When I was a teenager, Israel was very much at the center of American Jewish concern, and it was portrayed as a wonderful, exciting place to me and my fellow Hebrew school classmates.
There were all sorts of Israel-centered celebrations for us, and of course, the blue-and-white JNF tzedakah boxes were standard accoutrements of the classroom. My mother, a rather assimilated and secularized Jew, was, as most Jewish women I knew, a member of Hadassah, and a fairly active one at that.
The Holocaust was a scant half decade in the past, and American Jewry was supporting Israel with millions of dollars in Israel bond purchases and other forms of monetary gifts to Israel. Donors believed that they were giving so the saved remnant of Eastern European Jewry could live in peace and security, which given the realities of the Middle East was naÃ¯ve in the extreme.
In the back of some (many?) people’s minds, giving financial and political support to Israel also was a way of buying insurance: Who could be sure of safety even in America when a “civilized” European country like Germany could turn so viciously on its Jewish population and on the Jewish populations of the countries under its heel? Further, anti-Semitism was not exactly dead, as Jews who migrated to the suburbs from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side were quick to discover. They were often “welcomed” by golf courses and clubs that denied them membership, and occasional synagogue desecrations that proved that Hitler might be dead but his attitudes lived on.
That was during the late 1940s and ’50s, and the Holocaust was still an event that could scare and move Jews to action. Today, what is attractive about the Holocaust? Why would young Jews with their lives and dreams ahead of them want to identify too closely with the Holocaust, or carry the burden of a history of persecution summed up in it? To believe the Holocaust might be a major preservative force for the next generation of American Jews is to believe that depression can be a source of vigorous living.
Memorializing and learning from the horrors of the Holocaust is one thing. Using it as a means to capture the hearts and minds of those who will either make or break the American Jewish future is quite another.
1967 saw a confluence of events and movements, however, that made American Jewry truly proud of being Jews and fiercely attached to Israel. The winning of the Six Day War and the recapture of the historical Old City and the Temple Mount, the last standing remnant of the Second Temple, turned Jews from eternal losers into winners. Further, the black pride movement motivated American Jews to assert their Jewish ethnicity more aggressively than they ever had before. Being Jewish was in. Jewish studies programs grew like mushrooms after a rain and received generous Jewish support. A love affair with Israel flourished. Jews flocked there, some as tourists and some to stay.
In this period of Jewish self-esteem, Jews became willing to go public for persecuted Jewish communities. In major Jewish population centers, hundreds of thousands of Jews poured into the streets to demand freedom for Russian refuseniks and a safe haven for Ethiopian Jews. Jewish leaders no longer carried out discreet, polite, behind-closed-doors petitioning for favors from the great and powerful. “Never again” became the Jewish watchword.
At this time, regular meetings between Israeli and American-Jewish intellectuals and political figures were taking place in a serious way. These meetings and seminars kept open the lines of communication between the two largest Jewish communities in the world. These conversations were so meaningful and productive that participants thought they had renewed the classical Land of Israel-Babylonia dialogue. Who knew? Perhaps the two communities could produce a new set of Jewish insights and values that would inform Israeli and diaspora Jewish relations and life far into the future.
But all that was then. By the 1980s, the conversation ceased. Israel changed, and so did American mores.
As the Jewish community entered the mid-1990s, changes in American Jewish relations with Israel began to become evident, and became only more obvious as we entered the new millennium. Startling information about the American Jewish intermarriage rate sent shock waves through those sectors of the Jewish community that cared deeply about Jewish identity and continuity.
As more studies were done, it became clear that not only were younger Jews less concerned about whom they married, but their connection to Israel was highly attenuated or nonexistent. Michael Steinhardt thought he might reverse both trends by creating Birthright Israel, and its success for those who went on the program cannot be dismissed. But for the many young Jews between 18 and 35, sometimes older, who have not taken advantage of this opportunity and have no real interest in doing so, Israel is either not on the radar, or when it is, frequently viewed negatively. Whether these Jews are correctly informed about the realities of the Middle East is not the issue. The decline of the claims of ethnicity is the true culprit. In short, these Jews ask “Why is a state primarily for Jews needed?” or “How do others who are not Jewish fare in such a state?” or “Isn’t such a state sort of racist?” or “Why does a religious group need a state?”
I believe all these questions are linked to a larger question: “Why is having a distinct Jewish identity important at all? Why can’t we just be people like everyone else?” So it seems evident that American Jewry cannot rely on an Israeli sense of ethnicity/nationality to save itself. Most American Jews are thoroughly Americanized and Westernized, and a vigorous attempt to preserve Jewish or any other variety of ethnicity lately is viewed as xenophobic. Indeed, a young Jew is likely to charge his or her parents, rabbi, or Hillel director with being “racists” when they advocate ever so gingerly for “marrying in” or express outright rejection of “marrying out.” Yet, despite all this and the Pew Report, I for one am not ready to accept doomsday prophecies to be in order yet.
First, there are noteworthy pockets of Jewish renewal here, in Europe, and in Israel that are led primarily by young Jews. Their existence provides reason to hope that these enterprises can be expanded. Second, the American Jewish community has done a good job of creating many points of entry for adults, young and old, to engage in a relationship with Jewish ideas and lifestyles. The issues now are how we can successfully encourage those who can make possible an American Jewish future – or with some mazal even a renascence – to enter those portals, and what kind of American Judaism we can offer them when they arrive.
Stay tuned for some interesting proposals that provide answers to these questions.