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Barry Shrage

Restoring the “Genius of Israel” and the Dignity of American Jews: A Common Struggle For the Jewish Future

On October 7th, we knew that everything had changed. For Israelis and for American Jews . There was no going back. No turning away from the horror and the implications for Israel, for our own future and the future of our children and grandchildren. But Micah Goodman, Israel’s foremost social philosopher, alerted us to the historical resonance of our new reality, in a Times of Israel podcast:

“We just got a text message from Jewish history. Jewish history says hello. Jewish history showed us this is what it looks like, those 12 hours (before the IDF responded), this is how it looks like when Jews don’t have a state. We saw how it looks, it looks like a Kishinev. So here, Jewish history called us up and said, hello, this is a reminder.”

The podcast triggered two “text messages” for me. The first from 70 AD, the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the Jewish tradition that blamed Sinat Chinum, causeless hatred for the destruction. The second was a personal message from my late father in law Henry B. Kranz, political refugee, author and Zionist.

The First Text Message: Death and Destruction are the Cost of Disunity

The message from 70 AD screamed out a warning. Remember what happened to us. Our enemies already surrounding us, building their siege works, and loudly declaring their intention to destroy our nation, obliterate our sanctuary and faith, murder, rape and enslave our people. Sharpening their swords while at the same time we were fighting a civil war, fueled by zealotry and political extremism, destroying our own food stores, starving our own people, weakening our soldiers, heedless of the slaughter to come. In 70 AD all warnings were ignored, civil war continued and the Romans came.

But now, in 2024 Israelis and all of us who love Israel are asking whether we’ve learned the lesson of 70 AD and the terrible reminder of October 7. The attack took place after nearly a year of political polarization and massive street protests that seemed to put Israel at the brink of civil war. Even the army seemed to be coming apart with pilots and reservists,”Brothers and Sisters in Arms,” leading the demonstrations and threatening to boycott essential training exercises. Many analysts believed that the divisions in Israeli society predated “judicial reform”: rich against poor…Askenazi vs Mizrachi…religious vs secular….Jerusalem vs Tel Aviv… unbridgeable gaps that were at the root of the debate over judicial reform and that those divisions would inevitably lead to political violence.

But then on October 7th the chaos and polarization of the the prior year vanished. Reservists hurried to their units even before they were called up and the reserve pilots were in their planes within hours of the Hamas attack. “Brothers and Sisters in Arms,” responding to a breakdown in government services transformed itself from a protest movement to a massive volunteer service organization distributing food and medical supplies, providing activities for evacuated children, supporting the bereaved and raising funds.

As far as I know no one marched into Gaza debating “judicial reform” or arguing over the proper form of an outdoor Yom Kippur service in Tel Aviv that almost caused a riot only two weeks earlier. They marched into Gaza in their squads and teams and platoons, Ashkenazi and Sephardi and Ethiopian and Druze and Russian publicly supported by many Israeli Arabs who were also murdered and terrorized on October 7. The reservists entered Gaza among friends of many years who depended on each other for their lives.
What happened? How could a nation “at the brink of civil war,” divided and polarized by unbridgeable gaps between competing “tribes” find the strength, the resilience to unify, repair itself, and prepare a newly unified military for an existential struggle for Israel’s existence?

Finding Hope in the “Genius of Israel”

The answer came in the form of a new book ironically released a month after October 7. The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World by Dan Senor and Saul Singer was researched and largely written years before the year of civil unrest. The book was written to investigate a counterintuitive reality…how a country surrounded by enemies…under intermittent rocket attack…riven by political, ethnic and religious differences still be rated as among the happiest nations on earth by successive UN surveys? The answer they found after years of investigation seemed ridiculous during the year of civil strife but helps answer the mystery of Israel’s resilience in response to October 7:

“Why are Israelis happier? Why is there less despair? For all its day-to-day coarseness, divisions, and struggles, Israeli society provides more of what humans really need. At a time when people in many countries suffer from a shriveling sense of connection, belonging, and belief in the future, Israelis seem to have found a way to cultivate these treasures…To embrace rapid technological change and build tight intergenerational families. To be ambitious individualists, achieve prosperity, and cradle a culture that persistently imprints that it’s not just about you. That it is about service to the larger circles around you—the hevre, the country, and the world. That is the genius of Israel.”

So it turns out that the “terrible unbridgeable deeply rooted divisions” that put Israel “at the brink of civil war” were the exception, not the rule. Of course there were always deep divisions and even hostility between competing political and ethnic groups but the anger and polarization, the intensity of the argument, the inability of Israelis to talk to each other, the demonization of each side by the other, the passion that divided even families …that was new and it was not inevitable.

