American Jewish citizens can be sure that a large number of Jewish organizations will claim to speak in our name–without being asked to do so. We can also be sure that should we dissent from the US Jewish community’s central item of faith, that Israel can do no wrong, we will be pilloried. When our gentile fellow citizens express doubt, they are accused of anti-Semitism. Those of us who are Jewish are taxed with self-hatred.
Is it the supreme duty of American Jews to use our considerable influence to align US policy with that of Israel? There is, the Jewish organizations tell us, no conflict of loyalties and responsibilities; the two nations have common values and common ends. The assertion is nonsensical, but its repetition does negate one stereotype about Jews, our supposed intelligence. It is often accompanied by the claim that there is no Israel lobby, only ordinary US citizens spontaneously expressing opinions to their elected representatives and government. The Israel lobby’s successful campaign, coordinated with the Israeli Embassy, to persuade Congress to back the White House decision to give Israel a free field of fire in Lebanon can be read as an unintended postscript to another campaign: This spring professors John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard published in The London Review of Books and as a paper of the Kennedy School of Government an analysis of the “stranglehold” on US policy exerted by Israel’s unconditional backers. Those backers responded with loud denunciations of the authors as malevolently anti-Semitic or (in the most benign of their criticisms) intellectually incompetent.
The assimilation of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who arrived (my grandfather among them) at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries has remarkably altered the position of US Jewry. With Jews prominent in business and finance, the arts and the professions, science and education, media and politics, it is now forgotten how much open anti-Semitism there was in the United States as recently as fifty years ago–at the top of society as well as in its dark crevices. On the gentile side, Holocaust guilt and the philo-Semitism of US Calvinist Protestantism have made American Jewry acceptable. Simultaneously, the seventeenth- century Puritans’ idea of the United States as a New Israel readied their descendants to view the state of Israel as spiritually and politically akin to our nation.
Meanwhile, the economic rise and social acceptance of American Jewry is a collective as well as an individual achievement. Indeed, notions of the United States as a totally individualistic culture are too simple; social advancement is the work of highly organized ethnic and religious groups. Jews have been quite skillful at using their ascent from immigrant workers and peddlers to Wall Street executives and university presidents to achieve not only integration in the nation but a very large degree of cultural and political power.
American Jewry’s enjoyment of its success has been troubled by bad conscience over our inability to help European Jewry during the Holocaust. That experience, and the inexpungeable memory of genocide itself, is a primary component of an American Jewish identity that now centers on unconditional defense of the state of Israel. Jehovah, for many American Jews, of course gets a respectful hearing–but Israeli prime ministers and chiefs of staff are taken to speak directly for the Lord of Hosts.