The Special Case of American Jewry – Part 1

by Tsvi Bisk and Moshe Dror

The following is an excerpt from the book Futurizing the Jews: Alternative Futures for Meaningful Jewish Existence in the 21st Century:

I agree with those who claim that America is different and American Jewry is different. This difference is why American Jews are often indifferent to fundamental Zionist arguments and are not impressed with Israeli intellectuals and politicians preaching the classic Zionist message. The reason is that unlike 19th century European Jewry, Zionist arguments have had little significance for the 20th century American Jewish experience. The American Zionism of Brandeis and Kallen has been and still is a more accurate reflection of the American Jewish experience. Their argument was that the creation of Israel would imbue American Jews with more self-confidence and self-esteem and would thus make them better American citizens. Looking at the status of Jews in American society before and after the creation of the State of Israel one would be hard put to deny the validity of their position.

What is so singular about America that makes it less amenable to the classic Zionist message? At the most fundamental level it is because America’s history, cultural origins and foundational mythologies are different from those of Europe. The United States is the only Western country whose mythologies are Old Testament and not pagan. The Bible and biblical metaphor form the foundation of American culture, not the Greco/Roman, Teutonic or Druidic myths which reflect the pagan roots of European culture.

Exodus and the search for the Promised Land is the dominant American metaphor. America has transformed the idea of the Promised Land into an amorphous concept called The American Dream. The Exodus metaphor appears in various degrees in all five of the foundational cultures of the United States:

  • the Puritan Forefathers
  • African Americans
  • the West
  • the mass immigration
  • suburbia

The Puritan Forefathers

The metaphor of the Pilgrims and Puritans was Hebrew. England was their Egypt and the King their Pharaoh. The Atlantic Ocean was their Red Sea and America the New Canaan. Some historians even claim that the Jewish holiday of Succoth inspired Thanksgiving. Both are harvest holidays commemorating God-inspired and God-guided deliverance in the wilderness. America’s Puritan heritage and other fundamental Protestant influences have engraved the American character with the Hebrew imprint. American mythology is Old Testament. Neither Thor nor Jupiter lies at the bottom of the American character, but Moses, the Chosen People, the Promised Land, and redemption. The Puritans saw their religion as a continuation of the Covenant of Israel but under a different administration.

One message of the Old Testament was that a nation as well as an individual could be in covenant with God. They intended to establish such a nation, doing God’s work, on the shores of the New Canaan of America. This vision still has enormous impact on the American character today and partially explains that sense of exceptionality that Americans have about themselves (which so often infuriates other nations).

Many of these early Americans found justification for their distaste for absolutism and divine right in the Old Testament. They believed that government must be moral before it is political. The equal protection clause of the Constitution has its roots in the belief that all men are equal in the eyes of God.

The infatuation of the Jews with America equals that of the Protestant Americans with the Hebrew heritage. Early Sephardic Jews, in an attempt to identify America with the Promised Land, asserted that the American Indians were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. Ashkenazi Jews called America Die Goldene Medine—the golden country (the land of milk and honey). The word America has quickened the hearts of Jews for years, in ways that may be surpassed only by the word Israel.

Revolutionary America and modern Israel are also strikingly similar. They are the only countries in the world to be established in whole as a country, a society, and a culture, by a group of founding fathers inspired by visions of a universal role. It is the messianic prophetic message that informs both experiences, for better and for worse.