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Watching American Jews Drift Away

August 1, 2008

For me, July is the cruelest month. Maybe it’s because it’s always hotter than I remember. Or the fact that at my age, birthdays feel more ominous than fun. Or maybe I’m just jealous of my kids – they’re on vacation while I trudge off to the office each morning. Who knows?

A few years ago, my wife took up bird watching. She trolled the relevant Web sites, eventually got the right kind of binoculars and bought a book with all the pictures of the various birds, in which she meticulously writes down which ones she’s seen, where and when. She knows the places to go for the best sightings; she’s been known to get up at an ungodly hour to go stare at these birds.

Occasionally, she tries to get me to share her enthusiasm. I’ve gotten very good at pretending that I see the bird, when actually all I can find in the binoculars is a tree. And I’m terrible at staying still for the eternity that it takes to see the bird actually do something. Bird-watching isn’t for me. But something about the intensity of her hobby struck me as inspiring. So I decided to make July better, and last month invented a new hobby – tourist watching.

Tragically, I don’t have a book in which I can record my sightings. There’s no page with a picture of the three women in their 20s I overheard on Jerusalem’s Rehov Emek Refaim, one saying to the others, “I’m telling you. I’ve checked this out. There is simply no place in this country to get your hair cut except for the Sheraton.” At the King David, I heard a teenager with a thick New York accent mutter to his sister, “Geez, a whole country without a Starbucks. Unbelievable.”

Yes, I thought, it was unbelievable. But I was proud of myself – I forced myself not to ask him why he’d bothered coming here in the first place, or if life at the King David had really gotten that rough. The fact that it’s not an officially recognized hobby doesn’t make it any less amusing. I actually think people are way more interesting than birds – though not necessarily always more intelligent.

OCCASIONALLY, THOUGH, some very smart people do make their way through. Some friends of ours from the “old country” were here for a conference during July, and came over to visit. They were having a great time, for the most part. But they all confessed to having been very upset by a lecture given by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ya’acov Amidror, and they were hoping that another speaker would be a “” (their word, not mine) for Amidror. Wow, I thought – Amidror must have said something outrageous. So I asked. And what was it that Amidror, formerly the head of research for the Intelligence Corps, had said that was so upsetting? He’d said that there’s no chance of peace with the Palestinians and that there wouldn’t be for the foreseeable future.

American tourists. Is Israel in only’about peace’ and peace is unachievable, then Israel is at worst a source of shame, and at best, irrelevant.

These friends of ours, nationally respected leaders of American Jewish life, simply couldn’t bear the pessimism. With their deeply rooted sense that people at their core are decent and reasonable, they couldn’t really understand Amidror. They needed a “tikkun,” because having internalized America’s ethos about conflict, they simply know that every war has a solution, that every disagreement can be settled. Enormously bright, exceedingly well-educated and chronically optimistic, our friends were now confronting an Israel that they didn’t know how to relate to.

At first, their despondency confused me, but eventually, I began to understand. For them, Israel has become about settling the conflict. When it comes to Israel, they see their primary roles, as American Jewish leaders, as getting reasonable minds to pressure the relevant parties to put an end to the fighting. When they think of Israel’s hopes, they think almost exclusively of peace. When asked what they want most for Israel, they respond that they want security – and peace. Beyond that, they have little to say. When asked to imagine an Israel that might not know peace for the next several generations, they cannot. And most importantly, when asked why Israel ought to continue to exist if it will be at war well into the indefinite future, they have no idea.

One of these visitors put it this way: “Why has Israel given up hope?” he wanted to know. “And with no genuine chance for peace, why forge on?” Those seemed like reasonable questions, but as my daughter, just out of the army, pointed out to me a few days later, they were also wrong. “We’ve given up hope for peace,” Talia said to me, “but that doesn’t mean we’ve given up hope.”

Surely, the Jewish state has a few hopes even beyond peace, no? And as to why forge on, Talia pointed out, that’s only a legitimate question if Israel’s sole goal is to live in peace, if it has no other reason for being. “But wanting peace isn’t the same thing as being about peace,” my daughter said. She was right.

I actually found those conversations very worrisome. For if these people, exceedingly decent and very smart – think of Israel only in terms of peace, American Jewry is bound to drift ever further away from caring about Israel. If Israel is only “about peace” and peace is unachievable, then Israel is at worst a source of shame, and at best irrelevant. Either way, American Jews are going to slip away from us.

THEY ALREADY are. In a relatively recent study by Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman, “Beyond Distancing: Young American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel,” American Jews were asked if the destruction (not the withering away, but the destruction) of the Jewish state would be for them a personal tragedy. Among the older generation, the vast majority said that it would. But among the young generation, half said that it would not.

Yes, you read this correctly. Half of those young American Jews did not think that the destruction of the Jewish state would be a personal tragedy for them. In a generation or two, these will be the Jews at the helm of the American Jewish Community. If the conflict has not subsided by then, and these are the people at the helm across the ocean, what will happen?
Our friends were right. A “tikkun” is needed. For their not being able to say anything about why Israel matters if it’s not at peace (i.e., if it’s not more like America) isn’t their fault. It’s ours. If we’re not talking about that, why should they? If our leadership is silent on this subject, why shouldn’t theirs be?

The intellectually vacuous leadership we’re now used to is more dangerous than we knew. It’s bad enough that no one’s outraged anymore by continuing scandals because we no longer expect anything better. But listen carefully to the American Jews who visit and you see that our leadership is destroying them, too. It’s not hard to understand why they chuckle at the occasional prime ministerial call for aliya. After all, if our leadership has no vision for this place, why in the world should they think about joining it?

When half of America’s Jewish young adults don’t think that the destruction of Israel would be a tragedy, we’re in trouble. It’s almost distressing enough to get me to drop the tourist watching and go back to the birds. But as the Talmud says, “Who is wise? The one who can foresee consequences.” I’ll stick to watching the tourists. It’s distressing, but important. For they, more than our leaders, are actually pointing to where we’re headed.

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