Schism in US Judaism Deepens

As the Ultra-Orthodox pack their bags for Israel, Lawrence Davidson says other American Jews remain in place and continue an increasingly heated debate over human rights versus Zionism.

Feb. 2 2017: Washington State Senator Reuven Carlyle at rally at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order limiting refugee programs and stopping immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. (Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Lawrence Davidson

Donald Trump has always admired the leadership style of a tough-guy dictator-type. This is because a tough-guy dictator was and still is what he aspires to be. Thus, the former U.S. president publicly applauded the leadership of Egypt, the Philippines, Russia and, yes, Israel as well.

Israel, in particular, was important to him because of the power of the Jewish lobby in the United States, and until recently, Trump considered the authoritarian Benjamin Netanyahu something of an alter-ego — someone fighting to assert himself against democratic fetters.

It should come as no surprise that Trump’s support for Israel has nothing to do with the country’s increasingly suspect claim to being “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Instead, Trump adopted Israel’s discriminatory domestic policies and aggressive foreign goals as causes to sponsor.

But then, because those same practices have alienated many Jews, Trump has periodically taken it upon himself to lecture and castigate Jewish Americans — he does this even though he now holds no official office and has been reduced to the “president” of a community sowing lies and harvesting hate.

In mid-December, Trump declared that U.S. Jews “don’t like Israel or don’t care about Israel.” This reiterated earlier claims such as “Jews don’t love Israel enough” and “Jewish Americans who vote for Democrats are being disloyal to Israel.” Oddly, Trump’s complaints imply that U.S. Jews are at fault because they do not exhibit sufficient dual loyalty.

American Ultra-Orthodox Heading for Israel

In the meantime, the English edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz announced that the American “Ultra-Orthodox Aliyah [immigration] to Israel Is Breaking Records.” This would indicate that there is at least one sub-group of U.S. Jewry that doesn’t warrant Trump’s charges. This particular migration to Israel is surprising because the Haredim, as they are also called, traditionally remained aloof from Zionism. They once insisted that there could be no legitimate state of Israel until the coming of the Messiah.

Why should these U.S. Jews, the most religious of them all, now be moving to Israel? The reasons given range from anti-Semitism in the U.S. to economic issues such as the increasing cost of living. Significantly, many cite Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020 (75 percent of the Orthodox are Republican or lean Republican) and the “rise of the progressive left” as a reason for leaving.

Haaretz noted that “Haredim in the United States were among Trump’s staunchest supporters, sharing many of same ‘family values’  — i.e., opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights — as his evangelical base.” One Haredim leader is quoted as saying, “Today, we are witnessing the rapid decline of morality and values in the U.S.”

Dec. 11, 2019: President Donald Trump showing an executive order he signed on combating anti-Semitism. (White House, D. Myles Cullen)

Just to complicate this part of the story, one can note that as the U.S. Haredim rationalize their move to Israel with “the rapid decline” of American morality, at least some Orthodox Jews native to Israel are questioning the alliance between religious Jewry and the Israeli state. They fear that this alliance has undermined traditional Jewish morality— essentially asserting that when religious leadership becomes too closely wedded to state power, ethical values become corrupted.

‘Sovereignty Through Conquest’

In Mikhael Manekin’s The Dawn of Redemption: Ethics and Tradition in a Time of Power (Evrit, 2021), the author says the main challenge of Zionism has always been the “integration of political power into a religious vision that would maintain a moral compass developed over centuries.”

Manekin, who is at once an Israeli progressive and an Orthodox religious Jew, concludes “that religious Zionism has failed that test.” Instead, it has brought forth a new sort of Jew, “convinced that power, not mercy, stands at the epicenter of religious life.” So, while the “ritualistic practices” of Judaism “remain operational … its moral foundations have collapsed into a vision of sovereignty through conquest.”

One of the more recent false prophets leading this march into hell is none other than the American-educated (MIT Sloan School of Management) Benjamin Netanyahu — Donald Trump’s Israeli alter-ego.

Manekin’s conclusion is not new or unique. It follows in a long line of Jewish religious thinkers, both rabbis and lay leaders. Yet, these warnings have been to no avail when it comes to most contemporary pious Jews, among them the Haredim now exiting the U.S. for another promised land where “power is perceived as a divine gift.”

