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The Storm Ahead

May 28, 2010

MAY 28 2010

In October 1994, several days after kidnapped IDF soldier Nachshon Wachsman was killed in a failed attempt to save him from his terrorist captors, I was scheduled to teach my weekly graduate seminar at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. But given the horror of what had just transpired, I couldn’t even imagine simply teaching as planned. I no longer recall what had been scheduled for that day. But what I do remember is that I decided to scrap the usual fare and that I taught a text in memory of Wachsman.

As the seminar drew to a close, it was obviously quiet in the room. But just as the students were preparing to disperse, one looked at me and asked,  What does any of this have to do with us?

More than 15 years later, I can still picture that moment, frozen in time. I remember exactly where she was sitting. I recall the looks of discomfort on the faces of some of the other students, but the nods of agreement with her question from others. And I remember that I had no idea what to say.

And I remember feeling unbearably lonely and wholly out of place. Lonely because it was clear that she was not the only one wondering why in the world we were thinking about Nachshon Wachsman, when my own heart was breaking, and out of place because I had no idea how to engage those students in a conversation about why he mattered to me. I didn’t know where to begin.

What I didn’t know then, of course, was that a question that seemed to me an aberration would soon become the norm.

BUT IT has. Among young American Jews today, the public discourse has been captured by the intellectual and emotional heirs of that graduate student. Today’s is a generation of young American intellectuals and communal leaders without the instinctive bond to Israel that my generation possesses, even when Israel infuriates or embarrasses us. This is a generation of people like the talented writer Jay Michaelson, who wrote in The Forward, “I no longer want to feel entangled by [Israelis] decisions and implicated in their consequences… count me out.”

Even in the moments of our greatest frustration with Israel, the people that I grew up with could never utter the words count me out.

Michaelson is but part of a massive wave. Prof. Jack Wertheimer, in presenting some preliminary findings from his newest study of American Jews (the specific figures are still being processed), noted a few weeks ago that most young American Jewish leaders (yes, leaders) do not see Israel as central to Jewish identity and peoplehood.

The evidence is virtually limitless. We’re witness to a tectonic shift in American Jewish life, but many people would rather ignore it than face the serious work that lies ahead. Thus, when I pointed out (If this is our future,Jerusalem Post, May 7) that following Brandeis University’s invitation to Ambassador Michael Oren to be its commencement speaker, the public discourse was captured by those opposed to his invitation, some people responded by pointing out the (obvious) fact that many Brandeis students (and probably the majority) supported the invitation. A petition in favor, signed by 5,000 people, was also reported. And a small number of articles in the Brandeis paper, opined one faculty person in a response to the Post, ought not be taken out of context. Imagine someone telling you it’s pouring rain outside and you stick your head out the window and see there are just a couple of clouds in the sky, he wrote.

But what we’re facing would be just a couple of clouds in the sky if the story that mattered was about Brandeis, which it obviously is not. Everyone knows that Jewish life on campus doesn’t get better than Jewish life at Brandeis. So why pretend that Brandeis is the issue? What is significant is that even at Brandeis, one of the crown jewels of American Jewish academe, as of the publication of my previous column, there had been four pieces in the student newspaper about the Oren invitation.The Justice’s official editorial and the head of the campus J Street chapter weighed in opposed. So, too, did a member of the computer science faculty. And a student representative to the Board of Trustees aimed to defend the invite by suggesting that Oren was being asked to campus not as a representative of the State of Israel, but as an academic.

WHY DOES any of this matter? Because in not one of these pieces did any of the four writers have a single positive thing to say about Israel. That, not Brandeis, is the story.

So instead of circling our wagons, seeking to convince ourselves that it’s not really raining and that there are only a few clouds in the sky, I propose that we ask ourselves a few basic questions: (1) Do we believe that the future of the Jewish people depends on what happens to Israel? (2) Do we believe that Israel can survive without strong and consistent support from the American Jewish community? (3) Given today’s younger generation, does a serious problem loom? (4) If we are facing a challenge, how did it arise? (5) And perhaps most importantly, what should be done?

To me it seems patently obvious that the secure, confident and creative Diaspora community that many American Jews now take for granted is directly dependent on a vital and flourishing State of Israel. Today’s young American Jewish leaders can neither recall nor imagine the days in which Jews hesitated to march on Capitol Hill, or the days in which one could not get a job on Wall Street wearing a kippa. That confidence is the product of Israel, and of the formative experiences that many American Jewish leaders have had in the Jewish state. The image of the Jew, no longer one of victim, but of utter confidence, was born in June 1967. In Israel.

