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.”
Teaching Israelis and Palestinians to ride longboards, I saw the power of the sport to bring kids together