Orthodex Jews in London’s pro-Palestine protests on Al Quds day, June 10, 2018. (Allsdare Hickson via Flickr)

Orthodex Jews in London’s pro-Palestine protests on Al Quds day, June 10, 2018. (Allsdare Hickson via Flickr)

Reform Judaism’s Fractures

As the Ultra-Orthodox pack their bags, other American Jews remain in place and continue an increasingly heated debate over the impact of Israeli behavior on the worldwide Jewish community. This includes American Reform Jews, who are on the opposite end of the Jewish religious spectrum from the Orthodox.

Reform Jews may also be Zionist. Back in May 2021, Reform Rabbi Wendi Geffen told her Long Island-based Congregation Israel that “anti-Zionist Jews are ‘Jews in name only’ who must be kept out of the Jewish ‘tent.’” She took this position just prior to the release of a survey by the Jewish Electoral Institute that reported 25 percent of Jewish respondents believed that Israel is an apartheid state. Some 34 percent think Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States, and 22 percent think Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.

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It would make no difference to Rabbi Geffen that these findings reflect assessments about the policies of a state— the state of Israel — and not Jews as a people. Just like the Haredim making aliyah, this reform rabbi appears incapable of telling the difference between a Jewish population of multiple nationalities living across the globe, and a specific political institution controlling limited territory and pushing expansionist and racist policies. And, doing so falsely in the name of all the Jews.

Geffen’s myopia is shared by other high-placed American Reform Jews. Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is the spiritual leader at the Steven Wise Free Synagogue of New York, as well as the former head of Arza, Reform Judaism’s major Zionist organization. He insists that “we need to pressure Reform Jews and ask are you committed to the Jewish Nation…. Do you believe the Jewish Nation, like all other nations, has the right to self-determination – or are Jews somehow different?”

It is an interesting way of putting the problem. Hirsch is implying that if the “Jewish nation” (here he means people) is like all other nations, then the Jewish state also cannot be expected to act differently from other states, nor should it be judged differently. However, for many of those Jews who are appalled by Israeli behavior, a Jewish state can only be representative of Jewish tradition if it is different from the world’s other states. Different because it upholds “universal Jewish ideals,” which comes close to the modern concept of human rights.

Hirsch will have none of this. He believes that the experience of the Holocaust and subsequent anti-Semitism demonstrates that such ideals as “universal brotherhood” and international law are but dreams. “Western liberal values would not prevent the murder of Jews” he says. Hirsch insists that what is now meaningful is Jewish peoplehood defended by the state of Israel. Indeed, he insists that there is no future for Reform Jews in the U.S. “if we aren’t anchored in Jewish peoplehood and Israel.”

Given this point of view, Hirsch concludes that Israel is necessary to Jewish survival and therefore questioning that state’s claim to represent all Jews is anti-Semitic—despite its dehumanizing behavior. “There is a large wave of antisemitism,” he says, “which is hard to identify because they often hide it behind rhetorics of human rights and apartheid.”

Peoplehood vs. Human Rights

Group of Haredim in Israel going to synagogue, 2005. (CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Hirsch’s position is easy to understand in light of the Holocaust. That tragedy is so near in history that it is hard for many Jews to believe that the diaspora, which sustained Jews for thousands of years, is safe unless there is a fortress state to retreat to if history repeats itself. On the other hand, it is significant that Jews who made it to the United States after the Holocaust often reached a very different conclusion, based on their own experiences.

Here in the U.S. they fought in the Civil Rights Movement, they went into the helping professions, they adopted a stance against intolerance. They recognized that it is the diaspora’s multiethnic, multinational quality that is the key to its tolerance and their safety.

Indeed, the only time we find anti-Semitism or any other anti-ethnic/group attitude reaching the point of murder and mayhem is when in-group identity or “peoplehood,” to use Hirsch’s term, is exploited to excess. Of course, it is true that somewhere in the world, or perhaps several places, at any particular time, this happens, and then one group will ghettoize, persecute, murder, or expel another because of some exaggerated ethnic or economic difference.

One can think of Myanmar and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims; Rwanda and the genocidal persecution of the Tutsi; the behavior of the Serbian [ed.: and Croatian] leaders during the Bosnian civil war; ethnic warfare in Darfur and Southern Sudan; the slaughter in Cambodia; and the massacres conducted by the so-called Islamic State. To be forthright, it is the fear that Israel is approaching this level of extreme peoplehood that now motivates the concern of progressive Jews.

