My wife Michal and I recently returned from a “vacation” to Florida, mainly to visit friends and relatives. It was a whirlwind trip, with many opportunities to check out the “Florida living.” After several weeks, we were happy to return to Israel to our new home in the center of Kfar Sava.
Life in Israel didn’t come up much during our trip, but while discussing the “situation” in Israel with close friends, we were told explicitly that what happens in Israel has little impact on the lives of American Jews. This is an attitude that we find hard to fathom, but then, we’re Americans who elected to leave the US behind and to begin anew in Israel, homeland of the Jews.
Nevertheless, it was surprising that we felt almost no excitement about the upcoming celebration of 70 years of independence for the Jewish State (this year it’s celebrated on April 19). In just seven decades, Israel has climbed from being a nation that most people thought couldn’t withstand the immediate onslaught of six Arab armies, that more than doubled its population in its first decade due to a huge influx of European, North African, and Arabian Jews, that twice more survived existential wars by a combination of Arab armies, that became a nuclear power and eventually one of the top 10 global military powers, that has a flourishing economy despite being surrounded by enemies and unfriendly nations, that is perhaps the most innovative country in the OECD, and whose population is happy (11th-happiest country in the world for the 5th year running, according to this year’s UN annual World Happiness Report), despite being vilified by a variety of nations. And in addition, Israel has become the world center of Judaism, with a Jewish population and fertility rate that is the highest in the Jewish world.
Despite Israel’s miraculous achievements, it’s hard to understand why many of our American peers place Israel far down on their list of priorities. Many, especially the Millennials, are more concerned with climate change, personal empowerment, leveling the playing field, improving the world (aka tikkun olam), gun violence, gender issues, abortion rights, national IDs, and so on. If Israel or their Jewish status enters their minds, it would take a back seat to all of the above.
Jonathan Weisman, the well known New York Times editor and author of ‘(((Semitism)))’, did recently gain publicity by “unpacking” (Millennial-speak) America’s growing anti-Semitism in a recent article. Regarding the lack of relevancy for many young Jews of Jew/Israel hatred, Weisman recalled that he often told his mother, “Yes, I am concerned about Israel. I’m also concerned about Darfur and South Sudan, and I’m concerned about the Rohingya in Myanmar. You know, there’s a lot of things to be concerned about in the world, so I’m not going to obsess about the Jewish state [or anti-Semitism] at this moment in my life.” (timesofisrael.com)
I too thought along similar lines when I was a student. Later on, other matters took precedence over “universal” ones, but not any that Weisman listed. Much more important to Michal and me was our status as a family, as Jews, and what was happening in Israel. Eventually, living in Israel seemed more relevant than remaining in New Jersey.
Besides reading the review of (((Semitism))), a subject that we encountered a few times was the holy (not) 2-state solution. How, people asked, is Israel going to elevate its standing in the world and have “peace in our time,” unless it achieves the 2-state solution with Palestinian Arabs and “gives” them a state of their own? In addition, a few wondered how Israel can expect to be respected by the world and to be admired by young American Jews unless it stops the so-called erosion of democracy (not) in Israel occurring due to the growing power of the haredim/ultra-Orthodox?
Those questions were asked and answered in another recent NY Times article, this one by Ronald Lauder, an American billionaire businessman, art collector and humanitarian, who bankrolls and heads the American Jewish Congress.
Lauder worries that time is running out for the Jews of the Middle East. He bases this on highly contested demographic figures (mistakenly) showing that Jews are being swamped by Arab births between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, which is under Israeli control. His solution, and many others such as the UN, EU, and the Third World, is the holy 2-state solution, which the Palestinian Arabs have been refusing to adopt for decades – especially since the ill-conceived Oslo Accords of 1993.
Lauder wrote, “The reality is that 13 million people [sic] live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And almost half of them are Palestinian. If current trends continue, Israel will face a stark choice: Grant Palestinians full rights and cease being a Jewish state or rescind their rights and cease being a democracy. To avoid these unacceptable outcomes, the only path forward is the two-state solution.”
Lauder also addresses growing anti-Semitism and the lack of concern by young American Jews. He explains why: “By submitting to the pressures exerted by a minority in Israel [ultra-Orthodox], the Jewish state is alienating a large segment of the Jewish people. The crisis is especially pronounced among the younger generation, which is predominantly secular. An increasing number of Jewish millennials — particularly in the United States — are distancing themselves from Israel because its policies contradict their values. The results are unsurprising: assimilation, alienation and a severe erosion of the global Jewish community’s affinity for the Jewish homeland.” (www.nytimes.com)
I hope Lauder’s statements are wrong. But if true, I think I know why. Generally, Millennials and others know next to nothing about Israel and what they “know” isn’t even true. Most of their complaints are either a product of ignorance or of propaganda from liberal American organizations with an ax to grind. Nearly all the complaints have next to zero impact on young American Jews.
One couple visiting from New York told us how their daughter, while spending a year studying in Israel, was “forced” to sit in the back of a bus in Jerusalem. Once we learned her political inclinations, it became clear that the daughter simply wanted to provoke ultra-Orthodox men on a bus route in their own neighborhood, where their wives and daughters voluntarily sit in the back. Is that involuntary segregation or an unfamiliar cultural quirk which outsiders wouldn’t ordinarily encounter?
No, Israel isn’t in danger of becoming undemocratic – it’s one of the most democratic countries in the world. Despite a seeming paradox, Israel continues to be both democratic and Jewish, as it has been since its Declaration of Independence 70 years ago. Nor will Jews be swamped in Israel by Arabs. The high Jewish Israeli fertility rate and continued immigration will prevent it.
Jews are an extraordinary people. (By dint of their incredible accomplishments, Jews embody that definition.) We hope that American Jews who care little about Israel, or about their status as Jews, will search beyond the platitudes about Israel to recognize its vivacity, ingenuity, and values. Then they will be able to have educated opinions about Israel’s past, the direction it should pursue in the future, and its value to all Jews, even those living in America.
Happy Israel Independence Day to all!