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Six Day War Transformed American Jewish Life

Ira Chernus

The Six-Day War transformed the world of Palestinians, Israelis, and also -- lest we forget -- American Jews. Here in the U.S. "Jewish" and "Israel" have been linked so closely for the last forty years, it's easy to forget that it was not always so. Before the Six-Day War, when social surveys asked American Jews what set them apart from their gentile neighbors, the answers rarely mentioned any special affinity for Israel. They didn't say much about antisemitism or the Holocaust either. Most Jews said that there was no special value or belief or behavior that set them apart from non-Jews. The only thing that made them different was that all their friends were Jews.

That changed dramatically in a matter of a few days in June, 1967. Jews flocked to their synagogues to show unprecedented support for Israel. Though they did not know it, they were creating a new form of Judaism. The eminent historian of Judaism, Rabbi Jacob Neusner, has called it the "Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption." It rests on four basic beliefs, which combined to create a sort of vaguely defined creed:

· Antisemitism always has been and always will be a threat to Jews everywhere.

· Jews have a special relationship with the land of Israel.

· Only as long as the Jewish state exists, with a Jewish majority population, can Jews everywhere feel safe and redeemed from the threat of antisemitism.

· Thus the secure existence of Israel is the one and only symbol of the secure existence of Jews and Judaism, forever.

No one can say for sure why the Six-Day War triggered this turnabout. Here's my theory:

By 1967, Americans of color were standing up as oppressed people, demanding their rights. As white people, the Jews could easily be classed with the oppressors. At the same time, the antiwar movement was casting the United States as the oppressor in Vietnam. How could American Jews be sure that, when oppression arose, they were on the right side?

One possibility was to depict themselves as perpetual victims of antisemitism, always among the oppressed. But Jews wanted to live fully, freely, and safely as Americans. How could they feel fully accepted, yet still count themselves among the oppressed?

The Six-Day War solved that problem. By picturing Israel as a small, weak, victimized nation, and then identifying themselves with Israel, Jews could see the U.S. as a place where Jews were increasingly accepted, yet still view themselves as victims of persecution. Then they could not be among the persecutors. So American Jews "discovered" a special, almost mystical tie between every Jew and the holy land.

But Israel now occupied all of the West Bank and Gaza. Could Jews still be sure they were on the side of the weak and the oppressed? Yes -- but only if they viewed Israel as an innocent victim of aggression. By identifying with Israel, they could participate in Israel's acts of power and feel perfectly moral at the same time. But identifying with Israel meant making Zionism the center of Jewish life. It meant equating the fate of Israel with the fate of every Jew, everywhere.


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It is no coincidence that, just when American Jews "discovered" their unbreakable bond with Israel, they also "discovered" the unique importance of the Nazi Holocaust in every Jew's life. The Holocaust was offered as crucial proof that that Jews are perpetually threatened by irrational hatred and oppression. This, in turn, became the supposed proof that Israel's foes were motivated by the same hatred that moved the Nazis to their murderous project. Once this premise was accepted, there could be no doubt that Israel's military victory was a necessary act of self-defense and therefore absolutely morally justified. The slogan "Never Again" seemed to justify every kind of Jewish violence.

In order to sustain their new-found form of Judaism, Jews must exaggerate their own experience of antisemitism and believe that Israel is always threatened. That means Israel must always have an enemy. For many Jews in the U.S. as well as Israel, military conflict serves as a kind of ritual performance. It's a way to act out and confirm their belief that Jews, the perpetual victims, now have power but always use that power in a morally justified cause.

Tragically, this performance is a ritual sacrifice in which far too many real people die. Although most of them are Arabs, some are Jews. This hardly makes Israel more secure. On the contrary, it perpetuates the Jews' insecurity. Nevertheless, many Jews cling to and repeat this deadly ritual performances because the "Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption" gives them a comforting sense of meaning and identity.

Whether you accept this theory or some other to explain the dramatic change in American Jewish life forty years ago, one point is clear. Many Jews will tell you that support for Israel is the eternal and essential linchpin of Jewish identity. But the intimate link between Jews and Israel is hardly eternal. For a people who have three thousand years of history behind them, the focus on a political state is a relative newcomer. It's hardly essential, either. It emerged from specific historical conditions. Historical conditions might diminish, or even dissolve, the link to Israel in the future. But Jewish life would continue.

In fact, the moral outrages perpetrated by Israeli occupation forces are already diminishing support for Israel's policies among American Jews. There is a growing voice of dissent within American Jewry. Those of us who do not cheer for Jewish military victory are as concerned as anyone else to insure Israel's survival. Indeed, we feel that we show more concern than anyone else for Israel's peace and security. We argue that it makes little sense to seek secure survival and peace by pursuing the risks of war, when other options are surely available. Yet we are bitterly attacked by right-wing Jews, who have managed to commandeer the label "pro-Israel." Now that label usually means "pro-Israeli power and might," when it should mean "pro-genuine peace and security for Israel."

Over the past forty years, countless numbers of thoughtful, morally sensitive Jews have decided that they cannot in good conscience be part of a community dominated by a reactionary "Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption." How much energy and talent might have enriched American Jewish life if the organized community had been willing to accept the kind of debate that is commonplace in Israel, where Israeli government policies are subject to radical criticism every day?

The blame for this loss falls partly on the right-wingers who dominate most Jewish organizations. They make the institutional Jewish voice sound more hawkish than the community as a whole really is. But some of the blame must fall on the huge number of politically moderate American Jews. They cannot completely shut out the images they see on television from the Occupied Territories. Neither can they completely give up the "Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption" that has shaped their identity for so long.

Caught between two competing psychological demands, they are confused and paralyzed. They hesitate to say anything about Israel's current policies. Whatever they might say seems, to them, a half-truth at best, and quite possibly just wrong. So they censor themselves and remain silent, leaving the strident right as the only voice clearly heard in the organized Jewish community.

Some of them go a step further. In order to avoid facing the moral dilemma posed by Israel, they move Israel from the center to the margins of their Jewish identity. They find a way to be actively, even ardently, Jewish with scarcely a mention of Israel. And it may be this group, not the critics of Israeli policy, who do the most to weaken the link between American Jews and Israel in the future.

But support for Israeli policies has inflicted a grievous moral wound on the U.S. Jewish community over the last forty years. Wounds do not heal by being ignored. They heal only by t'shuvah -- repentance, reversing course and doing the right thing. It is never too late for repentance. And a community can do an about-face very quickly, as American Jews proved forty years ago.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This column is adapted from his essay in the forthcoming collection, Peace, Justice, and Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition.

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