A sure sign of this concern was publicly presented in mid-May 2021, when an open letter signed by 93 rabbinical and cantorial students (cantors lead the singing during Jewish worship) asked American Jews to rethink their relationship with Israel. In essence, the letter asked Jews to apply the same human rights standard for Israel as they do for interracial relations in the United States. The letter reads in part:

“This year, American Jews have been part of a racial reckoning in our community. … How are we complicit with racial violence? Jewish communities … have had teach-ins and workshops, held vigils, and commissioned studies. And yet … so many of us ignore the day-to-day indignity that the Israeli military and police forces enact on Palestinians, and sit idly by as Israel upholds two separate legal systems for the same region. And, in the same breath, we are shocked by escalations of violence, as though these things are not a part of the same dehumanizing status quo.”

This letter was met with “thundering silence” by all official U.S. Jewish organizations, the leaders of which probably hope that this too shall pass. However, among the rabbis who did counterattack was Ammiel Hirsch, who, as noted, sees Israel as the foundation of Jewish “peoplehood.” This stood to reason, for what the open letter did was reassert that “universal principles” such as human rights are of foundational importance for Jews — that they are synonymous with that “moral compass developed over the centuries,” and thus serve as a baseline for both Jewish individual and group behavior. A Jewish “peoplehood” that behaves in violation of these principles has gone seriously astray and cannot provide a safe haven for anyone.

If we want to get biblical about this, today’s Israel cannot be a “Jewish” state and simultaneously be a state just like all others. It can’t be both because it would go against the Hebrew God’s plans for the Jews: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to … bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

One would assume this command helped shape traditional Jewish mores. So, what is Israel going to be: (1) just another run-of-the-mill, vulgar, armed-to-the-teeth-and-ready-for-slaughter, greedy, racist, self-centered nation-state or (2) a community with principles like those, for example, set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

It might be noted that we have never witnessed a state (Jewish or Gentile) that is principled and law-abiding in the way Isaiah 49:6 would have it. This may or may not have something to do with human evolution and genetic propensities. But, to the chagrin of the political Zionists, this absence offers no excuse for breaking the bonds of Jewish moral standards when it comes to Israeli behavior. This problem has caused all manner of psychic disturbance within the Jewish diaspora, sustaining a growing schism among Reform Jews and generally establishing fault lines between the political Zionists and idealistic progressive Jews.

And that is where the Jews are at this moment in history. The pressure is on, and as the old saying goes, if you are not in support of the solution — Israel becoming a truly democratic and humane state for all its citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion — you are really part of the problem.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He has been publishing his analyses of topics in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, international and humanitarian law and Israel/Zionist practices and policies since 2010.

This article is from his site,

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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17 comments for “Schism in US Judaism Deepens

  1. CNfan
    January 5, 2022 at 20:11

    Further discussion would include the significant role of Jewish supremacist attitudes among the Israelis and their supporters. This is discussed by Jewish Israeli scholar Israel Shahak in his book “Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years”, available free on-line at:

    Up-to-date reporting on the split in the Jewish community is at the high quality, Jewish-run, anti-Zionist website “Mondoweiss”. A sample recent article is “The ‘free world’ cannot eulogize Desmond Tutu’s greatness and support Israeli apartheid”

  2. Tommy
    January 5, 2022 at 11:26

    “A sure sign of this concern was publicly presented in mid-May 2021, when an open letter signed by 93 rabbinical and cantorial students (cantors lead the singing during Jewish worship) asked American Jews to rethink their relationship with Israel. ”

    Is there a link to this open letter?

  3. Jeff Harrison
    January 4, 2022 at 17:21

    The real problem, I think, has been missed. Judaism is a religion. It is not a political system. Zionism is traditionally thought of as political Judaism. This was a problem that Christianity faced that ultimately resulted in most states becoming secular and pushing Christianity out of the government. That notorious liberal, Barry Goldwater, put the problem quite succinctly:
    “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”
    It’s a problem for all religions and why theocratic states such as Israel, Saudi, Iran, and a host of the other West Asian theocracies are all generally autocratic. Until you get the religion out of the political system, you’re in for trouble.

    • robert e williamson jr
      January 6, 2022 at 14:56

      Great Stuff Jeff. If you are old enough to have lived through Goldwater and knew his politics this is a sobering insight into the man’s thoughts on religion and politics. Politics I didn’t particularly agree with by the way. This is exactly why we must debate each other in a civil manner.

      The fact that the constitution allows for freedom of religious choice is one great reason why invading Iraq and Afghanistan was such a bad idea.

      CN is making great strides in getting the” quiet part” spoken out load. Only cowards hide behind things to hide their identities.

      Thanks CN & Co.