It was the result of Israeli leaders who used rhetoric to demonize their rivals and divide Israeli society for political gain. Sebastian Junger, journalist, author and war correspondent, warns against political leaders who “go beyond criticism of their fellow citizens and openly revile them. Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves.” On October 7, for Israelis, the delusion ended. Hopefully forever.

The Genius of Israel demonstrated that before the political chaos and polarization Israeli divisions were softened and contained by a society characterized by “belonging, caring and solidarity”. As Bret Stephens put it, “We ourselves did not imagine how much love was hidden inside us for the way of life we have managed to create here in Israel.” So in the end the powerful message of the first “text message” and The Genius of Israel was a warning to reject the politics of hate and fear and to remember all that Israel had created and all that we almost lost.

The Second Text Message: Reasserting Jewish Pride, Fighting for the Honor and Dignity of the Next Generation, Toward a Zionist Reawakening for American Jews

“It is sadly true that one of the most pernicious results of prejudice is when members of a persecuted group accept the ugly stereotypes used to characterize them…“contempt for Jews, when sufficiently widespread, can foster self-contempt among Jews.” It can convince Jews that unfounded, inaccurate accusations leveled against them or, by extension, against the Jewish state, are true.” Deborah Lipstadt describing the frightening impact of “contempt” on Jewish identity in “Antisemitism: Here and Now”

The second and very personal text message was from my late father-in-law, Henry B. Kranz. It was a message of Jewish resistance, resilience and courage in the face of humiliating and dehumanizing attacks on Jewish pride and Jewish honor. It was a message about the role Zionism played and must play again in the restoration of Jewish dignity and our right to a dignified place among the community of nations.

Henry B. Kranz was born in Vienna in 1895. He was a loyal citizen of the Austro-Hungarian empire and when World War I broke out he volunteered to fight for the Emperor, Franz Joseph. He was taken prisoner and suffered in a Russian prisoner of war camp in Siberia until the war ended. He returned to Vienna and enrolled at the University of Vienna by then dominated by antisemitic military dueling fraternities. This era is pictured in terrifying detail in Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical play about the destruction of an assimilated Jewish family in Vienna. In the play an Austrian student “Fritz” replies to a Jew who challenges him to a duel with these words:

“In …the German-Austrian students’ association…we had a manifesto, which declared, ‘every son of a Jewish mother, every human being in whose veins flows Jewish blood, is from the day of his birth without honor and void of all the more refined emotions…He is ethically subhuman…It is impossible to insult a Jew; a Jew cannot therefore demand satisfaction for any suffered insult.” (a paraphrase of the Waidhofen Manifesto which governed German- Austrian Nationalist dueling fraternities)

In spite of his service to the empire as a soldier and a fighter he must have heard “Fritz’s” words on the lips of many of his fellow students. “A Jew is devoid of honor. He is ethically subhuman…”

For a proud Jew and a war veteran these words were intolerable.

Henry and other Jews who refused to be humiliated fought back by joining Zionist dueling fraternities. Henry joined “Libanonia,” fought duels against the “Fritz’s” of his time without face armor and with unguarded sabers for his honor and the honor of the Jewish people. He emerged with saber scars on his face, a mark of honor among the students, and his fraternity ring which my mother in law gave me when my wife, Ellie and I became engaged. The ring, inscribed with the words “semper primi,” “always first,” and Henry’s story of courage and strength have never left me and have never been more relevant.

We are living at a time of widespread and persistent “contempt for Jews” growing out of “unfounded, inaccurate accusations leveled against them” and “against the Jewish state.” The latest, the charge of genocide, what Bret Stephens called a “moral obscenity” will soon be on banners carried through our campuses, And even while we fight against antisemitism and put armed guards in front of our schools and synagogues we must also be fighting for the Jewish identity, the Jewish souls and the honor of our children and grandchildren.

Henry Kranz refused to be humiliated. They told him that “a Jew has no honor,” and that therefore “a Jew cannot demand satisfaction for any suffered insult.” And now when our children are told that their ancestral homeland is a racist “settler state” that must be obliterated and that their brothers and sisters are genocidal killers, they are also told that as beneficiaries of “white privilege” they cannot “demand satisfaction.” They cannot defend themselves.

Anti semitism and hatred of Israel are embedded the “intersectional” world view that has become the “operating system” of much of academia and the intellectual life of our country. In this paradigm the world is divided between the powerful and the powerless between victims and victimizers. It places Israel permanently in the category of powerful victimizers and It is at the heart of the academic absurdity that has come to dominate whole departments in the humanities as loyalty to “progressive” politics became a requirement for hiring and advancement.

