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.

The overnight transition from an Israel besieged by Arab armies poised for its destruction to an Israel whose guns pointed into many Arab capitals and whose flag flew over the Temple Mount catapulted American Jewry from a position of utter vulnerability to one of unprecedented empowerment. Israel’s military miracle enabled American Jews to “walk with their backs straight”—as though they had previously walked hunched over—and, thanks to the ensuing American-Israeli alliance, to fulfill Brandeis’s dictum of being “better Americans” by unstintingly supporting Zionism. The victory also accorded American Jewry immense clout in domestic politics, primarily via Congress, which ratified ever-expanding aid packages for Israel. Indeed, though established in 1953, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby—emerged as an influential force in American foreign policymaking only in the mid-1970s, after Israel became the world’s foremost recipient of American largesse. Contrary to the often asserted anti-Zionist charge that Israel owes its strength to American Jewish power, in fact, American Jewish power was forged by Israel.

Yet, in spite of their mutually reinforcing relationship, the Israeli and American Jewish utopias remained divided. While unreservedly pro-Israel, American Jewish organizations still refused to endorse aliya as a praiseworthy or even valid option for their members. They fervidly condemned Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew imprisoned in 1986 for spying for Israel, proclaiming their paramount allegiance to America and not the Jewish state. Israelis, for their part, refrained from publicly impugning the right of American Jews to reside in the United States. But they never ceased dreaming of someday absorbing that community, of witnessing an American aliya grander and more distinguished than that from the former Soviet Union.

An indication of the breadth of the rift surfaced in the mid-1990s in an initiative mounted by Ezer Weizman, then Israel’s flamboyant president. Weizman proposed enacting “a new covenant of the Jewish people” based on mutual recognition between Israel and the diaspora. Specifically, Israel would acknowledge the authenticity of diasporic life in exchange for the diaspora’s acknowledgment of aliya as a viable means of ensuring Jewish continuity. Jewish communities in South America and Europe thrilled to the idea—most embraced their Zionist-defined identities—but American Jewish leaders balked at it. Their reasons were the same adduced by Blaustein decades earlier, namely, American Jews are not in exile, and Israel is not their homeland. Israeli representatives also proved incapable of relinquishing their Zionist exclusivity and retreated from Weizman’s plan. The covenant was never bound.

Today, immigration levels from North America to Israel still remain modest—this despite the robust efforts of organizations such as Nefesh B’Nefesh and other aliya facilitators. And while the American Jewish community is less likely to disparage any of its members who move to Israel, many Israelis still routinely dismiss American olim as unbalanced. To be sure, the twenty-first century has nevertheless seen some blurring of the lines between the American Jewish and Israeli utopias. For example, by sending myriads of its youth to the Birthright Israel program, American Jewry has implicitly conceded that a ten-day trip to Israel can better cement Jewish solidarity than ten years of Hebrew school in the United States. And far more Israelis have relocated to the United States with far less stigma attached to their “descent.”

But despite signs of a growing closeness between the two communities, the schism still endures and, in some dimensions, deepens. Israel, having surpassed the United States as home to the world’s largest single concentration of Jews, is rapidly generating a national identity independent of the diaspora. Young Israelis, especially, are eschewing American cultural influences for those of India, China, and the Middle East. And the Israeli economy, currently growing at a rate of more than 5 percent, is annually less in need of American aid.

American Jews, at the same time, are less ideologically and emotionally dependent on Israel. The trend is especially pronounced among those American Jews too young to remember the Six Day War and pummeled with images of intifadas and Israeli incursions into Lebanon. Only about half of them, according to one recent study, expressed comfort with the idea of a Jewish state, and even fewer said they would be traumatized by Israel’s annihilation. It is not surprising, then, that Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, garnered such a passionate reception among American Jews: The heroes of the novel, set in 1948, are two American Jewish cartoonists, but there is no mention of the 600,000 real-life Jewish heroes who struggled for statehood that year.14 American Jews also celebrated Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union with its fantasy of a world in which Israel does not exist but is nonetheless plagued by Zionist conspiracies.15 Once reliant on Israel for their military pride, American Jews can today point to venerable synagogues at both West Point and Annapolis which fly the red, white, and blue alone, without the blue and the white. And Hollywood can produce films like The Hebrew Hammer (2003), directed by Jonathan Kesselman, a slapstick comedy about an American Jewish sleuth who, in seducing women and defeating foes, needs no help from Israeli agents such as Zohan.

