CHANGING DYNAMICS FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION
From three continents and four generations, we gathered in Gilo. The pilgrimage to this particular apartment in Jerusalem had begun with a family named Markiewicz in Bialystok and had wound through way stations as distant as Uruguay and America, Montevideo and Morrisania. Some of us had never met until that evening in August 2005, and it was appropriate we were meeting now in Israel, for our presence defined the whole point of a Jewish homeland—ingathering the exiled.
Most of our forebears had been exterminated by the Nazis, perhaps when thousands of Bialystok’s Jews were herded into the Grand Synagogue and it was set afire, or perhaps when the remaining thousands of Jews were transported several years later to Treblinka. My grandmother, Rose Markiewicz, was the only member of her family to have immigrated to the United States before nativist laws slammed the door to the goldene medine.
My two closest contemporaries in Gilo were Dov Prusky and Rebeca Bronstein, the children of Rose’s niece, who was one of the handful of relatives my grandmother had managed somehow in the 1930s to help buy passage to South America. Dov had made aliyajust after the Six-Day War. Rebeca still lived in Uruguay, but her daughter Noemi had followed the Zionist imperative to Israel as a young woman and was now married to a curator at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
As we stood by a picture window to admire the view, we could not help but feel the emotional cross-currents of our reunion and its setting. Before Qassams falling on Sderot, before Grads striking Ashkelon, before Katyushas hitting Haifa, the second intifada had seen Palestinians from nearby Beit Jala shooting daily across the valley into Gilo. Two remarkable things can be said about all these episodes. They revealed the extraordinary resiliency of Israelis like Dov and Noemi. And they laid bare the emotional and political detachment of much diaspora Jewry from the situation of their brethren. When Israelis used the word matsav—situation—to describe their existential ordeal, it attested to their stoicism and gallows humor. For many American Jews, though, the euphemism might well provide a sort of emotional distancing.
While we embodied four generations in the Gilo apartment, the saga of American Jews and Israel works out precisely to three generations, the 60 years of nationhood dividing into three spans of 20. Each of those spans closely corresponds to a decisive moment in Israeli history—and the American Jewish response. The first went from the creation of the state to the Six-Day War; the second, the Six-Day War to the outbreak of the first intifada (1987-1993); the third, the initial intifada up to the tenuous present, shadowed by Hamas and Hezbollah and their common patron, Iran.
The indifference of many American Jews to Israel today—and the vocal antipathy of a faction on the far left—would have astonished the generation that saw a Jewish nation established; my mother literally danced in the streets to celebrate the United Nations vote on partition. Those people never could have imagined Israel as an afterthought, an inconvenience, or an embarrassment to their descendants.
Had Zionism not existed, Jews in the United States might have invented it for themselves, since it served so many communal self-interests along with a transcendent Jewish idealism. Liberal if not radical, marginally observant if not fervently secular, the American Jews of midcentury found in Zionism a way to be Jewish without needing to believe in God, a way to be Jewish that meshed neatly with their New Deal-labor union politics. At the edges of American Jewry, it is true, elements of the Reform movement disowned Zionism as the stain of “dual loyalty,” while much of Orthodoxy insisted there could be no Zion without moshiah. Still, the broad center—running from Rabbi Stephen Wise (Reform) to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (Orthodox) and especially deep among the unaffiliated and in the Conservative movement—wholly embraced Zionism’s version of a belief system.
Zionism also resolved the dissonance of being a Jew in a comfortable and tolerant country while witnessing the would-be destruction of Jewry elsewhere. Though David Ben-Gurion insisted that an American Jew could be a Zionist only by making aliya, American Jews answered with an alternative model of advocacy and philanthropy from afar. Israel, in turn, allowed American Jews to vicariously shed the image of the weak, bullied golus Yid, to participate from a distance in the swagger of Zionism’s New Jew. I remember walking through Washington, D.C., with my parents during the fall of 1967 and passing a deli with a window sign written on butcher paper: “Our Specialty—The Nasser Sandwich—Half Tongue, Half Chicken, on Jewish Rye with Russian Dressing.”
That sense of Israeli invulnerability, of course, did not last long after the Six-Day War. The glass shattered, as a rabbi of my acquaintance once eloquently put it, on Yom Kippur in 1973. The spectacle of Israel at risk of defeat, and thus of genocide, spurred American Jews to even greater feats of fundraising and mass mobilization than they had mustered amid the 1967 conflict. From the 1972 Munich Olympics to Kiryat Shmona (1974) to Entebbe (1976) to Istanbul (1987), the first wave of Palestinian terror on an international scale further solidified the financial and political bonds between American Jews and Israel. The so-called Israel Lobby—these days a devious shorthand for the same old conspiracy theories—grew during the years when the United States stood as the global exception to Third World and Soviet bloc anti-Zionism and its Western European fellow travelers.
