Recent media has captured a story from last fall, about an event hosted by the Vice President of the United States. Addressing a room full of Jewish leaders in his home, Vice President Joe Biden said something remarkably revealing and deep about Jewish-Americans.
“Folks,” he continued, “there is no place else to go, and you understand that in your bones. You understand in your bones that no matter how hospitable, no matter how consequential, no matter how engaged, no matter how deeply involved you are in the United States … there’s only one guarantee. There is really only one absolute guarantee, and that’s the state of Israel.”
This incident has been given relatively little attention; although many that read or heard about it and understood it for what is is are stunned. But not shocked by the fact of it; as Jews we are sort of genetically programmed to understand the imperative of flight and the unshakable paranoia of what’s next. The eyebrow raising factor is really tied to the Vice President’s contextualizing it around what he understands as the status quo; a major lacking of American Jewish support for Israel.
There is a deep, divide between Jewish supporters of Israel and Jewish not-so-supporters. I framed that last part just so because it’s not safe to say they are against Israel, it plays too easily into the “to criticize is just” paradigm that is used, lazily, all the time. Regardless of how weak the rhetoric on Israel from the Jewish left may be, the not-so-supportive types are strong in their lack of support, if only through the rigidity of cognitive dissonance, strong ever still. Vice President Biden was essentially suggesting that any and all Jews reconsider that position as a viable option or opinion. His reasoning? That at the end of the (our) day, there is no place else to go. Or in other words, You are not really safe here, Jews. Biden’s reference to bones led me to an immediate mental recall of the piles of bodies at Auschwitz, and then I moved on, thankfully, to the words of Avraham Shlonsky. “And in the evening twilight, father will return from his travails, and, like a prayer, will whisper joyfully: ‘My dear son Abraham, skin, sinews and bones- hallelujah.’” In his poetic description of a day of living in early Zionist Israel, Shlonsky, too, was referring to survival.
But I don’t hold it against Biden that he said this; quite the contrary. It felt comforting to read about it, imagining Biden’s hopeful and pleading eyes, a brain filled with hard realities and a conscious dictating to him that withholding a truth on such a level might ruin his soul. So Biden was merely giving executive credit to the idea that Israel is the only true safe haven for Jews in the world. That is no minor statement considering the American identity of protector, savior, and bastion for Jewish citizens, and all we bring to the table, and it was more than that. It was a smoke signal coming from a cabinet that has turned its back to the realities of Jewish people and the persecution we face across the world.
Half of the meaning behind this smoke signal was to say, “hey, we (him and Obama) are not all on one side of the table with Israel”. But the other meaning was much more critical. Biden was pointing out the weak spot in our own Jewish structure, telling of the deep and treacherous gully that divides so much of American Jewry from understanding and internalizing the imperative of the Jewish state for the safety and continued existence of the Jewish people.
The stats tell us what we could have already guessed, that the distance is a problem of the youth, the term youth broadly expanding as time passes, including the children of baby-boomers and early breeding gen-xers; all of us making up the present future. From this pool of Americans, Jewish support for Israel is found among the religious, the Israeli, and the conservative. What is left is mostly what’s in-between these ardent supporters and the extreme left, JVP, etc, etc, but like a sandwich, the middle is what counts the most.
This critical median that embody the divide are the Jewish kids that grew up in the United States with the rise of the progressive left, and got into it, many leading its movements today. And there is a cataclysmic rift between what is good for us as Jews, and what is held as common belief about the Jewish homeland within the ranks of the growing Jewish left. It is a lesson in deep irony, that this same generation took the lead in electing such an anti-Israel President as Barack Obama, both at the ballot and on the campaign trail. Here in the U.S., so many of us are asking how long we can sit and watch CNN report of our Jewish brothers and sisters suffering persecution, in lands near and far, incidents more common every day. But the question Biden prompts us to ask here, is to what end are we willing to watch our Jewish brothers and sisters wave the banner of indifference toward Israel or worse, of BDS and outright anti-Semitism? I wonder at what point and through what mechanism can we rework the mindset of a growing mass of our own people, who argue and even work at the behest of those in the world that are publicly asking for their Jewish heads.