No Jewish People Without Israel
Why the future of American Judaism as we know it depends on the survival of the Jewish state
Why do Jews lie at the Passover Seder? Across the world every year, we Jews recite the famous line: “Next year in Jerusalem.” But how many American Jews actually mean it? The vast majority of them clearly do not plan to live in Israel, which is the liturgy’s obvious meaning. Why, then, proceed with the charade? On this pivotal night, why celebrate freedom by uttering a lie?
Truths come in different forms. “Next year in Jerusalem” is not about a plan, but about a dream. And uttering this phrase has long been the Jewish people’s way of keeping in mind both an ethereal ideal and a common national yearning. Jerusalem served as a compass during prayer, but, more importantly, it made for flights of national fancy. For two millennia, as Jews imagined their people’s future, one place occupied center-stage. That place was Zion.
As is increasingly apparent, however, the times are changing. Ours is the first generation in which the centrality of Zion in Jewish dreams is beginning to fade. It is fading rapidly, and we know why. Part of it has to do with the fact that Israel’s supporters have framed the conversation about the Jewish State in terms of the conflict with the Palestinians. Even among knowledgeable and committed Jews, an oral Rorschach test in response to the word “Israel” evokes responses such as “checkpoints,” “occupation,” or “settlements”—as though the conflict were all that Israel is about.
In response to that, a younger generation for whom war is anathema and occupation is morally unbearable has begun to drift away. Part of that is understandable, but only to an extent. For even when faced with the tragic and interminable conflict with the Palestinians, is it too much to hope that Jews would still find much worth celebrating when they think of Israel? When the revival of Jewish sovereignty in their ancestral land evokes only images of war, and the ingathering of exiles after 2,000 years evokes no awe, when the rebirth of the Jewish language elicits little sense of wonder, Jews have lost sight of the real significance of Israel’s re-creation.
But this is precisely where we find ourselves. Young Jews today, discouraged by Israeli policies that they cannot abide, either explicitly or tacitly join those who condemn the Jewish State. But they do not recognize that the de-legitimization of Israel will affect them, too, that they, too, have a personal stake in Israel, no matter how discomfited they may be by some of its policies. What happens to Israel will affect not only Jews in Beersheva or Tel Aviv, but Jews in New York, Boston, London, and Buenos Aires. Why that is the case has to become part of the Zionist conversation, which can no longer be only about Palestinians and occupation, borders and war.
Evidence that a new conversation about the Jewish state is long overdue is everywhere. The distance between Diaspora Jews (mostly, but not exclusively, American Jews) and the Jewish state is painfully apparent. A recent study asked American Jews if the destruction of Israel would be a personal tragedy for them. The study asked about the destruction of Israel, not its gradual disappearance or slow withering away. Eighty percent of Jewish Americans 65 years of age and older said that Israel’s destruction would, indeed, be a personal tragedy for them. But amazingly, 50 percent of those 35 years old and younger said that Israel’s destruction would not be a personal tragedy. Similarly, a 2011 study of American Jews showed that the younger the cohort, the lower their support for Israel.
The same phenomenon began to surface even among young rabbinical students; outside the Orthodox community, increasing numbers of mainstream Zionist rabbinical students reported that expressing support for Israel on their campuses had become a lonely proposition.
In an era in which American Jews can proudly espouse any political position they wish, why are so many young American Jews turning away from Israel? Why has Zion shifted away from the core of their national sensibilities and dreams? The most obvious reason, as stated, is the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. These young people have no memory of Israel’s past fragility, or of a time before the international community’s endorsement of Palestinian national aspirations. Israel’s re-creation and even the 1967 and 1973 wars, when the Arab nations pledged to “push the Jews into the sea,” are ancient history.
