Early Zionists would be horrified that half of all Jews in the US marry out of the faith. Yet it is Jewish culture that is assimilating the goys.
What if Israel - the location for the Jewish homeland, rather than the underlying notion - was a terrible mistake? It's a question that is beginning, for the first time in a hundred years, to nag at the edge of the public consciousness.
Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer-winning author, is at work on a new novel, an alternative history, in which Jewish settlers have established the Yiddish-speaking nation of Yisroel, in Alaska. Ken Layne, the columnist, dreams of an Israel relocated to Baja California, inhabited by happy Jews eating gefilte fish tacos. Rand Simberg jokes that, as a Jewish homeland, even a Zionist lunar colony would be preferable to the arid hostility of the Arab Middle East.
There were indeed proposed locations for a Jewish homeland in Uganda, Canada, Australia and even Iraq. And Chabon's Yisroel is based on a plan, mulled by Roosevelt, to resettle Jewish refugees in Alaska.
The current daydreams, and the dusty plans they draw upon, skirt the central point: there is already an alternative Jewish homeland. It's a country in which Jews are numerous, safe and powerful; in which Jewish culture is supreme, and there is a rising tide, not of anti-Semitism, but of philo-Semitism. The promised land is right here in the US.
Rather than rehearse the arguments of the Arab-Israeli conflict, suffice to say that five million Jews are surrounded in the Middle East by 280 million largely implacable Arabs. Let's focus rather on the virtues of the US. Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, concluded from the Jewish experience in Europe: 'We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted us.' The US has proved an exception.
First, Jews can rise to any position in business, media and politics.
Here are the figures: a tenth of the Senate; a third of Bill Clinton's cabinet; half of the media moguls; the upper levels of Premiere's list of Hollywood powerbrokers; and most of the neo-conservative intellectuals.
Most American Jews fear any accounting of their influence, lest it provoke envy. According to the Anti-Defamation League, Hispanic and Muslim immigration has brought in a fresh cohort of unreformed anti-semites, with 17% of Americans and 35% of US Hispanics confessing adverse sentiments.
Yet, if there is a wave, it is one of philo-semitism. Take Camille Paglia, the Italian-American lesbian academic, happiest when surrounded by Jews; the feisty libertarian journalists of the web, such as Charles Johnson, who are more fiercely pro-Israeli than most Jews; the millions of Christian-American readers who follow the Left Behind epic, in which Satan contends with Tsion Ben-Judah, a former Israeli statesman.
Early Zionists worried that, if Jews were not persecuted, they would assimilate. Move the sabbath to Sunday, as Rabbi Elmer Berger proposed in the 1950s. They would be horrified that half of all Jews in the US now marry out of the faith. But, if anything, it is Jewish secular culture that is assimilating the goys. The popular US sitcoms, such as Friends, Will and Grace and, in its day, Seinfeld, are deeply Jewish in tone.
Romance is essential to any national identity, and the romance of the rebirth of Israel, after 2,000 years of wandering, cannot be matched.
But the US has its own Jewish mythology: of immigrants landing at Ellis Island, the strivers of the Lower East Side, Jewish gangsters in Las Vegas, Einstein at Princeton, atomic physicists on the Manhattan Project, Wall Street tycoons in the 1980s, even today's bagel-eating yuppies of Upper West Side, Manhattan.
So why the resistance to the idea of Zion in America? Well, because it was not on offer when Jews needed a homeland; like other countries, the US restricted Jewish immigration, and now it's too late. The Jewish state exists in the Middle East, and even private doubts about its viability would play into the hands of Israel's enemies. Even to raise the subject is to risk the charge of anti-semitism or, in my case, self-hatred.
The US is already the Jewish bastion, and Israel is indeed insecure: a million Israelis have emigrated, mainly to the US. But the power of Jews in the US and the precariousness of Jews in Israel: these are the twin taboos of the Jewish national debate. Jews sometimes wonder what their world would have been like without Hitler. Israel - a salvation arising from the Holocaust - as a mistake: that would be a regret too heart-rending to contemplate.
So the alternatives are left to the novelists, such as Chabon, who writes of his Alaskan Yisroel: 'The resulting country is obviously a far different place than Israel. It is a cold, northern land of furs, paprika, samovars and one long, glorious day of summer. The portraits on those postage stamps we buy are of Walter Benjamin, Simon Dubnow, Janusz Korczak, and of a hundred Jews unknown to us, whose greatness was allowed to flower only here, in this world.'