In fact, Zohan is to date the most blatant assertion of American Jewish utopianism. Unlike Munich, which depicts Israel as mirthless and haunted, and Brooklyn as bright and almost Edenic, Adam Sandler’s Israel is a paradise, and his Brooklyn a veritable battlefield. And yet, in spite of this disparity, Zohan still chooses America. “All the fighting, what’s it all for?” he asks—a question that could readily be answered by evoking three thousand years of Jewish history, the revival of Hebrew national culture, and the dignity of Jewish independence. But none of those considerations counterbalance Zohan’s need to move to America, where he knows precisely for what he fights—the opportunity to intermarry and cut hair in a mall.

More accurately than he probably intended, A.O. Scott of the New York Times crowned Zohan the “finest post-Zionist” comedy he had ever seen.16Zohan isn’t pro-Israel or pro-Palestine,” commented Eric Kohn of Cinematical, “it’s pro-America.”17 In its own naive way, the film tries to bridge the gap that divides Israelis and Palestinians. But at the same time, it only accentuates the gap separating Israelis from American Jews. Regrettably, the chasm still yawns between these conflicting utopias, between contrasting dreams of national and personal freedom and disparate formulas for Jewish survival.

Michael B. Oren is
Israel’s Ambassador to the United States of America. He was formerly a Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, an academic and research institute, and a contributing editor of AZURE.


1. Stephanie Zacharek, “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” Salon.com, June 6, 2008, www.salon.com/ent/movies/review/2008/06/06/zohan.

2. Alex Dorn, “‘You Don’t Mess with the Zohan’ Review,” Ugo.com, www.ugo.com/ugo/html/article/?id=18699.

3. Wesley Morris, “Hairy Situations,” Boston Globe, June 6, 2008.

4. Oren Shamir, “American Bourekas Movie,” Achbar Ha’ir online, June 22, 2008, www.mouse.co.il/CM.articles_item,514,209,24439,.aspx [Hebrew]. The comment is facetious: Israel has not had a Ministry of Information since 1975.

5. Samuel Freedman, “In the Diaspora: Rak b’America,” Jerusalem Post, June 20, 2006.

6. David Horovitz, “Editor’s Notes: yes stars Beats a Tonsorial Zionist Gagfest,” Jerusalem Post, June 26, 2008.

7. Emma Lazarus, “The Banner of the Jew,” in The Poems of Emma Lazarus, vol. 2 (Boston and New York: Riverside, 1889), pp. 10-12.

8. “The Pittsburgh Platform,” Declaration of Principles: 1885 Pittsburgh Conference, www.zionism-israel.com/hdoc/Pittsburgh_Platform_1885.htm.

9. Abram S. Issacs, “Will the Jews Return to Palestine,” Century 26:1 (May 1883).

10. Emma Lazarus, “By the Waters of Babylon, Part V: Currents,” in The Poems of Emma Lazarus, vol. 2, p. 104.

11. Louis D. Brandeis, Brandeis on Zionism: A Collection of Addresses and Statements (Washington, D.C.: Zionist Organization of America, 1942), p. 28.

12. Arthur Hertzberg, “The Advantages of Jewish Nervousness,” Haaretz, June 30, 1995 [Hebrew].

13. “An Exchange of Views: American Jews and the State of Israel,” in American Jewish Year Book 53 (1952), pp. 564-568.

14. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (New York: Random House, 2000).

15. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).

16. A.O. Scott, “Watch Out, He’s Packing a Blow-Dryer,” New York Times, June 6, 2008.

17. Eric Kohn, “Fan Rant: Adam Sandler, Republican Actor,” Cinematical, June 3, 2008, www.cinematical.com/2008/06/03/fan-rant-adam-sandler-republican-actor.

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