Zohan and the Quest for Jewish Utopia

By Michael B. Oren

Adam Sandler's hit comedy reflects a deep divide between Israeli and American Jews.

One would have to be an incorrigible curmudgeon to dislike Adam Sandler’s blockbuster comedy You Don’t Mess with the Zohan—that, or an inveterate Zionist. Salon.com’s Stephanie Zacharek praised the movie’s effort to parse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “to bridge a gap that most of us, dispiritingly, have come to believe is unbridgeable.”1 Alex Dorn of Ugo.com claimed that “I laughed til tears came out of my eyes,”2 and Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe admitted that “nothing has brought me more cheap pleasure at a movie this year.”3 Most unexpectedly, Zohan also garnered kudos from the Israeli media. Israeli TV’s Channel 2 called it “the most Israeli movie ever produced in America,” and the Hebrew website Achbar Ha’ir Online wrote that “the movie’s depiction of Israeliness has been received with open arms by the Ministry of Information.”4 Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Friedman called it “the first… American movie to portray everyday Israel,”5 and the paper’s editor, David Horovitz, deemed it “the most overtly pro-Israel movie to come out of Hollywood since Exodus.”6

What then, besides an aversion to hummus—used alternately in the film as toothpaste, cat food, and sexual lubricant—could anyone find objectionable in Sandler’s burlesque about an Israeli commando who fakes his own death in order to start a career as a New York hairdresser? Certainly not the image of Israel it conveys, not so much a country as a nonstop beach party, teeming with caramelized vixens and hot-blooded adolescents. Zohan himself is a paragon of the macho Israeli, who feels no need to apologize for his use of physical force in the service of his cause. Undoubtedly, Zohan departs radically from the stereotypical cinematic image of an Israel steeped in terror and defended by ambivalent Jews devoured by self-doubt. And yet, more than any other movie—indeed, perhaps more than any other work of popular entertainment, and certainly one produced by Jews—Zohan repudiates the Zionist idea.

“I love my country,” Zohan says early in the film, “but the fighting, it never ends.” He later reiterates this thought, lamenting, “I couldn’t take all the fighting anymore. What’s it all for?” and “I’ve done so much for this country. When does it end?” The salve for Zohan’s angst, we soon learn, is simple: leave Israel, move to Brooklyn, and marry a Palestinian.

To be sure, disgruntled Israeli agents and soldiers are hardly rare in recent films. Both the character of Avner in Munich (2006), written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg, and of Eyal in Walk on Water (2004), Israel’s highest grossing film ever, are Mossad operatives who despair of the cyclical violence in their country and seek a way out. But while Eyal remains in Israel, Avner immigrates to Brooklyn—just like Zohan.

The decisions of Eyal on the one hand, and of Avner and Zohan on the other, represent far more than dramatic devices. Walk on Water was directed by an Israeli, Eytan Fox, while the other two films are products of American Jews. The choices made by their protagonists thus, to a great extent, reflect the gulf between Israeli and American Jewry over which community best guarantees Jewish survival—physical as well as spiritual—in a precarious, secular age. Which polity, these misleadingly superficial films ask, constitutes the sole Jewish utopia, the State of Israel or the United States? Which is the real Promised Land?

Such questions, of course, are as old as Zionism itself. The first to point out the incompatibility of the American and Zionist visions was Emma Lazarus, the New York Jewish poet who penned the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and who became one of America’s first Zionist activists. Appalled by the mass slaughter of Russian Jews during the 1882 pogroms, Lazarus exhorted her coreligionists to “recall the glorious Maccabean rage,” and “wake, Israel, wake,” by reestablishing Jewish statehood in Palestine. This “home for the homeless” and “nation for the denationalized” would, she believed, restore Jewish honor in the world and protect the Jews from further depredations. It would also enrich humanity with its cultural and scientific accomplishments and serve as an East-West nexus. “The world will gain as Israel gains,” Lazarus wrote.7

In calling for the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, Lazarus was evoking an age-old Jewish urge. Yet rather than rallying to the poet’s cause, the American Jewish leadership almost universally reviled it. “[We] expect therefore neither a return to Palestine nor a restoration of…the Jewish state,” announced the Union of Reform Congregations in 1885,8 while Conservative Jewish scholar Abram S. Isaacs assailed Lazarus for advocating “a separate nationality… at a time when antisemites are creating the impression that Jews… are only Palestinians, Semites, [and] Orientals.”9 Orthodox rabbis, too, rejected Lazarus’s attempt to end the Jews’ divinely instituted exile, accusing her of arrogating God’s exclusive prerogative. Indeed, except for some radical students at Columbia and Harvard, Zionism attracted negligible numbers of nineteenth-century American Jews.

The reluctance of American Jews to contemplate returning to Zion was all the more inexplicable in view of the fact that Lazarus, like most of her Zionist contemporaries, never pressed them to move there. On the contrary, her Jewish state was to be the refuge of Russian Jews, while their American coreligionists pursued their fate on “the pastoral plains of Texas and the golden valleys of the Sierras.”10 Similarly, Louis Brandeis, the master jurist who headed the Federation of American Zionists, opposed leaving the New World for the very Old: “Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though… neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so,” he wrote.11 Tellingly, the federation he led boasted a total membership of just ten thousand, a tiny minority of the three million Jews living in America in 1912. Of the nearly two hundred delegates to the First Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1897, only four hailed from the United States.

