Back in the day when Israel was young, Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee, struck a deal with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. In essence, Israel was not to interfere in any way in American Jewish life. Fearful at the time of having American Jews accused of “dual loyalty,” Blaustein wanted a clear separation between the Zionist state and Jews in the United States, including references to Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.
Those concerns seem almost quaint today, when ties between American and Israeli Jews have frayed and surveys show that young American Jews are less likely than their parents, and certainly their grandparents, to regard Israel as central to their lives. For their part, Israelis, with their strong economy and enviable technology, no longer feel themselves dependent on American Jewish support as that nation once did.
But in Blaustein’s time, links between the two communities were tight. The United States had emerged from World War II with the strongest and wealthiest Jewish population on the globe, and Israeli leaders relied on it for funding and resources. American Jews, in turn, took pride in the courageous little nation that had fought off a pack of enemies and whose pioneers were devoting themselves to building a new land. In their admiration, also, Jews in the United States lionized the state’s early leaders.
Of those leaders, Golda Meir held a special place in the hearts of American Jews. Although born in Kiev in 1898, she lived in the United States from the time she was 8 until she left for Palestine at 23. She had a deep knowledge of American ways, and with that know-how she strengthened the bonds between Israel and the United States during her years in government more than any leader before her.
But long before that, she had begun strengthening bonds between Jews in both lands. As early as the 1930s, when she headed the Pioneer Women in the United States, she instilled a sense of camaraderie in the American women for their counterpart, the Women Workers’ Council in “Eretz-Yisrael.” She taught them pioneer songs and dances, and inspired them with stories of the brave women who had left their homes to join the Zionist enterprise. In 1950, she helped found the Israel Bonds organization that encouraged American Jews not simply to donate to Israel, but to invest in that country so that they, too, had a share in it. Throughout her career, she traveled to the States almost every year to attend Jewish organizational meetings and speak at hundreds of lunches and dinners for the UJA or Bonds or Hadassah.
Ignoring the Blaustein deal, she perfected the art of making American Jews feel included in Israel’s challenges and successes. She never spoke down to them. “Friends,” she would begin her talks to American Jewish audiences, and pepper her messages with references to the partnership between Jews in the two countries. In one of her most crucial speeches, when she came to the States to raise money before Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, she assured her audiences that “we are not a better breed. … I am certain that if you were in Palestine and we were in the United States, you would be doing what we are doing there.” Much later, in 1970, as prime minister, she accepted an honorary degree from the Hebrew Union College in Israel, the seminary of Reform Judaism. She did this even though the Orthodox National Religious Party, which bitterly opposed the liberal religious movements, was a member of her government’s coalition. “I am just daring enough to presume to say in the name of the whole government that we are happy you are here,” she stated, cementing Israel’s relationship with that major American Jewish institution.
All this is not to say that she completely approved of American Jews. She was horrified in the 1960s by the young American hippies she saw on her visits. “If their parents take showers every day, then their rebellion demands that a shower is something forbidden,” she reported to Israelis, and emphasized the need to shield Israeli youth from such deleterious American influences. More than anything, she was profoundly disappointed in American Jews for not immigrating to Israel, once labeling that lack of immigration a tragedy equal almost to the tragedy of the Holocaust. “I simply cannot understand the instinctive lack of responsiveness when we speak of aliyah,” she scolded a group of American Jewish leaders.
Nevertheless, she spoke frequently of the need for dialogue between the two Jewish communities, no matter their differences. To be sure, the differences now are greater than they were then. Although there were strong disagreements about how to handle the territories captured in 1967, today’s extreme polarization did not exist either among Israelis or American Jews. Only a small number of settlements had been built in the West Bank, and while the religious right had grown, ultra-Orthodox groups had not attained the power they hold today.
We cannot turn back the clock. But Golda Meir’s emphasis on dialogue and partnership between Israeli and diaspora Jews still applies, perhaps today more than ever. After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, she told a group of soldiers that if they had fought only for Israel their struggles might not have been worth it. But if they recognized that fighting for Israel meant fighting for Jews everywhere, then “no sacrifice is too great.” It would be an irony — and a great tragedy — if Jacob Blaustein’s old, narrow-minded separation between Jews in Israel and the United States won out after all. Golda’s broad vision, emphasizing the centrality of Israel for Jews everywhere, is so much more rewarding.
Francine Klagsbrun’s new book, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” (Schocken), was named the 2017 Book of the Year by the National Jewish Book Awards.