If anything, during this second generation Israel assumed in some ways too large a role in American Jewish identity. The baseline of being a Jew in America was being a Zionist, remembering the Holocaust, fighting against anti-Semitism and…nobody could really say what else. Along with Holocaust remembrance, Israel was a virtue turned into an obligation. It was the tree someone paid to plant in honor of your bar mitzva, it was the Israel bond you pledged to buy during the High Holy Days. It was the charity case for the affluent “American uncle,” to use Israeli commentator Yossi Beilin’s suitably spiky phrase. Israel was the convenient, ever-ready substitute for the more elusive and ultimately more divisive question of what defined the American Jew as an individual and American Jewry as a collective.
So the seeds of a backlash had already been planted, and the mere passage of time intensified the process. American Jews coming into consciousness as teenagers in the late 1980s had not been alive for the Shoah and the partition vote, and could not remember the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. Their image of Israel took shape during the first intifada as Goliath to the Palestinian David. They took for granted the existence of American Jewish dissent from Israeli policy, something anathema until figures as varied as the historian-rabbi Arthur Hertzberg and the filmmaker Woody Allen broke ranks with highly visible op-ed articles. (Those American renegades, of course, were following the path broken by the Peace Now movement in Israel, which had been catalyzed by the Lebanon invasion in 1982—particularly the massacre of Palestinians in two refugee camps by Israel’s Phalangist allies.)
On American college campuses, the rhetorical attack on Israel shifted from the revolutionary posturing of the New Left, which never took lasting hold among Jewish liberals, to a more enticing academic critique that came into prominence in the 1990s and divided the world into oppressors and oppressed. In this worldview, no young person of conscience could possibly side with Israel, that colonialist imposition, that “apartheid state.” The garden-variety American Jew in college did not necessarily espouse the cant, but neither did he or she risk being ostracized by challenging it. At the least, it was socially and intellectually acceptable to wring hands about the “cycle of violence” that ascribed blame perfectly equally between Israelis and the Palestinians, even after Yasser Arafat walked away from the Camp David offer in 2000 and even after he either commanded or consented to the resumption of armed struggle.
The great exception to waning Zionism was Orthodox young people, and that carried its own complications. Israel’s lightning victory in 1967 had been interpreted in Orthodox quarters, most notably by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook in Jerusalem, as evidence of divine intervention. Not only did the Almighty approve of Zionism, the messianic design required settling the Entire Land, from the river to the sea, plus (conveniently) the Golan and Gaza.
The emergence of settler theology coincided with the resurgence of Orthodoxy in America and the growth of day schools, which became the domestic engines of idealism and self-righteousness. So closely did Americans identify with the settlement enterprise that Israeli doves routinely disparaged the West Bank as “Brooklyn,” shorthand for the right-wing olim. (In fact, the settlers were more likely to be modern Orthodox from places like Teaneck, New Jersey, than Hasidim from Brooklyn.)
Statistically speaking, since the late 1980s, Orthodox Jews in America were twice as likely as Conservative, four times as likely as Reform and eight times as likely as the unaffiliated to have meaningful, ongoing ties to Israel. The Orthodox did not steal the American Jewish relationship with Israel; in many respects, non-Orthodox Jews abdicated it to them.
It is also true, though, that the more support for Israel appeared synonymous with support for the hard-core in Hebron, support for the “hilltop youth” in Samaria, support for the holdouts in Gaza, the more estranged from Israel became the more liberal and less religious.
If there is hope for sustaining the broad-based, trans-denominational commitment of American Jews to Israel, then it resides in Taglit-Birthright Israel, not only the program itself but the model it represents. Personally, I counted myself a skeptic when Birthright began in the late 1990s. Its underlying premise appeared to be that money was the obstacle keeping young American Jews (non-Orthodox ones, that is) from seeing Israel firsthand, because the bait was a free trip. Among the most affluent ethnic groups in America, Jews hardly lacked the resources for a vacation in Israel, it seemed to me. They lacked the interest.
I am both chastened and relieved I was proven wrong. Birthright has sent more than 100,000 American young people to Israel, and demand continues to grow. The secret, I believe, is that Birthright travelers are encountering a vibrant, complex, modern, pious, sexy, intense, meditative country. Whether by design or by accident, Birthright has broken out of the mold of Israel as obligation.
Paradoxically, the same intoxicating effect has come with the increasing presence of Israelis in America, whether in their post-Army respite or as reverse migrants. Yerida, long considered the shame of Zionism, may be its perverse advertisement, because these transplanted Israelis normalize their country in America’s eyes, make it more than the sum of pigu’im, terrorist attacks.
In the optimistic scenario, Birthright’s cadres sustain their engagement and become the next generation of leaders for American Zionism. In the less sunny version, they more resemble certain Teach for America volunteers, who give their two years to an urban school and then move on to a more remunerative profession, as if idealism was just a stage to pass through. It is too soon to tell which outcome will finally characterize Birthright alumnae.
One of the goals of Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion was for Israel to become a normal nation—a nation, as the idiom went, with Jewish cops busting Jewish crooks. When I recall my night with my relatives in Gilo, I don’t remember any conversation about the epic and tragic underpinnings of our reunion. I recall chatter about everyday things—whose daughter was getting married and who had met whom surfing off the coast of Herzliya.
The brilliant ordinariness of a family getting together over a meal was our “Hatikva.”