No Jewish People Without Israel
Why the future of American Judaism as we know it depends on the survival of the Jewish state
In 2011, a proposed ban on circumcision in San Francisco with clear anti-Semitic overtones did not even near the stir provoked by a naval raid on a flotilla thousands of miles away the year before. Do the discussions of whether or not JCCs should be open on Shabbat arouse nationwide debate? They do not. But the Israeli rabbinate, thousands of miles away, does.
Though many American Jews, especially the younger among them, now believe the loss of Israel would not be tragic, Israel continues to energize them in ways that no other issue does. When Israel’s chief rabbinate or some Israeli political party threatens to declare all Reform and Conservative conversions invalid, American Jews become enraged, even though that policy will affect very, very few of them. Why?
Despite proclamations by some American Jews that Israel is no longer central to their identity, and despite the claim by half of America’s young American Jews that Israel’s destruction would not be a personal tragedy, Israel still rankles them like no other Jewish issue. We ought not dismiss that observation lightly. We can explain it, or we can find it perplexing. But let us not lose sight of this undeniable reality: Without Israel, the primary energizing force in the Jewish world would disappear. And without that energy and passion, there is simply no way that anything remotely resembling Jewish life as we know it could survive.
Israel, like it or not, is not just a homeland to Israelis. It is also a “state unto the Diaspora”; the state that, even from afar, secures the life and instills the passions of Jews all over the world.
To all the above, there is a commonly recited response: “If the Jewish people survived in Diaspora without a Jewish State for two thousand years, how likely is it that a mere sixty-something years of sovereignty have eroded our ability to do so again?” To be sure, the argument goes, we do not wish to have to survive without a state, but if we have to, we can and we will.
But with due apologies to Lord Tennyson, it is not always true that it is “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Often, gaining something and losing it is worse than never having had it at all. And that is true of the re-created sovereignty the Jews have enjoyed for nearly two-thirds of a century. The counter-argument above simply misreads the way Jewish life has developed. Their confidence is misplaced, and it is very dangerous.
One can easily understand why American Jews would wish to declare their existential and emotional independence from the State of Israel. At least at first glance, it simply makes no sense that U.S. Jews should be dependent on an embattled country the size of New Jersey across the ocean, with a culture wholly unlike that which American Jews take for granted. But the dependence is real. The fate of American Judaism is intimately linked to fate of Israel, just as the fate of Israel is linked to and dependent upon the survival and flourishing of American Jews. Ours is the ultimate mutually interdependent relationship.
American Jews thus have an enormous personal stake in the fight against the de-legitimization of Israel. This is true even of young American Jews, even of those liberally inclined Jews who (often legitimately) see much about the Jewish state that bothers them terribly. A successful campaign to delegitimize –and possibly destroy – Israel could undo much more than the Jewish state. It could radically alter American Judaism as we know it.
No one would have to be killed, or exiled, or dismissed from their job. All that would have to happen is that Jews would suffer the second enormous blow to their People in the space of a century. With that, the Jews would become stateless like the Chechnyans, the Tibetans, or the Basques. They would tiptoe around the world once again, like Tibetans and Basques still do, waiting to see what history has in store for them next, with no sense that they can help shape that history. They would tiptoe around America, too, just like that generation of American Jews that could not speak out even as European Jewry was being destroyed.
The loss of Israel would fundamentally alter American Jewry. It would arrest the revival of Jewish life now unfolding in parts of Europe. And Israeli Jewry would be no more. The end of Israel would, in short, end the Jewish people as we know it.
The time has come for a paradigm shift in our conversations about Israel. We need to focus on what Israel represents, on its contribution to Jewish flourishing, on the importance of difference, and the human need for dignity. We need to focus on the ways in which a nation-state addresses the abiding human need to inherit and bequeath culture. Doing so could well convince the international community that it is time not to destroy Israel, but to create more Israels, including one for Palestinians. For Israel is more than a conflict, more than a “mere” country. It is actually a bold human experiment with great significance not only for Israelis and the entire Jewish people, but for freedom-loving human beings everywhere.
Excerpted and adapted from The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength by Daniel Gordis. Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Gordis. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved.
Teaching Israelis and Palestinians to ride longboards, I saw the power of the sport to bring kids together