Shalem College
December 30, 2020

Diagnosing the Division: Daniel Gordis on Israeli and American Jews

Diagnosing the Division: Daniel Gordis on Israeli and American Jews

In an October essay for Mosaic Magazine, Dr. Daniel Gordis, the Koret Distinguished Fellow and Senior Vice President of Shalem College, contrasted the Israeli and Orthodox community’s responses to attacks on Jewish lives with that of their liberal American counterparts. Pointing out that within months of the some of the Jewish state’s worst terror attacks—the 2001 Sbarro suicide bombing that killed 15 and wounded more than 130, for example, and the bombing of Maxim’s restaurant in Haifa, which killed 21 and wounded more than 50—the restaurants were once again open for business, he noted that nearly two years after a gunman took the lives of 11 and wounded six in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the community has not yet resumed worship. They plan, Gordis explains, to first complete a full remodel, so as not to risk evoking “reminders of the terror that unfolded there.”

Positing that the different communal reactions reflects something profound about the cultures in which they exist, Gordis argues that for Israelis, “to live is to stand firm against the winds of hatred and violence.” This, he states, is a profoundly different worldview from that of most American Jews, for whom a defining element of their lives is precisely a desire to avoid the engagement with Jewish sadness.

For Gordis, the differences—and divisions—between Israeli and liberal American Jews has long been the subject of interest, one whose many essays, articles, and lectures culminated in We Stand Divided (Ecco, 2019), a book dedicated in its entirety to the topic. Written at a time when relations between the two communities were at their lowest point in decades, Gordis makes no bones of the fact that enmity has in fact been a defining feature of their relationship from the outset. The very definition of Zionism, he states, is the reconstitution of the Jewish people as a nation in its homeland; it’s only natural that a community that openly declares its wish to stay exactly where it is would find that definition problematic. “The cause of the rupture is not what Israel does,” he writes. Rather, “it’s what Israel is.”

Having shorn their Judaism of its national dimension, Gordis explains, American Jews have been able to forge something distinct, but still very American: a religious movement that fits neatly within America’s ideals of religious freedom. To be a Jew in America, Gordis writes, is to be no different from being Irish, Italian, or Chinese: Namely, just another part of the giant melting pot of immigrants that bear no meaningful attachments to a country besides their adopted home. Seen from this point of view, Israel’s nationalism and particularism can understandably be viewed as at odds with the American-Jewish experiment.

Yet it is not Gordis’s intention merely to depress; despite the many and deep-seated reasons for their divide, Gordis believes that the Israeli and American-Jewish communities have much to learn from and contribute to the other. Indeed, this belief has helped to shape the Koret Jewish Peoplehood Project at Shalem College, a variety of initiatives that together aim to cultivate a generation of leaders for Israel devoted to the preservation of a single nation. Through annual delegations to the Bay Area and to Washington, DC and courses in the college’s Core Curriculum on the fundamental ideas of both Western political history and Jewish thought, the Peoplehood Project grants students a more sophisticated view on issues and ideas that are central to America’s self-understanding and the values that both America and Israel share.

Ultimately, Gordis believes that Israeli and American Jews share a common destiny, one that each community should do its utmost to preserve. To heal the breach, however, Israeli and American Jews cannot avoid a real, honest assessment of how and why the two communities act as they do, and what has led each to shape its unique view of democracy, Judaism and its various moral commitments. This book, he hopes, will serve as an important first step.