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Who will steer our ship?

With an increasingly fractured America, it is our job to ensure that Israeli society is one that thrives – one that does not unravel

CNN’s Van Jones put it perfectly, commenting on the then just-released election results. “I can’t breathe,” he said, which were George Floyd’s words, but they echoed a sentiment that many of us had long felt. While Jones was clearly expressing the views of one side of the political spectrum, when it came to being desperate for air, our political allegiances made no difference. For many of us, regardless of our political orientations, it has simply been hard to breathe these last four years. Violence and looting in America’s streets. An alarming and menacing display of guns by right and left. The shattering of social and intellectual norms. The proliferation of baseless conspiracy theories, the open embrace of once-deplorable hatreds, and the coarseness of discourse — all this and more have contributed to a republic that today feels more fragile and divided than most of us ever imagined possible.

For many of us who made aliyah from the United States, whether many years ago or much more recently, part of our souls remained deeply attached to the America of our youth, and many of us hoped that, even as Israel enriched us, we might, in some small way, help bring some of America’s greatness here. The America we knew when we were young was a confident and great nation. We were the kids who grew up on JFK, Apollo, Johnson’s Great Society. We were the teenagers who watched America get out of Vietnam. We were nurtured by the dreaminess and hopefulness of Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Cat Stevens. We grew up in an age in which it seemed that America — and the rest of the world with it — was moving inexorably to ever greater greatness. Something about America, even though we’d left it, still felt sacred.

There were obvious and painful tensions in American society, but we believed that America’s diversity was also its strength. After all, we said to ourselves, look at our own family’s progress: from our grandparents who literally came in through Ellis Island, to our generation educated at America’s finest institutions of higher learning. Even if imperfectly implemented, America’s founding ideas were both aspirational and inspirational. We didn’t smirk when we heard people speak of opportunity, equality, freedom, democracy. These were the narratives that held an otherwise diverse citizenry together. And it didn’t make us uncomfortable to believe — and even to say — that America was exceptional among the nations of the world.

Of course, we all understood that America was far from a perfect union. We might not have articulated our worry about race in America the way that it is spoken about today, but we knew that racism was a shameful part of both America’s history and, unfortunately, its present. It wasn’t lost on us that equality of opportunity remained aspirational, not entirely descriptive, and we Jews knew better than most that despite America’s warm embrace, there were many people who didn’t particularly care for us.

But in much of America then, expressing one’s bigotries and hatreds was considered ill form, and whatever some Americans thought of us Jews, few of them said it out loud; for the most part, we felt that America was as much ours as anyone else’s. After all, our families too were part of that grand narrative of tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. So when we, the grandchildren of those immigrants to America, became immigrants ourselves and made aliyah, we weren’t running from something, but toward something, and many of us hoped to bring some of America’s majesty to our new home, too.

Do we still think that way today? I suspect that many fewer of us do. Now, the American narrative that moved so many of us appears tattered. An America that for us was an experiment in great ideas has devolved into an often ugly, un-nuanced battle over identities. Increasingly, America looks like a fracturing country in which two camps, hostile to the very existence of the other, are on the verge of war. On one side is an increasingly forceful movement to destroy the very foundations of a liberal order it believes was born in sin and remains inherently evil, and on the other side we are witness to increasing acceptance of anti-democratic impulses and hateful rhetoric. Those in the middle — no doubt still a majority — are drowned out by the extremes and the cable news networks that feed them.

Israel is not mini-America

Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, as many of us olim watch America from afar, what we wonder about is Israel. The questions we are asking ourselves are about the future directions of our society. We have of course long understood that America and Israel are very different projects. As Jill Lepore puts it so well in her recent, This America, the United States is more of a state-nation than a nation-state. America’s founders attempted to fashion a nation out of the citizens of the state they had just founded. To coalesce as a nation, early Americans and those who followed had to forge a vision they could share, a set of narratives and norms that would speak to them all. Did they succeed? Growing up, it was obvious to us that they had; today, though, we wonder. Listening to the rage and identity politics that now have America in their grips, one cannot help but ask whether that shared narrative ever took root. Are the imaginations of Americans suffused with overlapping dreams for the country they still share?

Israel is no miniature America. We Jews were a nation long before we had our state; we founded a country in order to protect, preserve, and cultivate a people that already existed — and desperately needed a home. We had founding documents we considered sacred and had been studying for thousands of years. Complex though our history was, filled with grand achievements and moments of searing pain, it served as the foundation of our shared narrative, and in many ways, still does.

