When I was in high school and college in the 1970s and early ’80s, American Jewry was, in many respects, in its prime. Jews were moving to the suburbs, getting rich, building enormous synagogues, feeling at home in America in a way their grandparents could not have anticipated.
The Jewish Catalogs, consciously evoking the hip Our Bodies, Ourselves and the crunchy Whole Earth Catalog, announced the arrival of a distinctly American, young, engaged, learned and searching American Judaism.
The Havurah Movement had taken off; Conservative Judaism was the largest movement in America, Orthodoxy was making strong headway and Reform Judaism had not yet made the egregious mistake of endorsing patrilineal descent. In the aftermath of the Six Day War, American Jews were having a love affair with Israel. It would have been hard to recall that less than two decades earlier, the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein had threatened to cut off American Jewish support for Israel unless Israel stopped suggesting these Jews should make aliya.
Israel was a rapidly changing, seemingly invincible, country. German reparations had gotten its economy off the ground. The IDF had tripled Israel’s size in six days, and even when taken by surprise in October 1973, managed to repel the Egyptian and Syrian armies so forcefully that never again has a standing Arab army attacked the State of Israel.
From 1968 to 1971, American Jews made aliya in unprecedented numbers (though most returned after a few years). Golda Meir actually said to The New York Times that there was no Palestinian people. Yasser Arafat was despised almost everywhere as the murderous inventor of international terror. The notion that the Palestinians would be given a state without making peace with Israel would have been laughable.
By 1978 and 1979, Israel would be in peace negotiations with Egypt, the most formidable Arab power on its borders. If Egypt was willing to sign, surely Jordan and Syria would follow. Peace was obviously eminently achievable.
The American campus was a safe haven for Jewish students. In my years at Columbia University, I didn’t see or hear a single anti-Israel protest. Edward Said’s Orientalism was published while I was there, but I don’t recall anyone talking about it. Even after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, campus remained quiet. In Europe, the Germans were doing their long overdue soul searching, and anti-Semitism was politically incorrect. We went to Europe, rode the metro in Paris and the tube in London wearing kippot; it never occurred to us there was a reason not to.
Soviet Jewry was a cause that united Jews – and many non-Jews – across the globe. How many of today’s college kids can even imagine an era in which the Jackson- Vanik Amendment, denying most-favored-nation status to certain countries with non-market economies that restrict emigration, could be passed? It was a wonderful time to be an American, an American Jew, a Zionist. It was exciting but secure, and the future appeared bright. The Vietnam War was over. Simon and Garfunkel performed in Central Park. There was no real airport security. It was a golden era that today’s younger generation cannot even imagine.
Today, that Jewish Catalog generation is gone. The 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of American Jewry documents the magnitude of the looming American Jewish sociological disaster. American college campuses are battlegrounds, but most of the kids we send there have literally never read a single book about Israel cover- to-cover. Then we wonder why they’re overwhelmed. Rabbis report that Israel is the one subject they cannot broach in the synagogues – it’s too controversial.
Europe has turned and anti-Semitism is back in vogue. In our Jerusalem neighborhood, one hears more French with every passing week. On one recent Shabbat afternoon, I stopped a family I’d never seen before and asked them why they came now. They said their kids were getting beaten up in France, so they actually went to the police. But the policeman was a Muslim and he literally refused to take a report. The next week they were here.
A nuclear France risks becoming Muslim. Parts of London are too dangerous for Jews to walk in. And in the Middle East, the West has still not decided to destroy what is clearly the greatest threat to Western civilization since Nazism. The US has put on the ground troops whose number, I assume, is roughly equivalent to the number of police who guard Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day.
Palestinians continue to slaughter, and Europe rewards them by recognizing a state that does not exist. Boko Haram kidnaps girls, rapes them and sells them into sexual slavery, and a pouting Michelle Obama holds up a sign that reads #BringBackOurGirls.
A deal with Iran is nowhere in sight, but Secretary of State John Kerry announces nonetheless that his goal is to eliminate sanctions. In large swaths of the Middle East, Islamic State still roams free, like the beef American now like to eat.
How many Americans understand that Boko Haram, al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic State are just different forms of the very same cancer that day will strike them, too?
BUT I actually remain optimistic. I do not believe the French will really let hundreds of years of French literature, art, music and philosophy be strangled by Shari’a. One day, the French will hear that yet another town has caved in to Muslim demands, and when they sense that Paris is next, they’ll act. They’ll take France back.
It’ll be very late, and the cost will be high, but the rest of Europe will heave a sigh of relief and follow suit.
Does anyone really think Europe will commit suicide? I don’t.
And one day, al-Qaida or Islamic State will hit the US. Then, somehow, a new leader like FDR or Churchill will find the will to fight back. When Churchill said to Congress in 1943, speaking of Japan’s cities, “in ashes they must surely lie before peace comes back to the world,” he understood that as long as unmitigated evil is permitted to persist, the West is in mortal danger.
He received a standing ovation.
One day, the West will remember that it was values that made our civilization great. It will say to radical Islam: “We do not plan to die, because we believe our values are better than yours. Your worldview, we believe, is a medieval cancer. You can join the modern world, stop oppressing women, stop killing gays and lesbians, respect a free press and the right of assembly, celebrate difference of opinion and free inquiry and erase the notion of the infidel from your lexicon. Or we will kill you – as many of you as it takes – until the values that we believe make life worth living are no longer under threat.”
When the West returns to its senses, those kids who today cannot fathom what many of us are mourning will finally see what a golden era looks like.
We may not live to see it happen, but still, our duty is to do whatever we can to draw it near, “speedily in our day.”