No Jewish People Without Israel
Why the future of American Judaism as we know it depends on the survival of the Jewish state
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?
Teaching Israelis and Palestinians to ride longboards, I saw the power of the sport to bring kids together