Today, what these young Jews see is a power imbalance. One side is an internationally recognized democracy with nuclear weapons, a world-class army, and a robust economy. The other side has none of these. In what is a radical departure from the mindset of their parents, these young Americans’ earliest memories of Israel are of the Intifada, of heavily armed Israeli soldiers arrayed against young Palestinian boys “only” throwing rocks. Sensitive to the underdog everywhere, and with a deep-seated belief in fairness, they insisted and continue to insist upon balancing the scales. The Palestinians, they decided, needed a state.
Palestinian statehood, however, has been slow in coming. To be sure, some of these young American Jews understand the impasse stems from the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel and continuing insistence that any political settlement with the Israelis allow for the return of the now-millions of people classified as “refugees” by UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency). Israel, in turn, understands that with the immigration of those original refugees and their descendants the state would cease to be Jewish—which is precisely what the Palestinians intend.
At the same time, these young Jews have also intuited that the Palestinians will not change. Therefore, because they cannot bear a conflict that simply cannot be resolved, they conclude that something has to give—and if the Palestinians will not give, then that something has to be Israel. But then, as this thinking goes, if Israel refuses to budge, it is Israel that is responsible for the impasse. Faced with a choice between loyalty to their humanitarian values or to their parents’ Zionism, they have chosen the former.
That point, of course, is not new. Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic and author of the recent book The Crisis of Zionism, has made the point extensively; perhaps the most quoted line from his much-discussed New York Review of Books article was his assertion that “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
True though Beinart’s comment may be, what is significant is that something else has changed, too. Many of these younger Jews now also believe they simply do not need Israel any longer. Having matured in the Shoah’s long shadow, their parents and grandparents still perhaps feel marginally vulnerable in America. These young people do not. They feel safe and do not fear anti-Semitism. Why, they therefore ask themselves, express fealty to a country they do not need and that often makes them feel ashamed?
As much as this perspective sounds like a radical shift, it is far more ancient than we might imagine. Indeed, its seeds were sown many centuries earlier, as early as the Bible’s redaction. Confronted by the possibility of losing sovereignty in their ancestral homeland (which is precisely what happened), the creators of the Jewish tradition taught the possibility of a flourishing Diaspora even without autonomous Jewish life in the land of Israel. As Jacob Wright of Emory University write in a much-discussed essay, “A Nation Conceived in Defeat”:
Anticipating the coming doom and destruction, these authors set about the task of their people’s preservation. They did so … by unhinging the concept of “nation” from that of “state.” Hence, while defeat may have destroyed Israel’s state, it came to play a key role in the creation of Israel’s identity as a people.
Wright insightfully points out that while most ancient national narratives were constructed around great victories, Judaism took a different route: “It was not the moments of peace and prosperity, but rather the experiences of catastrophe that produced the strongest impetus for the composition of the magisterial history found in Genesis—Kings and the profound, disturbing messages of the prophets.”
In some significant way, therefore, the Bible’s take on Jewish history was essentially a preparation for exile. Even as the prophets warn the Israelites that their state may be doomed, and the suffering great, they also reassure them that their people will not end. The people of Israel is eternal, as Jeremiah proclaims:
For I will forgive their iniquities and remember their sins no more. Thus said the Lord who established the … laws of moon and stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea into roaring waves. … If these laws should ever be annulled by me—declares the Lord—only then would the offspring of Israel cease to be a nation before Me for all time.
Is it possible, however, that that brilliant move by the redactors of the Bible, which once served a critical purpose, is now undermining Jewish commitment to Jewish sovereignty? In its time, the Bible’s move may well have equipped the Jews for survival throughout their exile. Today, however, the Jews do have a state. And that state is maligned severely and needs the Jews’ support more than ever. Ironically, this ancient biblical strategy has convinced many Jews that the Jews could survive even if the State of Israel does not.
In many respects, Zionists have flatly denied that ancient biblical assertion. Zionism’s claim has been that the Jewish nation cannot survive meaningfully without the Jewish state, that the ancient biblical strategy has become counterproductive and dangerous. The Zionists were right.
