“A Preservative of a Sense of Jewish Identity.” How the Six-Day War Transformed American Jews’ Relationship to Israel ‹ Literary Hub

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June 1967 transformed American Jews’ relationship not only to Israel, but also to themselves. In a remarkably prescient Commentary article published just weeks after the war, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg noted that the crisis had united American Jews “with deep Jewish commitments as they have never been united before, and it has evoked such commitments in many Jews who previously seemed untouched by them.” A much-admired scholar of Jewish history as well as a congregational rabbi, Hertzberg could find “no conventional Western theological terms with which to explain this.”

Rather, he found that “most contemporary Jews experience these emotions without knowing how to define them,” as Israel was possibly “now… acting as a very strong focus of worldwide Jewish emotional loyalty and thereby as a preservative of a sense of Jewish identity.” Time would prove the accuracy of these predictions. In the immediate aftermath of the war, among American Jews, “terror and dread,” said the celebrated theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, had metamorphosed into “exultation.”[1]

This transformation manifested itself in multiple ways. Few American Jews were eager to put their bodies in the line of fire, or to encourage their sons and daughters to do so. But they did donate early, often, and with great enthusiasm. The Jewish press was filled with stories of people going into debt, selling their cars, and cashing in insurance policies in order to donate the proceeds to Israel. The small Jewish congregation of Okmulgee, Oklahoma, even sold its synagogue and wired the revenues to Tel Aviv. Jewish philanthropic organizations that had formerly gone begging were now deluged with funds, with as much as a 400 percent increase above the previous year’s tallies.

The money came from Jews who had maintained “only the most pro forma links with Jewish religious traditions, who [knew] little or nothing of Jewish culture,” the political scientist Daniel Elazar noted. These Jews wanted to “express themselves Jewishly in connection with Jewish political causes or interests.” The amount of money shaken loose in Hollywood from celebrities such as Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, and virtually every mogul in the business appears astounding even today: $2.5 million—the equivalent in 2022 dollars of $20 million—was pledged in just one hour at a cocktail party hosted by studio executive Lew Wasserman.[2]

The war touched individual American Jews in profound and unpredictable ways. For instance, the novelist Henry Roth published the masterpiece Call It Sleep—a Jewish companion to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—in 1934 at age twenty-eight, but had put down his pen after the book was condemned by his Communist Party comrades. He had spent the next three decades as an itinerant worker, settling down to slaughter chickens for a living as a farmer in Maine.

Hannah Adendt he later admitted to her friend Mary McCarthy that “any real catastrophe in Israel would affect me more deeply than almost anything else.”

But Israel’s remarkable victory reawakened his creative spark. As Roth told it at the time, he feared “the Arab states… were going to drive the Jews, the Zionist-imperialist pawns, into the sea. Jesus Christ, another holocaust of Jews!” Instead, “by skill, by daring, by valor, Israel prevailed. A miracle!… And it was Israel, a revitalized Judaism, that revitalized the writer, his partisanship, a new exploration into contemporaneity, a new summoning of the word—however inept in the service of the cause.” The eventual result of Roth’s revitalization was a triumphant return to writing fiction.[3]

While no doubt extreme, Roth’s experience was hardly unique. Liberal intellectuals who had previously maintained an emotional distance from both Israel and the American Jewish community were now quick to embrace the cause. Hannah Arendt, formerly self-identified with the Ihud’s diehard binationalists who bitterly opposed Israel’s founding, joined other previously estranged Jewish writers and scholars in a prewar plea published in the Washington Post that defined the crisis with what its text termed “stark simplicity: whether to let Israel perish or to act to ensure its survival and security, legality, morality and peace in the area.”

After the war, Arendt told her friend the German/Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers that “Nasser should be hung instantly.” On a more solemn note, she later admitted to her friend Mary McCarthy that “any real catastrophe in Israel would affect me more deeply than almost anything else.”[4]

Commentary flipped 180 degrees and now basked in Israel’s military prowess. The sociologist Milton Himmelfarb, the American Jewish Committee’s research director, bragged that “while Jews can be pretty good with a fountain pen and briefcase, they can also if necessary be pretty good with a rifle or tank.” Associate editor Werner Dannhauser crowed, “Jews all over the world walk with greater pride upon the face of the earth because of the state of Israel.”

In the self-consciously socialist counterpart to Commentary, Dissent, the shock of recognition was no less profound, however much it may have contradicted the universalist ethos that had defined the democratic socialist publication since its founding in 1954. Before the war, explained its guiding spirit, the literary critic and Jewish historian Irving Howe, he had not felt much of an emotional tie to Israel, and “no particular responsibility for its survival or renewal.” But it now thrilled him “that after centuries of helplessness Jews had defeated enemies with the weapons those enemies claimed as their own.”[5] 

The power of these emotions and the institutional changes they presaged would lead to a remarkably rapid remaking of American Jews’ collective identity. It had long been difficult to explain just what non-Orthodox Jews “believed” that distinguished them from mainstream American Protestants, save for the fact Jesus had likely been conceived in the usual fashion. The rituals of Jewish life remained vibrant in many families, but the theology was decidedly fuzzy. Most Jewish communal organizations pursued agendas indistinguishable from most other liberal organizations.

