempting to annihilate the enemies who want to drive them into the sea, a euphemism for a new Holocaust.

The alarm clock is ringing in Haifa, New York, Chicago, et. al. Wake up.

Warmest regards,


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