RABBI Jacob Neusner set off an extended debate throughout the Jewish world when he asked in these pages several months ago "Is America the Promised Land for the Jews?" To which that distinguished American scholar answered with a ringing affirmative. Most recently taking the opposite view was my friend Donald Wolpe, a Washington Jewish community leader, who answered in a letter to the Post: "No, For Jews the Promised Land Is Israel."
Each of these protagonists, believing passionately in the absolute rightness of his position, has permitted his argument to become somewhat hyperbolic, as if American Jews are faced with an either/or choice. Both positions are extreme, polarized, and do not represent the feeling of a majority of American Jews.
First off, if our faith and history entitle us to a Promised Land, as I think they do, then American Jews are now blessed with two: Israel, the land of our patriarchs and prophets; and America, the land of our fathers and grandfathers. Cherishing one does not exclude holding dear the other; nor, God forbid, ever will.
Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, an eminent early Zionist, found his love for this country and for a Jewish national homeland, then Palestine, admirably and mutually reinforcing, never an either/or choice. That is the view held today by most American Jews: We love and are proud of America and of Israel, their origins, their trials, their enormous accomplishments -- even as we are aware of their warts. But is it really fair to exaggerate those blemishes in order to win debating points?Is Israel really the cultural and scholarly wasteland that Neusner holds it to be?
The low marks that he ascribes to Israeli books and painting and drama and music -- indeed to almost all its creative output -- are, to say the least, uncharitable. Assuming that he is correct, most critics would take into account that Israel has not yet celebrated its 40th birthday; that it has been at war with its Arab neighbors almost without cease since its birth; that in addition to building farms and factories and universities, it has also transformed a language of Holy Writ to a language of everyday speech, of newspapers, of traffic signs, of parliament and protocol.
With my (I hope, still) friend Donald Wolpe, my dispute is more fundamental and more critical. The thrust of his argument is that before the establishment of the state of Israel (May 1948), American Jews had almost no political, social, economic or cultural clout -- "a mostly invisible blip on the horizon of the American mainstream"; and that "only with the establishment of the state of Israel did the blip become a wave . . . Scattered, isolated, insignificant Jews became a people infused with dignity, with renewed commitment, with reborn spirituality, with hope."
Knowing the tragedy that befell members of Mr. Wolpe's family in the Holocaust, I can understand and share his trauma and the passion it evokes; but I think he stretches the facts. Granted that before 1948 in this country many executive suites and other corridors of power and influence were closed to Jews, as they were to Italians, and a generation earlier to the Irish. But American Jews before 1948 were scarcely the inconsequential, abased group that Mr. Wolpe holds them out to have been.
Louis D. Brandeis was not the only Jew to sit on the Supreme Court; Felix Frankfurter and Benjamin Cardozo each served for about 15 years. Henry Morganthau was Roosevelt's Secretary of the Treasury, and Bernard Baruch was a trusted adviser to several American Presidents. In the New York world of finance and art and philanthropy were men such as Flexi Warburg and Otto Kahn; in retail merchandising such giants as Julius Rosenwald (Sears Roebuck) and Isidor and Nathan Straus (R.H. Macy's). Can one imagine the songs America sang without Irving Berlin, or its jazz rhythms without George Gershwin? Can the world history of cinema be written without the names of Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer; or of American newspaper publishing omitting Adolph Ochs and his son-in-law Arthur H. Sulzberger (The New York Times); or of modern technology without mentioning Charles Steinmetz (General Electric) and David Sarnoff (R.C.A.)? Enough already!
And if there are today tenfold more American Jewish men and women in the arts and sciences and the professions and commerce and industry, is it really because, as Mr. Wolpe infers, they have been raised up in their self-esteem by the example of 3.5 million fellow Jews who proved that they could fly fighter planes and build roads and grow watermelons and manufacture Gottex beachwear?
What distinguishes American Jewry from all the other historical Diaspora Jewries -- all of which ended up badly (some miserably, some horribly): Babylonia, Rome, Spain, Russia, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, etc. -- is that the United States is not an absolute monarchy, a theocracy, a fascist or class dictatorship, or a homogenized society where you conform or else.
My friend Donald Wolpe believes, in effect, that it can happen here, that but for Israel the long tragic history of the Jews will be repeated on this continent. With all the other heavy burdens borne by that fledgling nation, I think we ought not, additionally, to make Israel spiritually responsible for our well-being. More importantly, I have confidence that America is and will continue to be a special place for American Jews -- a second Promised Land.
Aaron Goldman, a retired businessman, is a former president of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington and a former chairman of the National Jewish Community relations Advisory Council.