Though many will disagree, it seems equally clear to me that were the State of Israel to be vanquished, the vibrant American Jewish life that we now too easily take for granted would wither away within a generation. And if that were to happen, the two great centers of world Jewry  Israel and America would each essentially be gone.

And I believe that Israel’s military might, cultural flourishing, strength of spirit and more, important though they all are, are not sufficient to sustain the country. America’s support  financial, military and in the increasingly hostile court of international public opinion is critical. Yet that support would be much endangered without an American Jewish leadership that instinctively feels deeply connected to Israel, that doesn’t ask, What does any of this have to do with us?

Today, we have that leadership. But the future is not as secure as many would like to believe. Nor is that future very far away.

SO HOW did this come to be? To be sure, Israel is partly at fault. It is notoriously horrendous at telling its own story, and has allowed those sworn on its destruction to capture world opinion. Nor has Israel been blameless in the interminable conflict with the Palestinians, of course. Israel alienates American Jewry with an anti-intellectual and often intolerant religious establishment. And the government still refuses to see the gradual distancing of young American Jews as a serious existential challenge, which it could become, if it isn’t one already.

But the responsibility for this widening fissure in world Jewish life cannot be attributed solely to Israel. Too many young American Jews have not been taught what they need to know to evaluate the conflict fairly. They know that they are opposed to the occupation, but they are much less clear on how the occupation began or what Israel has done in the past 43 years to seek to end it. Largely illiterate in Jewish texts or language, they are increasingly unaware of the cultural renaissance that Israel has made possible for Jews the world over.

Yet the problem is actually far more complex. At its core, the issue isn’t really Israel, or even American Jewish education. The real issue is the larger world in which today’s younger American (and Israeli) Jews live. Responding to Wertheimer’s study and the concerns it raised, Noam Pianko, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Washington, denied that there is a problem. As Gary Rosenblatt of the Jewish Week recently wrote, Pianko insisted that boundaries don’t match the moment of 21st-century America. His America, Pianko says, is “post-ethnic,” symbolized by President Barack Obama, who he said represents racial fusion rather than division.

Obama did not create this worldview; this Weltanschauung elected him. But Obama is perhaps the most eloquent spokesperson for this orientation, insisting, as he did in Cairo, that we ought not be “defined by our differences.”

Even if we set aside the obvious fact that it is precisely by pointing to differences that we define most things, Obama reflects the worldview that is shaping both young Americans and increasingly, young Israelis: Difference is not an ideal, but an unfortunate reality, best transcended whenever possible.

In such a world, it is no surprise that a successful young nation-state, which breathes new life into an ancient language, which fosters Jewish ingathering from across the globe and which enables a cultural regeneration unlike anything humanity has ever witnessed a state which, in other words, celebrates difference would be uncomfortable for many, and reviled by some.

All of which makes the challenge even greater. Because engendering the instinctive passion for Israel that many of us feel, and miss, requires swimming against the current of an intellectual culture now pervasive in America and much of the Western world. But Jewish history in general and Zionism in particular are proofs that the trends of Western civilization can be withstood, and even altered at times. The question facing us now is whether we plan to capitulate, or whether we’re willing to lace up our boots and enter the battle.

This will be no simple battle. But as Joshua said to the angel (Joshua 5:13), you are either with us or against us. Left versus Right, or Orthodox versus Reform are now secondary issues. What matters now is whether or not each individual, organization, movement, etc. sees defense of Israel’s absolute right to exist as a Jewish state as its foremost responsibility. Let all our differences abide. But let both leftists and hard-liners understand that today, they are not opponents, but rather partners, assuming that both are committed to Israel’s survival and to making the case for that survival day in and day out. The rest we can deal with down the road. For the moment, especially when any substantive chance for a peace deal seems remote, changing the Jewish conversation about Israel, and then the international conversation, is what matters most.

That will not be easy, but first we have to decide that that’s what we want to do. So let’s begin with honesty. We delude ourselves if we pretend that there are but a few clouds in the sky. The Jewish people will survive, and thrive, not by pretending that everything will magically work out, but rather by acknowledging the challenges that lie ahead, and by then bonding together and resolving to meet them head-on.

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