Nations Divided: American Jews and the Struggle Over Apartheid. By Marjorie N. Feld. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. viii + 234pp.
In April 1976, Israel received an usual state visit from the prime minister of South Africa, the leader of a country increasingly isolated and condemned internationally for decades because of its apartheid policies. The moment that John Vorster, "a former Nazi supporter, architect of South African apartheid" stepped into Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, was a true moment of cognitive dissonance for Jews everywhere (76). As Marjorie N. Feld describes it in her new book Nations Divided, this was one of many moments-up until Nelson Mandela's death in 2013-that South Africa and its apartheid regime would force American Jews to confront a central tension in their identity, between their particularistic allegiance to other Jews (and Israel's needs, specifically) and their universal ideals, which found any Jewish complicity with the racist regime in Pretoria morally revolting.
Feld's deeper subject is this tension and all the rips and tears that it caused both among members of the American Jewish community and within individuals struggling to reconcile these competing imperatives. She tracks this tug-of-war against the backdrop of the anti-apartheid movement as it grew in force from the 1950s through the 1980s. Jews increasingly had to balance "commitments to universalism and justice on one hand, Jewish unity and an unjust system on the other" (37).
In the immediate postwar era, it was possible for American Jews to bridge this divide easily. Not only did Israel in the 1950s present itself as the result of a successful anti-colonial liberation movement, but the Jewish state was also deeply invested in aiding newly independent black sub-Saharan Africa. American Jews were then in deep cooperation with blacks in the civil rights movement, which allowed for a seamless combination of Jewishness with more universal commitments, including a reading of the Holocaust that made it incumbent upon them to help another discriminated group.
But what began as a small source of strain, with some Jewish communal leaders fearing that outspoken opposition to apartheid would jeopardize the well-being of the largely quiescent South African Jewish community, transformed into a much bigger dilemma. As the 1960s progressed, especially after the Six Day War and the beginning of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel...