It is neither Israel’s enemies nor its actions. It is our own weakness.
We mark the 71st anniversary of the founding of Israel with awe, celebration and faith in the future. The success of Israel in warding off all enemies against incredible odds, and the countless ways in which Israel has managed to thrive economically, technologically, socially and spiritually anyway, is unprecedented in the history of nations.
Not to mention, it is so easy to take Israel’s democracy for granted. Look at the neighborhood: dictators, autocrats, tyrants, theocrats, kings. That is the entire Middle East. Its apologists will tell you that in order to have stability in the Middle East there is no choice but to deny human rights and to stack the elections, that is, if there are elections. Yet, from the very beginning, Israel has stood different — radically different. Given its political context, Israel’s democracy is miraculous.
Nor do we ever forget the priceless sacrifices — the more than 20,000 Jews killed, mostly young men and women — who fell victim to terrorism or fought for the right to a Jewish state and then fought to defend it from enemies who cannot abide a Jewish presence in the Middle East.
None of this is news to Israel’s supporters around the world, both Jewish and non-Jewish. But it is news that Israel’s 71st independence day coexists with a distinct, if not necessarily articulated, unease.
In the Diaspora, there is a sense, a certain malaise, that greets Israel on its 71st birthday. It is, to be sure, not a malaise among Israel’s supporters worldwide, who remain as enthusiastic as always, if not more so. It is not a decrease in the sense of wonder at the reborn Jewish state after 1,900 years of Jewish exile, wandering and persecution, and surely not anything but admiration for Israel’s countless contributions to the world’s most pressing problems in medicine, technology, agriculture, water quality and other environmental challenges.
What, then, is the issue that arises at this time? It can be confusing because there are many candidates for the dubious distinction of being the cause (or causes) of the drop in Israel’s reputation. Among the possible causes:
• the incessant noise of the BDS movement, whose decibel level far exceeds its actual influence, but which nonetheless is harmful in seeking to delegitimate Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state;
• the relentless partisanship in Washington, which, on the one hand, cannot credit any positive move by President Trump even if it is a positive for Israel; and, on the other hand, cannot acknowledge the deep commitment of leading Democrats to Israel even it must make itself heard above decidedly anti-Israel voices that have emerged within the party;
• the long tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose politics seem out of step with the domestic priorities and sensibilities of many American Jews;
• the authority of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel over marriage and divorce, and most conversions;
• the continuing controversy over Israeli communities on the West Bank of the Jordan River;
• the battle weariness over the unwillingness of Palestinians to come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state.
No doubt, all of these factors play a role in clouding what was once, to most of American Jewry, an exclusively shining beacon of pride and hope. However, their very prevalence obscures the underlying factor behind the drop in the Jewish connection to Israel. Even taken together, they do not constitute the reason why Israel does not occupy the same pride of place it once did in the American Jewish psyche. The main reason has little if anything to do with Israel’s enemies or actions.
The reason, baldy put, is the American Jewish demographic melt-away, measured qualitatively; the decrease in Jewish identity, the diminution of Jewish intensity, among American Jewry.
This is surely not the case across the board, as the beautiful march for Israel last Sunday showed, with thousands of Denver Jews happily coming out not just to support Israel but to celebrate it. But the decrease in American Jewish intensity and activity is an undeniable, preponderant reality.
For too long, American Jewry has not tended to its own fundamental needs in Jewish identity, education and observance — while paradoxically diverting its resources and attention to Israel way past the period when the Israeli economy did depend on strong Diaspora economic support to survive.
That moment passed more than 30 years ago; and today, as we all know, Israel is an economic powerhouse, its pockets of poverty notwithstanding. However, somehow the generation that came before the present generations thought that ethnic pride would always sustain American Jewry, that is, if they gave any serious thought at all to the conditions for Jewish survival in a powerfully assimilative society.
We do not make light of the current challenges to Israel’s reputation. But they should not divert us from acknowledging and addressing the deep structural fraying of American Jewry. The core gets stronger, but also much smaller. We cannot believe, ostrichlike, that strong and unwavering American Jewish support for Israel can continue without a much larger proportion of American Jewish communal resources, time and thought devoted to fortifying American Jewish identity, education and observance.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News