American Jewish wariness of Zionism had multiple sources. There was, for example, the fear of arousing accusations of dual loyalty and the desire to integrate into the country whose Puritan founders had fashioned as the new Israel. At base, though, was the belief that de goldene medine furnished the ultimate framework for Jewish continuity, the culmination of a millennia-long search. American Jews might still pray in Jerusalem’s direction—albeit in ever-dwindling numbers—and follow the biblical calendar, but the Jews’ salvation, they maintained, lay not in the land of milk and honey, but in the home of the free and the brave.

This belief was the basis of the ambivalent—and frequently outright hostile—relationship to Zionism displayed by virtually all of the major American Jewish organizations founded in the first half of the twentieth century. American Jews might build schools and hospitals in Palestine and replenish its forests, but trading the terra sancta of Cleveland or Brooklyn for that of Petah Tikva or even Jerusalem was widely regarded as sacrilege. American Jewish immigrants to Palestine such as Golda Meyerson (later Meir), Judah Magnes, and Henrietta Szold were therefore very much aberrations, representing a mere 0.3 percent of the pre-state Jewish Yishuv.

It took the Holocaust—and American Jewry’s guilt over failing to rescue European Jews—to awaken Zionist sentiment in the United States. Mass rallies on behalf of Jewish statehood were staged in every major city, and pro-Zionist telegrams deluged the White House. And yet, many American Jewish organizations continued to keep their distance from the state-making project in Palestine and opposed any call for North American aliya. Indeed, no sooner had the United States recognized Israel’s independence than American Jewish activism subsided into the passive stance once described by the late Arthur Hertzberg as “Israel-watching”—following Israeli items in the news, voting for pro-Israel politicians, and perhaps touring the country, but never contemplating moving there. Indeed, in 1956, when the Eisenhower administration threatened Israel with sanctions in retaliation for Israel’s invasion of Egyptian territory during the Suez crisis, the Jews of America remained silent.

If American Jews by and large refrained from embracing Zionism, the Zionists, even more comprehensively, rejected America. From the Zionist point of view, America was and would remain an anomaly: a modern, mostly Christian country that separated church from state, sheltered millions of Jewish refugees, and offered Jews full equality and—in theory, at least—unlimited opportunities. Instead of grappling with that anomaly, however, early Zionist thinkers for the most part chose to ignore it. Theodor Herzl, the Zionist movement’s peripatetic founder, never visited the United States, nor did he acknowledge the uniqueness of the American Jewish experience. Even Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, who spent much of World War I in New York, never confronted the challenge to Zionism posed by the American solution. Instead, he clung to the concept of shlilat hagola—negating the diaspora—whether it be in Paris, Kiev, or Boston. “There are no Zionists in America,” he famously quipped, “only Jews.”

Still, vitiating America on the ideological level did not mean shunning it economically or politically. From the time of Judah Touro, the nineteenth-century New Orleans philanthropist who financed the construction of the first Jewish neighborhoods outside of Jerusalem’s Old City, to Macy’s owner Nathan Straus, for whom the Israeli city of Netanya is named, Palestinian Jews welcomed American Jewish money. Indeed, the fifty million dollars raised by Golda Meir in the United States in 1948 proved pivotal in deciding the outcome of Israel’s struggle for independence. And as early as the 1930s, Ben-Gurion realized that America would determine Palestine’s fate, not Britain. Not coincidentally, the first formal call for Jewish statehood was issued not in London or even Jerusalem, but in 1942 at New York’s Biltmore Hotel.

American Jews dropped pennies in their Jewish National Fund pushkes and danced the hora at their weddings while Israelis named a youth village after American Zionist leader Abba Hillel Silver and a kibbutz after Brandeis (Ein Hashofet—the Spring of the Judge), yet neither recognized the other’s claim to primacy in solving the Jewish problem. Israelis defended their preeminence by pointing out America’s indifference to Jewish suffering during World War II and the skyrocketing rates of intermarriage and assimilation among American Jews. In response, American Jews called attention to the mounting body count in the very state that was supposed to safeguard the Jewish people, and to the ultra-secular Israeli youth denigrated by Rabbi Hertzberg as “Hebrew-speaking goyim.”12 Israeli immigrants to the United States were for many years denounced by their countrymen as yordim—literally, “those who descend”—while American Jewish immigrants to Israel risked being labeled expatriates or, worse, weirdos.

This conflict of Jewish utopias was debated in semi-official fashion in a correspondence between then-prime minister Ben-Gurion and American Jewish Committee president Jacob Blaustein in 1950. The issue was whether, as Ben-Gurion claimed, Israel represented world Jewry, or whether, as Blaustein countered, American Jewry spoke for itself and further served as co-defender of the diaspora. Underlying the debate, however, was the controversy over which country, Israel or the United States, constituted the genuine Zion—the end, in the Fukuyaman sense, of Jewish history. “American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion that they are in exile,” Blaustein wrote. “To American Jews, America is home.” Desperate for donations, Ben-Gurion backed down on Israel’s plenipotentiary status, conceding that the Jewish state “speaks only on behalf of its own citizens” and that American Jews “owe no political allegiance to Israel.” In return, Blaustein pledged that American Jews—“within the framework of their American citizenship”—would continue to assist Israel financially.13

The correspondence between Ben-Gurion and Blaustein established the relationship between Israel and American Jewry over the next seventeen years. Israel refrained from publicly challenging the American diaspora’s legitimacy, and American Jews contributed generously to the building of the Jewish state. Israel still offered instant citizenship to all diaspora Jews under its Law of Return, but American Jews overwhelmingly rebuffed it. Then came the Six Day War.

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