It is difficult to summarize the Jewish experience in the post-World War II period since we are still living through it. As the video makes clear, this is the era of the superpowers, when world history and Jewish history converge in concern over the fate of the small state of Israel. This is also an era when Jews may be more at home in Western societies than at any other time in their history.|
But we must begin this unit with the trauma faced by displaced persons in the aftermath of the Nazi destruction of most of European Jewry. A first-person memoir of one of the survivors, who eventually settled in Seattle, Washington, is found in Source Reader Selection 1.
Many Jews, however, attempted to go to Palestine, not for the same reasons as the early, dedicated visionary settlers, but rather because they felt it was the only safe haven for the Jewish people. Arriving in Palestine, they came upon a land that had already been painstakingly cleared for agricultural development; where Hebrew was the official language after being moribund as a spoken tongue for 2,000 years; and where a complex society existed, based on the ideals of socialism and self-reliance.
Jewish immigrants had flowed into Palestine since the heady days of the Balfour Declaration. (See the last chapter.) But the leaders of the native Arab population were angry at the growing Zionist influence. The British, who held the mandate for Palestine from the League of Nations, sought to calm Arab fears by continually depreciating the earlier promises given in the Balfour Declaration. By 1939, the British, unsure of Arab allegiance in the coming world war, almost totally shut down Jewish immigration into the country. Tragically, this was a time when an open immigration policy was sorely needed to save lives from the impending carnage in Europe.
The Zionists of course joined the British in the fight against the Nazis; at the same time they sought to combat the British by establishing a state within Palestine. They had learned the grim lessons of anti-Semitism and realized that they needed their own sovereign polity. With the end of World War II, the British remained opposed to both increased immigration and an independent Jewish state. The Zionists felt impelled to employ illegal means to get displaced persons into the country. The British, realizing that their problems were not easily solvable, handed over the question of Palestine to the United Nations. The new world body voted for partition of the Palestinian mandate into Jewish and Arab states. (See Source Reader Selection 2.) Although the Zionists were not totally satisfied with the details of the plan, overall they were ecstatic. The Arabs remained steadfastly opposed.
Israel Is Born
The Arabs began attacking Jewish settlements, and when the Zionists announced the new independent state of Israel in May 1948, the Arabs launched a full-scale war. It was a dangerous yet exciting moment for the Jews. Indeed, the United States and the U.S.S.R. immediately
recognized the new state of Israel. (Source Reader Selection 3
contains the text of Israel's declaration of independence.) When the war was over, Israel had defeated five Arab national armies and surprisingly had gained more territory than it had originally been granted under the partition plan. The hostilities finally ended not with a peace treaty but with an armistice agreement.
The New Nation
One of the first goals of the new state was to transport many Jews to Israel. Thousands of Jews immigrated, including entire Jewish communities. (Source Reader Selection 10 tells of the airlift of Yemenite Jews to their new homeland.) The logistics of culturally assimilating all these new immigrants and of feeding, clothing and housing them were formidable, but the Israelis tried as best they could. There were and continue to be ethnic tensions in the state, especially between Jews from Western countries and those from Islamic environments. Religious tensions also erupted and can be seen in the recent debate over who is considered a Jew and therefore possesses an automatic right to become a citizen of the new state. (A recent Israeli Supreme Court decision on this issue is excerpted in Source Reader Selection 11.)
The Soviet Union had expanded the number of Jews under its hegemony with its territorial acquisitions at the beginning of World War II. Many of the new Soviet Jews from, for example, Lithuania or Rumania found Soviet Jewish policies shocking and disastrous. But for many Jews who found the U.S.S.R. a safe haven from the Nazi Holocaust, the Soviet state was seen as a protector of life. Interestingly, the Soviet Union was the first country to recognize formally the new independent state of Israel, although the action was mainly motivated by anti-British strategy.
Professor Stanislawski argues that the spontaneous demonstration in 1948 in honor of Israel's envoy to Moscow, Golda Meir, upon her visit to the Soviet Union (see Source Reader Selection 4) was a turning point in Soviet Jewish history. Stanislawski writes that this event made the Soviet government aware of the implications of national Jewish solidarity. The Kremlin therefore attempted to crush such feelings. Stalin (whom in the program we see standing atop Red Square) became increasingly mad and virulently anti-Semitic in these years. Jewish cultural figures were arrested; Jewish doctors were accused of conspiring against him; and Jewish life was generally suppressed. (The massacre of Soviet Jewish writers is reported in Source Reader Selection 5.)
After Stalin's death the terror abated but Jewish life was never the same. The Jews' hopes for successful integration into Soviet society were dashed. Stalin's madness, though, also affected the Jews who lived in Eastern European countries under Soviet domination. (Source Reader Selection 6 is an excerpt from the memoirs of a Czechoslovakian Communist party official who, strikingly, was accused of fomenting a Zionist conspiracy.)