Jews had their own foods, their own country clubs, law firms, and vacation spots, but the sermons of their rabbis sounded an awful lot like a typical college commencement address. To be a secular American Jew, pre-1967, was to have faith in an America that was going to make itself better—fairer, more equal, and more peaceful—with the help of its Jews. Support for the Zionist cause had, in the past, been “one among various alternatives of Jewish identity,” the Jewish scholar and rabbi Shaul Magid would write in 2019. Beginning in 1967, however, “the Jewish discourse about Zionism has become Jewish identity itself; Zionism defines Jewish legitimacy and is no longer part of a larger conversation. It defines the conversation.”

The Israeli triumph brought with it a new attitude for American Jews about not only themselves but also about God and Torah.

Rabbi Hertzberg, speaking then as president of the American Jewish Congress, confirmed this back in 1977 when he observed “the only offense for which Jews can be ‘excommunicated’ in the US today is not to participate in these efforts [to support Israel]. Intermarriage, ignorance of the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today. Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.” This view has only hardened over time.

More than forty years later, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, leader of New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the nation’s largest LGBT-oriented synagogue, spoke in almost identical terms. “A Jew today can walk into almost any non-Orthodox synagogue in America,” she observed, “and profess his or her atheism or lack of Jewish practice and be embraced and accepted, but if a Jew enters that same synagogue and professes to be an anti-and even non-Zionist, he or she will likely be shown the door.”[6]

This revolution made itself felt in virtually every non-Orthodox American Jewish institution. Support for Israel soon overwhelmed all other commitments, whether to social service, community solidarity, or social justice. In the everlasting battle between Jewish particularism and universalism, the former—which had been on the run among American Jews for more than century—was now threatening to wipe out the latter and do so with remarkable speed. The historian Lawrence Grossman noted that in the American Jewish Committee activities report for 1966–1967, “Israel” was buried “on page 35, yielding pride of place to ‘The Spirit of Ecumenism,’ executive suite discrimination, civil rights, extremism and anti-Semitism, church-state separation, Jewish identity, and reports on Europe, the Soviet bloc, and Latin America.”

A year later, however, it was the lead item, “and there it remained.” Within six years, Israel had blossomed into the biggest single budget item for the group, taking up nearly a third of its outgoing funds. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, founded as a domestic civil rights champion, now allocated nearly half of its budget to defending Israel. John Ruskay, former CEO of the United Jewish Appeal–Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, described the “Israel at risk” fund-raising paradigm as having “fostered the explosive growth of the Federation system post-1967,” and the numbers clearly bear him out.[7]

The Israeli triumph brought with it a new attitude for American Jews about not only themselves but also about God and Torah. Israeli leaders had long talked about their nation in the language of miracles, connecting them to the stories of the Bible as if these constituted the literal history of their nation. But following the 1967 war, the notion took on a newer, more literal meaning among both Jews and gentiles. President Johnson, like Harry Truman before him, said he saw “the hand of the Lord in the creation of Israel and… in bringing the Jews back to Israel.”[8]

 America’s secular Jewish leaders now began to adopt the language of Divine intervention to explain the Jewish state’s stunning military success, especially with regard to its conquest of East Jerusalem, where the holiest site in the Jewish religion, the Western Wall of the Second Temple that the Romans destroyed in 70 CE, still stood. At a postwar rally in Washington, DC, Morris Abram, president of the still non-Zionist American Jewish Committee, transgressed all of the rhetorical and linguistic boundaries his predecessors had so carefully observed in the past. “The people of the Book have proved the verities of the Book,” he shouted to the near-delirious gathering. “‘Not by power, nor by force, but by thy spirit, sayeth the Lord.’”

This theological leap would soon become fundamental to Jewish American identity. The official doctrine of Conservative Judaism would proclaim “the existence of Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel) in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), with its capital of Jerusalem… not just in political or military terms; rather, we consider it to be a miracle, reflecting Divine Providence in human affairs.” Reform Jewry would refer, no less fantastically, “to the realization of God’s promise to Abraham: ‘to your offspring I assign this land.’ ” Each of these distinctly American Jewish religious movements soon, and increasingly, wrapped themselves in the garb of Israeli identity, with new holidays and special prayers regularly offering praise to the modern-day state. Synagogues invited an endless parade of Israeli guest speakers (often in uniform) to inform and inspire them, and many also began to sing the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” in their religious services.[9]

A second, and no less important, component of the transformation of American Jewish life inspired by the war was the sudden sacralization of the Shoah. Peter Novick is among the many historians who have discerned in the reaction to the war an “immediate and most important cause of a new closeness” connecting American Jews via their “fears of a renewed Holocaust on the eve of that war.” The result, after the crisis passed, was a “permanent reorientation in the agenda of organized American Jewry.” A year earlier, a Commentary symposium titled “The State of Jewish Belief” had inspired not a single reference to either Israel or the Shoah. By a kind of unspoken but widely respected consensus, the latter had been rarely mentioned; when it was, it was only on specific occasions.

