I’ve been reading that a considerable part of today’s young American Jews are alienated from Israel. That the impact of its creation in 1948 has faded, along with the impact of the Holocaust that ended three years earlier. That young American Jews no longer perceive Israel as something miraculous or even special, but rather as some country out there that’s embarrassingly violent and nationalistic, doing bad things to Palestinians.
If that is now the picture of Israel for some young American Jews, it’s indeed different from the mystique Israel had while I was growing up in the U.S. in the 1960s and—though by then it started to dissipate—the 1970s. Not knowing too much about the subject, I thought of Israel as an ideal phenomenon, a land of farmers and warriors who were outnumbered and gritty, yet enlightened and humane. My heart sang with pride and admiration.
That idealized vision had something to do with my growing interest in making aliyah, which I fulfilled in 1984. By that time I’d read a lot more about Israel, and had a more nuanced grasp of it as a complex society displaying the normal human shortcomings. Still, I harbored a hope that the Israel I encountered would somehow live up to those earlier impressions.
So began the dialectic of my first, maybe, half-decade in the country. On the one hand, there were cold bureaucrats; Israelis who said, “You came here from America?”; tensions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim that could get quite nasty. On the other hand, I somehow kept feeling that Israel was the most wonderful place on earth, and that becoming part of it was the most wonderful thing I could experience.
And now? It’s a joy and a thrill to be here all the time, 24/7. And this after I’ve gotten to know Israel from the inside, and understand how silly were those earlier visions of a country where people were always admirable. How can this be?
- Perspective. The idea that the rebirth of the Jewish state was something novel and stirring decades ago, but by now is old hat, stems from a lack of historical perspective. When I made aliyah, the Jewish population of the country came to about three million; by now it’s doubled. The startup nation keeps growing, sprouting, ramifying, and it evokes—or should evoke—wonder no less than ever. Israel is by now vastly more developed, innovative, and dynamic than in those early days. In the shadow of two thousand years’ exile and the Holocaust, we’re still living in a dawn of triumph, success, and rejuvenation.
- The superhuman and the human. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my youthful perception of an ideal country stemmed to some extent from Jewish insecurity on my part and others’, a need to overcompensate. Once one gets over the need for a superhuman Israel, one can clearly see the real achievement: that in the face of severe, often violent hostility and floods of defamation, it remains human. Meaning not only that the national character remains warm, soulful, and decent, but also that democratic, liberal values keep being upheld amid a sea of darkness. The whole of Jewish tradition and history resonates in that, embodied, affirmed. If we take it for granted, we’re truly jaded.
Can all this be conveyed to those alienated young Jews out there? Can their knee-jerk complaints about “occupation” and Palestinians be effectively answered with facts about Israel’s repeatedly rebuffed attempts to resolve the situation? We should make every effort, while also coming to terms with the reality that we’re going to lose some of them. That, after all, is a Zionist insight: the Jews ingather here, in the sunny land, because out there it gets cold.