I was born in 1957, at the peak of the post-war baby boom. I have never known the world without a Jewish state.
I was 10 in 1967, when Israel won an overwhelming victory against the combined armies of three neighboring Arab states. I was old enough to join in the euphoria that followed Israel’s triumph, but too young to have shared in the anxiety that gripped the Jewish world in the tense weeks that preceded it.
I was a teenager in 1973 when Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, taking Israel’s celebrated military and its intelligence services by surprise. I remember the shocked faces of congregants as word of the attack sped through the synagogue. I remember the frightening weeks that followed, until we were sure that the Israel Defense Forces had succeeded in overcoming its initial attacks. I also remember the fundraising slogan that the UJA used (to the best of my knowledge for the first time) that year: “For Israel, every test is a final.”
I had just started college at Penn in 1975, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted its infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism. For years I carried in my wallet a small card that contained the roll call of the General Assembly on that resolution, with a heading announcing the card’s purpose: “to remind you who your friends are.” (I didn’t stop carrying it until it had virtually disintegrated.)
I also recall the eloquence with which Daniel Patrick Moynihan (then the US ambassador to the UN and later a US Senator) unequivocally condemned that despicable resolution. I even remember a political cartoon of that period, in which a caricature of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin announced: “Now that Zionism has been declared a form of racism, I’d like to propose that idiocy be declared a form of intellect.”
As it happened, it was less than two months after the General Assembly had passed that reprehensible resolution that I visited Israel for the first time, as part of a trip organized by Philadelphia-area Hillels. Standing in the Kotel plaza for the first time, I was doubly moved. I was in awe of the ancient stones in front of me, stones that had once been part of the ancient Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) — and I felt a surge of pride and gratitude at the sight of the Israeli flag that was flying over the plaza to my left.
I was spending my junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1978, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat unexpectedly announced his willingness to visit Israel and address the Knesset. Prime Minister Menachem Begin immediately responded by inviting him, and less than two weeks later, Sadat’s plane touched down at Israel’s airport. With his arrival, the entire country exploded with enthusiasm. Israelis had been waiting then for nearly three decades for some Arab leader to accord them the routine diplomatic courtesy of an official visit. For the first time, Israelis dared to hope that peace with their Arab neighbors might be realized in their lifetime, and that Israel’s isolation was finally ending.
I had just graduated from law school in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon. It was Israel’s first war of choice, and it left Israelis and their supporters abroad bitterly divided. Many questioned the strategic thinking behind the war, which was predicated on an alliance with Christian Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayal, who, it was hoped, would become Lebanon’s President and Israel’s ally. Whatever hope there may have been for such an outcome was lost when Gemayal was assassinated before he could take office.
These events — along with many others, large and small — were formative experiences for me. They shaped my view of the world and intensified my love of the Land and State of Israel. Through them I learned to be optimistic but not complacent about Israel’s future. The IDF had certainly proven its ability to defend the State militarily, but Israel remained vulnerable, and its survival could not be taken for granted.
It was my good fortune that all my grandparents came to the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century, well before the Johnson Act of 1924 slammed the gates shut. At least two of my grandparents left siblings in Europe, and all of them left more distant relatives. Correspondence with family left behind continued until the war. To the extent anybody knows, none of those left behind survived the war.
There is nothing unique, of course, about this family history. Six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis before and during World War II, many because they literally had no place to go. By the time Hitler came to power, few Jews were allowed to enter the United States — and thanks to the “civilized” British who then controlled Palestine, the gates of our ancient homeland were slammed shut as well.
Robert Frost, that quintessential American poet, famously defined home as “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” The Jews had no such home during World War II — not even here in the United States. If they had, millions more might have survived the war. Israel was founded, in part, to insure that never again would Jews fleeing from the scourge of anti-Semitism be left without a refuge.
Growing up in the US during Israel’s early years, and reaching political consciousness after the IDF had already decisively demonstrated its ability to defend the State militarily, I could not fully comprehend the possibility that Israel’s future survival was not assured. Yet I knew, from my parents and their contemporaries, how vulnerable Israel was, and how quickly its situation might change. I had little personal experience with serious anti-Semitism, but I knew that it was there and that it could rear its head at any moment.
I later learned, after all, that in 1956 President Eisenhower, concerned that the Suez crisis might provoke a confrontation with the Soviet Union, abandoned Israel and forced it to give up its hard-won buffer zone in Sinai, even though that meant breaking publicly with two larger and more important American allies, Britain and France. I also knew that the Arab oil boycott that followed the 1973 war had led to a detectable rise of anti-Semitism, with some Americans displaying signs that read: “Burn Jews not oil”.
My generation grew up knowing about Israel’s vulnerability yet never fully able to internalize it. We grew up knowing that only a few years before we were born, the world had greeted the attempted genocide of the Jewish people with, to be charitable, less than exemplary urgency. We may not have experienced vulnerability the way our parents had, but what we learned from them and what we saw around us was enough to instill in us the imperative of Israel’s survival.
My parents’ generation is almost gone, or enjoying its retirement in Florida. The leadership of American Jewry, both lay and professional, has already passed to a younger generation. With the inevtable passage of time, the baby boom generation too will be gone, and the leadership will pass to the generations that will follow.
My contemporaries may sometimes have been guilty of complacency, of taking for granted not only Israel’s survival, but its remarkable record of achievement — the absorption of a remarkably diverse population of Jewish immigrants, the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, the development of a thriving high tech economy and its tenacity in upholding democratic norms in a region where such norms have otherwise failed to take root. Though we may sometimes have slipped into complacency, we remained aware for the most part that in our world, circumstances can change quickly. Like any other human institution, Israel is imperfect, but its record of accomplishments is the closest thing I have seen to nes niglah (overt miracle). Israel is only as strong as those who are prepared to defend it. It will continue to face challenges and will continue to need the support of Diaspora Jews, especially those in the United States
We baby boomers have, perhaps been too insecure to allow our complacency to dominate us. But what about the generations that will follow us? Many of those in the generation whose members call themselves millennials have thoughtlessly bought into a narrative that portrays Israel as a Goliath facing down a Palestinian David. Having adopted the typically American aversion to history, they have no context in which to view Israel’s remarkable achievements. The sight of Israel’s flag flying over the Kotel, or the sound of Hatikvah at the conclusion of a Jewish event, does not move them as it does most of my generation. That Israel may face an existential threat — that its very survival might be threatened — hardly crosses their minds.
As we prepare to celebrate Yom Ha’arzmaut — and less than a month later, the fiftieth anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification — let us rededicate ourselves to strengthening the bonds that link American Jews to the Jewish State that has so recently been reborn. We need not agree with every action of Israel’s democratically elected government — since when have all Jews agreed on anything? — but whatever our differences, we must all be grateful for experiencing what previous generations could only dream of — the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
“This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and exult in it.” (Psalms118:24)