In Poland, where pogroms had broken out after World War II ended, Jews were accused of being Stalinists and harming the Polish people. Most of the few remaining Jews left the country. (See Source Reader Selection 7.)
In the late 1960s the fate of Soviet Jews became an issue for Western Jewry. Some Jews in the U.S.S.R. wished to emigrate to the United States or Israel, and the struggle for their right to leave became a high priority for Western Jews. As Source Reader Selection 12 indicates, Elie Wiesel was in the forefront of those Jews who emphasized the plight of their brethren behind the Iron Curtain who could not freely practice any form of Judaism.
For the Jews in the United States, the end of World War II brought absolutely unprecedented integration into almost every level of American society. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism seemed to have disappeared. Holocaust survivors and Jewish immigrants from Arab countries who arrived in the United States shared in the country's phenomenal economic and demographic growth. What was true for the United States was also true in smaller measure in Western Europe and in Latin America.
American Jewry became the largest Jewish community in the world, and these Jews felt as at home in America as did any of its inhabitants. The freedom that allowed for the growth of large Jewish communities and for an intensive Jewish cultural life also produced the threat of total assimilation and loss of Jewish identity. Judaism for American Jews was totally voluntary.
Jewish themes began to penetrate American literature, and authors of such works came to the forefront of the literary scene. (See Source Reader Selection 8, which contains writer Alfred Kazin's reflections on his upbringing in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville.) American Jews were scholars, scientists and politicians, and not only contributed to their fields but became comfortable about expressing their Jewishness. These Jews were conscious of their roots and of events in recent Jewish history, especially the European Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. (See Source Reader Selection 9.) The study of Jewish history and literature became an accepted part of the university curriculum, and Jewish group identity was accepted in pluralistic America.
A major stimulus to Jewish identity in contemporary America was the Six Day War, which Israel fought with its Arab neighbors. Egypt had threatened Israel with a blockade of its ports; the Syrians attacked Israeli settlements; and much of the Arab world was poised on the brink of war. The Israeli government, united, decided to launch a preemptive strike on June 5, 1967. Within six days, the Israelis had taken the Sinai peninsula from Egypt. Jordan, with whom Israel had pleaded not to enter the conflict, lost East Jerusalem and the West Bank to the Israelis. (One Israeli's attempt to convey what the Old City of
Jerusalem meant to him is found in Source Reader Selection 13.) In the days before this conflict, Jews all over the world were afraid that the events of the Holocaust would repeat themselves in the Middle East. This occasioned an overwhelming support for Israel in its moment of crisis.
Egypt and Syria launched surprise attacks on Yom Kippur of 1973, with great initial success. Only a massive American airlift to Israel averted disaster. Arab rejection of Israel reverted to terror attacks, largely orchestrated by the PLO and kindred terror organizations. In 1979, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for peace.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, succeeding in ejecting the PLO from that country, but it began a prolonged occupation of southern Lebanon that ended only in 2000. As the 1990s dawned, another immigration flood swept into Israel from the lands of the former Soviet Union, challenging its infrastructure to absorb 800,000 new citizens.
Israel was to enter a period of great turmoil as the twenty-first century was born. Peace offers in late 2000 by Prime Minister Barak were met with rejection and the launching of an armed terror uprising by the Palestinian Arabs, involving great loss of life on both sides. The future remains uncertain as sporadic violence continues, and peace efforts persist without much optimism.
In lieu of a conclusion, the television series boldly attempts to survey the nature of Jewish identity in the present. Through interviews, recent news footage and sociological analysis, contemporary Jewish issues are aired and a variety of opinions are given expression. Questions about the nature of contemporary Jewish religion and the Jewish community, attitudes toward the state of Israel and the hopes for the future of Jewish communities around the world are all explored.
Throughout history, Jewish society has maintained a semi-permeable membrane between it and the richness and allure of its host societies. Jewish societies have responded to both hostile and gracious host societies by incorporating elements of the host societies' mores and staunchly resisting other facets of those societies.
Today, with three fourths of the world's Jews inhabiting Israel and America, two starkly different environments have emerged in the twenty-first century.
On the one hand, Jews in Israel have -- for the first time in thousands of years -- created a Jewish society. The development of Israeli Jewish society derives its dynamism from the re-merging of diverse strands of Jewish groups living in a Jewish milieu.
On the other, American Jews live in a society which tends to fragment Jewish communities even as it welcomes Jews into the mainstream. Although far from perfect, civic American society (and other western liberal democracies) attempts to incorporate the prophetic call for justice, equality, and protection of the downtrodden.
Being Jewish in America is one choice among many for most American Jews. As intermarriage and complete assimilation are chosen by many Jews, Jewish demographics are in decline. The challenge for the American Jewish community is one of continuity -- of how to keep the community and its members committed to the choice of being "fully Jewish" while being "fully American."