One cannot understand this, of course, without some historical perspective. Zionism did not emerge out of nowhere. Theodor Herzl did what he did and wrote what he wrote because Jewish life in the Diaspora had become, to use Hobbes’ phrase, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The Jews were Europe’s victims-on-call. Of course, today’s American Jews are confident that they have found a home of an entirely different order. What happened back then, they assert, could not happen today. That newfound confidence has historical antecedents, of course: American Jews’ confidence resembles that of the Jews of Cordoba—who were forcibly converted, burned alive at the stake, and summarily expelled in the Spanish Inquisition. The Jews of Berlin in 1930 also believed they had found the ultimate enlightened home, that the dark days of Europe would never return. And in the space of but a few years, German Jewry was erased.
We cannot know, of course, what will or will not happen in America. But one thing we do know, even if it is not commonly expressed (because anyone who says it must expect to be accused of fear-mongering): The Jewish life that American Jews take for granted is actually dependent on the existence of the same Jewish state from which many young Jews now distance themselves.
This is the point that today’s younger generations of American Jews simply do not understand: American Jewish life as it now exists would not survive the loss of Israel.
There was an era not long ago in which American Jews tiptoed around America, nervously striving to stay beneath the radar. They evoked that image of the spies who reported back to Moses after surveying the Promised Land: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we appeared to them.” The American Jews who believe they could survive the loss of Israel do not remember that era. They take it as entirely natural that thousands of American citizens confidently ascend the steps of the Capitol Hill on the lobbying day at AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference. Do they ever ask themselves why virtually no one ascended those same steps between 1938 and 1945 to demand that the United States do something to save the Jewish people from extinction?
After all, there were millions of Jews in America the United States during that horrific period, and they knew what was happening. But American Jews of that generation lacked the confidence and the sense of belonging in America that this generation of students now takes for granted. When some 400 mostly Orthodox rabbis marched on Washington in the October 1943, President Roosevelt simply refused to meet them and departed the White House via a rear door. There were no mass protests, no caravans of buses to Washington to demand help for their European kin.
Jews today no longer think of themselves as a tiptoeing people. When Soviet Jews awakened and wanted out of their national prison, American Jews supported them, and the State of Israel made their rescue a national project. When an Air France flight filled with Jews was hijacked to Entebbe, the State of Israel rescued them, and American Jews were filled with unprecedented pride. When Ethiopian Jews were caught in the crosshairs of a deadly civil war, the State of Israel whisked them out, and American philanthropists continue to make them a key priority. Much of what fuels American Jewish pride is the existence and the behavior of the State of Israel.
In ways we do not sufficiently recognize, Israel has changed the existential condition of Jews everywhere, even in America. Without the State of Israel, the self-confidence and sense of belonging that American Jews now take for granted would quickly disappear.
This, then, is one of the great ironies of our era: The sense of belonging and security that leads many American Jews to believe that they do not need the State of Israel is itself a product of that very same State of Israel. And in moving away from devotion to the Jewish state, occasionally even opposing or undermining it, they are actually weakening the very source of the confidence that makes their political activism possible.
Yet another irony in today’s state of affairs ought to be noted: Even as Israel becomes more controversial among American Jews, Israel remains virtually the sole topic that can arouse the passions of American Jews.
An overlooked but important question is this: Without Israel, what would remain to make Jewishness anything more than some anemic form of ethnic memory long since eroded? About what else in Jewish life, besides Israel, do contemporary Jews feel outrage? Even those who are more critical of Israel react swiftly when Israel is unfairly abused in the international media or when it is attacked. Conversely, many American Jews feel profound shame and even anger when Israel does things they consider inexcusable. What else evokes such immediate passions?
In 2011, a proposed ban on circumcision in San Francisco with clear anti-Semitic overtones did not even near the stir provoked by a naval raid on a flotilla thousands of miles away the year before. Do the discussions of whether or not JCCs should be open on Shabbat arouse nationwide debate? They do not. But the Israeli rabbinate, thousands of miles away, does.