Now, together with identification with Israel, recognition of the Shoah and grappling with its meaning became a pillar of what it meant to be a Jew. The theologian Marc Ellis posited the birth of “Holocaust theology” in this moment, in which a Judaism emerges that fuses its religious and cultural heritage with loyalty to the state of Israel. The perception of a second near mass death experience had a theological component. Before the 1967 war, the rabbi and philosopher Emil Fackenheim, a Holocaust refugee, famously posited a “614th mitzvah” (biblical commandment): to give Hitler no posthumous victories. In his 1982 book To Mend a World, he amended this precept to define the defense of Israel as the “orienting reality for all Jewish and indeed all post-Holocaust thought.”[10]

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a former assistant to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and later a friend and mentor to a young Barack Obama, would examine this dynamic in a 1979 essay, “Overemphasizing the Holocaust.” In it, Wolf lamented the fact that in “Jewish school or synagogue… one does not now learn about God or the Midrash… nearly as carefully as one learns about the Holocaust.” Worse, American Jewish leaders were using “the Shoah as the model for Jewish destiny,” and so “Never again” had come to mean “Jews first—and the devil take the hindmost.” Peter Novick aptly argued that “as the Middle Eastern dispute came to be viewed within a Holocaust paradigm,” it simultaneously became “endowed with all the black-and-white moral simplicity of the Holocaust”—a framework that promoted “a belligerent stance toward any criticism of Israel” no matter who was giving voice to it or what may have been their inspiration.[11]

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[1] Edward S. Shapiro, A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 207– 208; A. J. Heschel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 195– 199; Arthur Hertzberg, “Israel and American Jewry,” Commentary, August 1967, www.commentary.org/articles/arthur-hertzberg/israel-and-american-jewry.

[2] Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in America (New York: Knopf, 1992), 736; Menahem Kaufman, “The Case of the United Jewish Appeal,” in Envisioning Israel: The Changing Ideals and Images of North American Jews, ed. Allon Gal ( Jerusalem: Magnes Press; Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996), 232; Shapiro, Time for Healing, 210–211; Tony Shaw and Giora Goodman, Hollywood and Israel: A History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022), loc. 2400, Kindle.

[3] Henry Roth, “Kaddish,” Midstream, January 1977, 54–55.

[4] Joshua Muravchik, Making David into Goliath (New York: Encounter Books, 2014), 12; Gabriel Piterberg, “Zion’s Rebel Daughter,” New Left Review 48 (November/ December 2007), https://newleftreview.org/issues/II48/articles/gabriel-piterberg-zion‑s‑rebel-daughter; Susie Linfield, The Lion’s Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 78.

[5] Milton Himmelfarb, “In Light of Israel’s Victory,” Commentary, October 1967, 59; Benjamin Balint, Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right (New York: PublicAffairs, 2010), 110; Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual’s Autobiography (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982), 251, 286; Maurice Isserman, “Steady Work: Sixty Years of Dissent,” Dissent, January 23, 2015, www.dissentmagazine.org /online_articles/steady-work-sixty-years‑of‑dissent.

[6] Shaul Magid, “Re‑Thinking American Jewish Zionist Identity: A Case for Post-Zionism in the Diaspora (Based on the Writings of R. Menachem Froman),” in Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking Concepts and Imagining Alternatives, ed. Jon A. Levisohn and Ari Y. Kelman (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019), 113–143; Arthur Hertzberg, “Some Reflections on Zionism Today,” Congress Monthly 44, no. 3 (March/April 1977): 3– 7.

[7] Lawrence Grossman, “Transformation Through Crisis: The American Jewish Committee and the Six-Day War,” American Jewish History 86, no. 1 (1998): 27–54; Matthew Berkman, “Coercive Consensus: Jewish Federations, Ethnic Representation, and the Roots of American Pro-Israel Politics” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2018), 281.

[8] Bat-Ami Zucker, “The Genesis of the Special Relationship Between the United States and Israel, 1948–1973,” American Jewish Archives Journal 44, no. 2 (1992).

[9] Grossman, “Transformation Through Crisis”; Emet Ve‑Emunah, Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, 2nd ed. (New York: United Synagogue Book Service, 1988), 37, 38; “Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective,” Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1976, www.ccarnet.org/rabbinic-voice/platforms/article-reform-judaism-centenary-perspective; Jack Wertheimer, “American Jews and Israel: A 60‑Year Retrospective,” American Jewish Year Book 2008, vol. 108, ed. David Singer and Lawrence Grossman (New York: American Jewish Committee, 2008): 3–79; David Ellenson, “Envisioning Israel in the Liturgies of North American Liberal Judaism,” and Chaim I. Waxman, “The Changing Religious Relationship: American Jewish Baby Boomers and Israel,” in Gal, Envisioning Israel.

[10] Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), 148–149; Marc Ellis, Beyond Innocence and Redemption: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990); Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 14.

[11] Arnold Jacob Wolf, “Overemphasizing the Holocaust,” in Unfinished Rabbi: Selected Writings of Arnold Jacob Wolf, ed. Jonathan Wolf (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998); Novick, Holocaust in American Life, 10.

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Adapted from We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel, by Eric Alterman. Copyright © 2022. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


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