  4. Carl Zaisser
    January 4, 2022 at 16:17

    And then you have all those really holy Christians, of the Evangelical persuasion, who support Israel in every way possible for one reason: They believe that when Jews are gathered back to the ‘holy land’, Jesus will come again, along with their liberation and the end of the world. While they are fervent allies with the state of Israel, they care little for the Jewish people, who will be abandoned by them when Jesus finally arrives, because basically Jews do not believe he was ‘God’. This is a contemptible reason for being ‘friends’ with Israelis.

  5. January 4, 2022 at 16:10

    The irrelevant introductory anti-Trump diatribe (no, I do not support former president Trump’s policies, nor those of the Deep State Democrats) unfortunately sullies an otherwise relevant discussion important in differentiating between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

    • Zalamander
      January 4, 2022 at 21:55

      I disagree. I think the Trump part of the introduction was very much relevant.

    • Altruist
      January 5, 2022 at 07:28

      Israel is fine as a concept, but the practical reality is that Eretz Israel was and is a colonial project, based on seizing land and other resources from the native population under the specious ideology that the Jewish settlers were “returning to their land” after an absence of ca. 2000 years (using this type of reasoning, the Irish, Welsh and Scots could settle Switzerland and Austria, which were Celtic before (and for some time after) the Roman conquests of slightly over 2,000 years ago, and displace the native populations). As the late André Vltchek wrote, it would have made more sense to turn Bavaria into a Jewish homeland, as opposed to Palestine, given that “the Germans” were guilty for the Holocaust, unlike the Palestinians. But the Bavarians aren’t “primitive brown people” who must make way for their superiors under colonial ideology.

      I must think back to the words of my father – who left Nazi Germany for Britain and then the USA because of his Jewish ancestry – calling the Israelis “the Nazis of the Middle East” because of their ruthlessness and racism (and he had experience with real Nazis, both during the Nazi regime and afterwards during U.S. military occupation of Germany). And indeed Zionism was one of the many ethnic-based nationalistic movements that developed mainly in Central Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century and reached their zenith in early/mid-20th century Europe, buttressed by imperialism and colonial ideology.

      If Israel wants to gain permanent legitimacy and its people to have a good conscience going forward there needs to be a truly fair and comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian issue. However, the current attitude is – like in the USA during the time of Andrew Jackson and the Indian wars – let’s expand our empire, and in 100 years, who will shed tears for the Indians?

      • robert e williamson jr
        January 7, 2022 at 13:15

        My compliments to Altruist. You have exposed years of propaganda by getting the history right with your comment here.

        See my earlier reply to Sam. Which are there more of, neocons or Zionists in congress? I’m thinking maybe the majority of Zionists are neocons.

        Any thoughts on this subject?

  6. Vera Gottlieb
    January 4, 2022 at 14:50

    Once read somewhere…’Zionism is giving Judaism a bad name”

    • Helga Fellay
      January 4, 2022 at 15:24

      That is a true statement. It makes me wonder whether the fact that Orthodox Jews move to Israel has something to do with just that – that they feel compelled to try to “save” Israeli Jews from the extremism of Zionist Israelis by adding their numbers to those Israeli Jews who do not want to be identified with Zionism and the hatred if brings about who are currently in the minority and thus not able to bring moderation to official policies.

      • Sam
        January 4, 2022 at 16:41

        If any Jew want’s to save Israel, or even Judaism, from Zionism, they can try convincing the broad US Jewish population to stop funding the Jewish Lobby, which successfully bribes the US Congress for its unconditional support for those Israeli Jews.

        • robert e williamson jr
          January 7, 2022 at 12:37

          Sam I could not agree more. Does anyone commenting here know the ratio of Zionists to neocons who serve in congress?

      • Sam
        January 5, 2022 at 09:20

        I agree.

        • dennis hanna
          January 6, 2022 at 12:30

          Sam, may I offer a thought.
          You fail to adhere to the fundamental nature of politics and the human psyche, which is:
          [You] must always keep the truth well hidden.
          dennis hanna

    • Sam
      January 4, 2022 at 16:33

      Right. How about, Will Judaism survive Zionism? Or even better, Will Judaism survive Tribalism?

    • Stephanie Wright
      January 5, 2022 at 02:51

      I’m not sure. Judaism is surely intimately linked with the stories in the Old Testament about the ‘Children of Israel’ taking possession of the land of Canaan in the name of their single deity Jehovah or Yahweh. The accounts make it very clear that the Israelites should slaughter every last man, woman and child in the cities they were conquering simply because those peoples were worshippers of false gods. Is that the essence of Judaism as well as of Zionism?

Comments are closed.