Yet different though we are from the United States, this is a moment not for resting on our laurels, but instead, for asking ourselves what we must do to ensure that what is happening to America does not happen to us. For we face many of the same dangers. Israel’s Jewish majority is highly diverse and deeply divided. There are the ultra-Orthodox, the secular and everyone in between. There is the Ashkenazi elite that founded the country and the more traditional Mizrahi Jews, who came soon after and who today are a majority of Israel’s Jewish citizens. More recently, one million Russian Jews came to Israel at roughly the same time as a mass immigration of Ethiopian Jews, with whom the Russian immigrants had little to nothing in common. We have major income disparities, cities with dramatically different political orientations, and of course the critical matter of Israeli Arabs who, at 20 percent of Israel’s population, present a wide range of moral and political challenges to a Jewish and democratic state.

We are right to take great pride in the fact that many of these citizens — Jew and Arab, Haredi and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, regardless of when they arrived, came from countries with few, if any, democratic traditions, yet built a robust democracy on the sands of the Middle East. But we dare not become complacent. Mortal enemies on our borders and wars fought at home have long played a central role in reinforcing a sense of shared purpose and destiny. Thankfully, those wars may be mostly in our past; is our social cohesion an inevitability any more than it appeared to be in the America of our youth?

‘It’s getting like that here’

All of this raises the question: who will steer our ship? Who will navigate the social, cultural and political challenges we face here so that they never threaten the fabric of our democracy or the Jewishness of this grand experiment? Who will ensure that a state founded for the sake of a given people will not only allow, but encourage, the flourishing of other peoples who live within its borders and are its citizens? Golda Meir’s optimism about Israel, she often said, was due to the Jews’ “secret weapon” — we had nowhere else to go. But would she still say that today? While it is true that there is no other country to which Jews could relocate en masse, that certainly is not true of Israelis as individuals. Israelis can go to many different places, and hundreds of thousands, including many of our most talented, already have. Who will craft a society that our finest young people will not want to leave? Who will shape the national values and social discourse that will merit their service and sacrifice? And what economic, political and cultural choices must be made so that Israeli society is as much a bastion of equality and opportunity as was the America we imagined in our youth?

Some of us had an inkling there would be a need for this a long time ago. When my colleagues and I teamed up with a small group of forward-looking philanthropists nearly a decade and a half ago to found Israel’s first liberal arts college, we hoped to bring to Israel’s finest students an educational model that had long preserved and advanced American exceptionalism and democracy. We had confidence that plumbing the depths of civilization’s greatest ideas and texts would equip our graduates to shape an Israel that would remain worthy of their own devotion, and that of their peers. When we started out, founding a college seemed like an ambitious but admirable contribution to the Jewish state. Today, the idea of that college seems positively prescient.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Frank Bruni penned a remarkable op-ed in the New York Times about the end of colleges as we know them. He wrote:

We need doctors right now. My God, we need doctors: to evaluate the coronavirus’s assault, assess the body’s response and figure out where, in that potentially deadly tumble of events, there’s a chance to intervene. We need research scientists. It falls to them to map every last wrinkle of this invader and find its Achilles’ heel.

But we also need Achilles. We need Homer. We need writers, philosophers, historians. They’ll be the ones to chart the social, cultural and political challenges of this pandemic — and of all the other dynamics that have pushed the United States so harrowingly close to the edge. In terms of restoring faith in the American project and reseeding common ground, they’re beyond essential. …

A vaccine for the coronavirus won’t inoculate anyone against the ideological arrogance, conspiracy theories and other internet-abetted passions and prejudices that drive Americans apart. But the perspective, discernment and skepticism that a liberal arts education can nurture just might.

Science may produce better versions of tear gas and lighter versions of riot gear, God help us. But it can’t compete with the humanities for telling us how and why certain societies unravel, and others thrive.

The young people I speak to, whether on campus at Shalem College or in my travels to Israel’s pre-military leadership academies and other educational frameworks, look across the ocean, and often say to me, “It’s getting like that here.” I’m glad they’re worried, even if they’re wrong — for now. Israel has not torn itself asunder; here, even in the context of an unstable and often combative political system, a deep sense of shared purpose still prevails. Here, people do not smirk at the notion of devotion to nation; learning that a young student spent seven years in the army as an officer tells you nothing about her or his political disposition — they’re just as likely to be Meretz voters as Likud supporters. But we must not let down our guard. We need to leverage their concern to safeguard a society that we know all too well is far more fragile than it looks. We need them to understand that just as America was once the repository of great ideas and profound conversations about itself, so too must Israel keep its own ideas and grand commitments alive in every generation.

Those of us who made aliyah a long time ago still gaze across the ocean with admiration, but now, we do so with a good deal more concern, and with deepening sadness. Bruni was addressing Americans in his op-ed, but his counsel is every bit as critical for Israelis. Our job is to ensure that this society is one of those that thrives, one that does not unravel. If there is a sacred dimension to our lives here, it is to preserve and to cultivate the Jewish state like it is the only one we have and like our lives depend on it, because it is and because they do.

About the Author
Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His book, "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" (Ecco/HarperCollins), won the 2016 Jewish Book Council "Book of the Year" award. His most recent book, "We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel," was published in September 2019.
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