Though many American Jews, especially the younger among them, now believe the loss of Israel would not be tragic, Israel continues to energize them in ways that no other issue does. When Israel’s chief rabbinate or some Israeli political party threatens to declare all Reform and Conservative conversions invalid, American Jews become enraged, even though that policy will affect very, very few of them. Why?
Despite proclamations by some American Jews that Israel is no longer central to their identity, and despite the claim by half of America’s young American Jews that Israel’s destruction would not be a personal tragedy, Israel still rankles them like no other Jewish issue. We ought not dismiss that observation lightly. We can explain it, or we can find it perplexing. But let us not lose sight of this undeniable reality: Without Israel, the primary energizing force in the Jewish world would disappear. And without that energy and passion, there is simply no way that anything remotely resembling Jewish life as we know it could survive.
Israel, like it or not, is not just a homeland to Israelis. It is also a “state unto the Diaspora”; the state that, even from afar, secures the life and instills the passions of Jews all over the world.
To all the above, there is a commonly recited response: “If the Jewish people survived in Diaspora without a Jewish State for two thousand years, how likely is it that a mere sixty-something years of sovereignty have eroded our ability to do so again?” To be sure, the argument goes, we do not wish to have to survive without a state, but if we have to, we can and we will.
But with due apologies to Lord Tennyson, it is not always true that it is “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Often, gaining something and losing it is worse than never having had it at all. And that is true of the re-created sovereignty the Jews have enjoyed for nearly two-thirds of a century. The counter-argument above simply misreads the way Jewish life has developed. Their confidence is misplaced, and it is very dangerous.
One can easily understand why American Jews would wish to declare their existential and emotional independence from the State of Israel. At least at first glance, it simply makes no sense that U.S. Jews should be dependent on an embattled country the size of New Jersey across the ocean, with a culture wholly unlike that which American Jews take for granted. But the dependence is real. The fate of American Judaism is intimately linked to fate of Israel, just as the fate of Israel is linked to and dependent upon the survival and flourishing of American Jews. Ours is the ultimate mutually interdependent relationship.
American Jews thus have an enormous personal stake in the fight against the de-legitimization of Israel. This is true even of young American Jews, even of those liberally inclined Jews who (often legitimately) see much about the Jewish state that bothers them terribly. A successful campaign to delegitimize –and possibly destroy – Israel could undo much more than the Jewish state. It could radically alter American Judaism as we know it.
No one would have to be killed, or exiled, or dismissed from their job. All that would have to happen is that Jews would suffer the second enormous blow to their People in the space of a century. With that, the Jews would become stateless like the Chechnyans, the Tibetans, or the Basques. They would tiptoe around the world once again, like Tibetans and Basques still do, waiting to see what history has in store for them next, with no sense that they can help shape that history. They would tiptoe around America, too, just like that generation of American Jews that could not speak out even as European Jewry was being destroyed.
The loss of Israel would fundamentally alter American Jewry. It would arrest the revival of Jewish life now unfolding in parts of Europe. And Israeli Jewry would be no more. The end of Israel would, in short, end the Jewish people as we know it.
The time has come for a paradigm shift in our conversations about Israel. We need to focus on what Israel represents, on its contribution to Jewish flourishing, on the importance of difference, and the human need for dignity. We need to focus on the ways in which a nation-state addresses the abiding human need to inherit and bequeath culture. Doing so could well convince the international community that it is time not to destroy Israel, but to create more Israels, including one for Palestinians. For Israel is more than a conflict, more than a “mere” country. It is actually a bold human experiment with great significance not only for Israelis and the entire Jewish people, but for freedom-loving human beings everywhere.
Excerpted and adapted from The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength by Daniel Gordis. Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Gordis. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved.
Teaching Israelis and Palestinians to ride longboards, I saw the power of the sport to bring kids together