History Has Caught Up With the Jews in America

by Rabbi Lee Friedlander

Dear Friends,

I always look forward to the Shabbat evening service of Thanksgiving Day weekend.  It has become my want to present past presidential Thanksgiving Day proclamations going back in fifty-year intervals.  I like best studying the times in which the proclamations were issued.  It gives me and the people attending services a sense of where we are in history.  In good years, it indicates how far we have come.  This year’s perspective suggested that we are sliding backwards.  When we considered the events of 1923 (the presidency of Calvin Coolidge), and of 1973 (the presidency of Richard Nixon) we all felt, as the biblical preacher Ecclesiastes proclaimed, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Adolph Hitler was arrested in Munich in 1923 after leading an unsuccessful attempt by the Nazi Party to seize power.  The 70,000 member strong party was banned as a consequence.  At the same time, “Der Sturmer,” a newspaper whose banner slogan read, “The Jews are our Misfortune,” was first published in Nuremberg.  A month later, Poland’s prime minister introduced economic policies, which imposed such severe financial burdens on Jewish merchants and shopkeepers, that there was a mass emigration to Palestine, which was wracked by famine.  (America was closed to them because of newly enacted immigration restrictions.)  A few months before, the League of Nations ratified the Palestine mandate, but there were great divisions within the Zionist movement.  Vladimir Jabotinsky, a radical leftist, resigned from the Executive Committee of the Zionist Organization protesting the Organization’s acquiescence to Britain’s sponsorship of an agreement between Jews and Arabs over Palestine.  He declared that only an “iron wall of Jewish bayonets” could force the Arabs to accept a Jewish presence.  Meanwhile, in America, B’nai Brith established Hillel to serve the 400 Jewish college students at the University of Illinois at Urbana.  Its objective was to counteract the indifference of young Jews to Jewish tradition and culture.  It quickly grew to serve Jewish youth on campuses throughout the USA.

While the end of the war in Vietnam and the Watergate break-in informed so much of what was happening in America in 1973, advocacy for Jews trapped in the Soviet Union occupied the attention of American Jews.  In their attempt to release them, the Jewish community successfully lobbied Congress (over the objection of the President) to attach an amendment to the most favored trade agreement that the Soviets sought, which required such favored states to guarantee the right of emigration to their nation’s citizens.  This triumph was overshadowed on Yom Kippur when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, fortified by arms shipments from the USSR, launched a surprise attack against Israel.  The Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) Movement was founded at the war’s end.  A religious Zionist organization whose purpose was to establish permanent control over the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, it soon became a political force that led to the proliferation of settlements in the West Bank.   David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, died at the end of the year.  His party, Labor, which had been in the majority since the founding of the State, would lose power to Menachem Begin’s Likud the first election after the ’73 War.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same’ as the saying goes.  One hundred years after the Nazi Party was suppressed, and fifty years after Israel was caught by surprise, anti-Semitism is alive and well, and Israel is engaged in a war to preserve its existence. Israel’s present government is anchored by members and ministers who are cast in the mold of Jabotinsky and of Gush Emunim.  What both Diaspora Jewish advocates for the State of Israel and critics of it have come to realize is that for many on the far right and on the far left in America, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have coalesced in a most virulent way.  No matter how we may define ourselves as Jews, the fate of Israeli and American Jews is one and the same.

Daniel Gordis, an American-Jewish-Israeli pundit, examined the roots of the divide between Israeli Jews and American Jews in his book We Stand Divided.  He explained that the Jews who emigrated to Palestine and later to Israel sought to be in the midst of history.  Those who came to North America longed for a vacation from history.  When we look at the events of 1923 and 1973 and at the situation of Jews in America today, we could say that history is catching up with us.

Nobel laureate, Saul Bellow, observed in his 1976 memoir To Jerusalem and Back: “There is one fact of Jewish life unchanged by the creation of a Jewish state: you cannot take your right to live for granted . . . The Jews, because they are Jews, have never been able to take the right to live as a natural right.”

May the light of our hannukiyot be a beacon of hope in these times. I still hope for peace and understanding as we approach a new year.

With warmest regards,