But “powerlessness” is not an option for Jews. October 7 reminded us again of the cost of powerlessness for Jews. We’ve read the book, saw the play and the movie..hated the ending. It always ends the same way… with dead Jews. In the past the pictures of burning bodies and mass murder brought longer or shorter periods of sympathy. This time they brought only contempt. It’s now clear that we’re involved in one struggle… an existential struggle for Israel’s right to exist in safety and security as well as an inseparable struggle for the identity, honor and dignity of our own children and grandchildren.

After October 7 it became clear that American logistical, military and diplomatic support was crucial to Israel’s survival just as Israeli courage and resilience were essential to inspire courage and maintain the self respect and dignity of American Jews. The support and courage of the next generation of American Jews in turn will be crucial to continuing American political support for Israel which will continue to be crucial to Israel’s ability to defend herself.

It’s true that Israel’s long and difficult fight for survival against an enemy that uses its own civilian population as human shields may alienate part of the next generation but it will also strengthen the resolve of the best and strongest to resist humiliation, to fight for the honor of our people and to lead the Jewish renewal of their generation. Henry Kranz came to understand that the fight for Jewish dignity in Vienna was tied to Zionism; to the creation of a Jewish State; and to the restoration of the Jewish people to history. He became a Zionist because he believed that only the creation of a Jewish State would allow us to defend our honor and our lives as a people against a brutal and violent world that seemed bent on our annihilation.

Birthright: A Leap From Empathy to Jewish Peoplehood

The late Rabbi David Hartman has written that “Judaism commences with a leap of solidarity, an unmediated empathy with our history. Judaism begins with an identification with a singular community that has a history. It is to say, “I am prepared to go into Egypt and suffer with this people…
Jews, without knowing precisely how to define themselves, are a people saying, “For some reason, I cannot be other than with this mishpacha (family.)”

Birthright provides a powerful, measurable experience of peoplehood and love of the Jewish people and Israel – on a massive scale – for hundreds of thousands of young adults. Birthright opens a window of opportunity, a hinge in our history, enabling us to open the door to more meaningful and durable engagement with our people, our nation, our culture, our faith and our unique destiny. At the heart of Birthright is the mifgash, the encounter between young American Jews and the Israeli soldiers that travel with them. No history lesson will enable young Jews to make sense of the competing narratives between Israelis and Palestinians without an encounter with their brothers and sisters who have lived through the terror of the second intifada and the horror of October 7. The mifgash with Israeli soldiers will be especially powerful as American Jews hear first hand accounts of combat in Gaza and visits to the killing grounds of the once vibrant kibbutzim, towns and villages of the Gaza envelope.

Birthright and “Onward Israel” have expanded their work after October 7 to include a new “Birthright/Onward” volunteer service program and thousands of volunteers are already on the ground with thousands more on waiting lists.

Sebastian Junger as quoted in Genius wrote,

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. The exception to this is modern Israel where Israelis feel necessary. They take ownership of their fate. They feel they have a personal responsibility in building- and now rebuilding- their country.”

It’s exactly the absence of meaning and purpose, community and common destiny that’s at the heart of the challenge facing American Jews. Working together to rebuild Israel will be transformational for American Jews and Israelis, creating a sense of common purpose, meaning and destiny.

We Can’t Live and Flourish Without Each Other
“If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to sinat chinam (baseless hatred) then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with ahavat chinam (unconditional love)”. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook
We are a small vulnerable people. Fifteen million in a world population of nearly 8 billion. Six million of our people were murdered only 80 years ago in a genocidal war with all doors closed to our people and nowhere to run. The horrors of the past and the terrible dangers we’re facing after October 7th reinforce our sense of vulnerability.

We need each other. We don’t have to agree on everything, but our vulnerability multiplies if our sense of mutual responsibility, the bonds of love that tie us together are allowed to disintegrate. Ignoring the American Jewish community as a key strategic asset for Israel today and more so in the future borders on insanity. Imagining that our identity, our sense of Jewish community, our Judaism can flourish in the absence of the bonds of love that have always been the essence of Judaism ignores the reality of our historical experience. Imagining that strengthening our connection to our people will be possible without a strong connection to our brother and sisters in Israel is self-deception.

In fifty years our grandchildren and great grandchildren may ask us
what we did when Israel faced destruction in 2023, when the world turned its back on us, and when our own children were being humiliated and their identity as Jews attacked and delegitimized.
If we can’t God forbid answer these questions future generations will curse us for our failure. If we can answer these questions with pride history will bless us and our children and grandchildren will be able to live lives of Jewish pride, purpose and meaning.

About the Author
Barry Shrage served as President of CJP- Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation from 1987 to 2017. He is now Professor of the Practice in the Hornstein Program and the Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Throughout his 50 year career Barry focused on strengthening Jewish identity and engaging future generations through Jewish education, deepening connections between American Jews and Israel and her people and developing strong communities that care for the most vulnerable in society. All views expressed are Barry’s own and not necessarily those of Brandeis University or CJP