This month I will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of my graduation from Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, just west of Boston. Although I will not be at the reunion physically, I will be there spiritually as a kindred spirit of the class of 1968, which was an amazing year in American and world history.
I studied psychology and Jewish Studies with some of the greatest teachers of the twentieth century at Brandeis. At the same time, I am very much a product of the turbulent social and political movements of the 1960s in the USA. I lived through and participated in the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War movement as a college student (1964-68) and as a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York (1968-73), and as a member of the New York Havurah. During my student years, I participated in many important demonstrations against the war as well as in seminars and ceremonies in favor of equal rights for all American citizens.
At the same time, the year 1967 was a pivotal year for me in terms of my Jewish identity. I was profoundly moved and inspired by the victory of Israel over a group of Arab countries which sought to annihilate the young Jewish state (the state of Israel was 19 years old at the time; I was 21). Just 23 years after World War II, the existence of the state of Israel was being threatened in what would surely have been perceived as another Holocaust or a continuation of the one that began in Europe in the late 1930’s. It is amazing to me how easily this is forgotten sometimes.
In my first year at Brandeis University (1964-65) I remember attending an anti-war rally in the then famous Ford Hall on campus, where influential professors like Herbert Marcuse appeared in a kind of epiphany and told us young, naive, impressionable students that it was our role and responsibility to go out and change the world! Marcuse, a leading political science professor at Brandeis and an expert on Hegel and Marx, was a charismatic personality who was active in the anti-war movement in the USA at the time.
Not only did we believe him, but we actually did as we were told! The student movement against the war in Vietnam made such an impact that eventually the American government could no longer ignore us, and actually ended that useless and destructive war. The Vietnam War was so much a part of our consciousness as students in the 60’s that we organized a special pre-commencement ceremony the day before our graduation in 1968. This “Vietnam Commencement” helped us tell the story of those turbulent years when we challenged the U.S. government over the morality and wisdom of waging war, and we ultimately prevailed, so that the Vietnam War came to an end at the end of my student years.
As a student, I also looked up to the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with King at Selma and who co-led a group called Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. I vividly remember that when Rev. King was assassinated in early April 1968 (my senior year in college), I helped organize a moving interreligious memorial service for him on chapels’ field in the heart of the Brandeis campus.
After Brandeis and rabbinical school, I pursued a doctorate in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education from 1973-1979. Three weeks after my completion of the program, my wife and I, and our two young daughters (we added a third after we arrived in Israel) were on the plane en route to our new life in Jerusalem, where we have lived ever since. (By now, we are the grandparents of 5 young grandchildren!)
I brought with me to Israel the values of a Jewish liberal person who was committed to social justice, civil rights and peace. And I am pleased to say that I have remained committed to these values during my last 39 years of living in Israel.
But Israeli society has become less liberal over the years, and more conservative, or reactionary. It is a far different place than the one that I moved to in June 1979, and a vastly different society than the one in which I spent a summer at a left-wing kibbutz in 1964, right after high school.
Once upon a time, Israel was a very modest, simple, egalitarian and socialist country. Many of our leaders in the early years grew up with the ethos of equality and justice that was inherent in the kibbutz movement, and many of them in fact lived on a kibbutz. This was pretty much the case until 1977, when the Likud surprised the country by defeating the Labor-led government which had become corrupt and self-satisfied. Since then, the country has become more and more capitalist, commercial, materialistic and less and less fair, egalitarian and modest. Indeed, the gap between rich and middle class and poor in Israel is now one of the highest in the Western word.
Israel has successfully become not only the home of the Jewish People, but my home and the home of much of my family. Yet, it is an incomplete home, one with some major challenges which still confront us. For me, there are three major ones which are central as we look towards the future.
The first one is the search for peace. In the 1990’s our governments were committed to peace. But in recent decades—and certainly in the last decade under the current “leadership”—the commitment to peace has been abandoned. This is extremely short-sighted and unfortunate. More than anything, we need a leadership that will recommit to a genuine search for peaceful coexistence with our neighbors, one that will be ready to make the painful compromises that are necessary for peace.
The second major priority for the future is the development of good relations with the Palestinian Arab minority, Muslim and Christian within our midst –about 20% of the population of Israel. The current right-wing government has completely missed the mark on this. For reasons that are not clear to me, or almost anyone else, they continue to incite all the time against this large minority group in our society. Rather than confrontation and condemnation, what is needed is cooperation and collaboration, which will be for the mutual interest of all of Israel’s citizens, in all areas of life, including and especially in education, housing and civil rights.
The third major challenge is the development of a liberal, humanistic, moderate, religious Judaism in this country. This is crucial for our future as a Jewish and democratic state. There are many good beginnings in this direction in our country, but not enough yet. In order to counter the dominant ultra-orthodox and ultra-nationalist distortions of Judaism –some of which have become extremely dangerous to our democracy and to our Jewish souls–which have taken center stage in Israel in recent decades, much more will need to be done in this area. In this matter, as in the other two discussed above, we will continue to need the help of liberal Jews in the Diaspora who share our vision of a liberal, humanistic, pluralistic, universalist Jewish society in Israel.
Notwithstanding these challenges and others facing us, Israel is a society which provides security, happiness and hope for most of its citizens. Nevertheless, these issues cannot be ignored, especially if we envision a secure and sane place for our children and grandchildren to live in the years and decades ahead.