What will it take to reconcile Israeli and American Jews? How should our thinking evolve so that this “troubled marriage” can not only be saved, but once again thrive? 70 years after the founding of Israel — achieved with overwhelming support from the American Jews — relations between the two groups is at an all-time low.
Daniel Gordis boldly attacks these questions with unusual verve and deep knowledge. As he deliberately uncovers layer after layer of the issues and explains each one with clarity and patience, we begin to see how the rift occurred and why the causes of it resonate so fully today. Gordis, American born and raised, has lived and worked in Israel for decades and so is the perfect individual to take us on this existential journey.
Through his lucid prose we learn about the competing views of Judaism envisioned by Americans and Israelis, the two largest Jewish communities in the world. Are the Jews a nation, a people, a religion? Are American Jews in exile? What is their relationship to the concept of Diaspora? Is Zionism the denigration of the exile or a revolution against exile?
Gordis posits in this academic yet accessible book that the relationship between American and Israeli Jews had enmity at the outset. He tells us that the very definition of Zionism is the reconstitution of the Jewish people as a nation in its homeland, nothing less than the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. But doesn’t this put American Jews in the wrong place at the wrong time, particularly when they openly declare their wish to stay exactly where they are? He shows us that ever since political Zionism was created in 1897, the relationship between Israeli and American Jews has been complicated and tense, subject to misunderstanding on even the most fundamental level.
To say that Gordis knows his topic and is well-qualified to write this insightful book is a vast understatement. Twice a winner of the National Jewish Book Award, he is senior vice president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel’s first liberal arts college; a regular columnist for the Jerusalem Post; and the author of several books on political activity in Israel.
Unlike other books about Israel, though, We Stand Divided does not focus on the country’s handling of the Palestinian conflict or its attitude toward non-Orthodox Judaism; nor does he blame these problems for the schism. “The cause of the rupture is not what Israel does,” he tells us, “it’s what Israel is,” pointing out that because 85% of the Jewish world lives in America and Israel, the fate of Judaism lies firmly in their hands.
The book attempts to craft a blueprint to help insure the future of the Jews. Though Israeli and American Jews see the threats and opportunities they face differently, Gordis demonstrates that healing the breach depends on understanding how and why the two groups grapple in their own way with issues and shape their fundamental views of democracy and moral commitment. It is only through understanding each other that the way forward will become clear.
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.