Why do American Jews lie at the Passover seder when they pledge “Next Year in Jerusalem”? So asks author and Jewish scholar Daniel Gordis, as he provocatively begins a recent essay in Tablet Magazine grimly titled “No Jewish People Without Israel.” Surely few American Jews actually mean their Passover oath, he acknowledges. Instead he informs the reader of the meaning of the ubiquitous expression:
“Next year in Jerusalem” is not about a plan, but about a dream. And uttering this phrase has long been the Jewish people’s way of keeping in mind both an ethereal ideal and a common national yearning. … For two millennia, as Jews imagined their people’s future, one place occupied center-stage. That place was Zion.
With this reminder, Gordis begins a cogent, persuasive, and utterly compelling admonishment to American Jews — particularly my fellow younger cohorts — that American Jewry depends on nothing less than the survival and success of the modern state of Israel.
Gordis’ polemic does not come arbitrarily. He cites recent surveys, including one comprehensive 2007 study where American Jews were asked if the destruction of Israel would be a personal tragedy for them (not the weakening or “slow withering away,” but actually eradication). The results reveal a nightmarish scenario for aging Jewish elders who rejoiced at Israel’s birth in 1948. Eighty percent of American Jews 65 years old and older answered affirmatively, while the rate decreased dramatically as respondent ages lowered. For those 35 and under, the answer was a coin flip at fifty percent.
Gordis explains the source of the disenchantment with Israel among younger American Jews. The obvious, while wholly misguided, is political. American Jews have a growing unease with the unceasing Palestinian conflict, resulting in, as Gordis explains, “an oral Rorschach test in response to the word ‘Israel’ evok[ing] responses such as ‘checkpoints,’ ‘occupation,’ or ‘settlements’ — as though the conflict were all that Israel is about.” Indeed, the aforementioned survey revealed over 40% of American Jews under 35 agreed that “Israel occupies land belonging to someone else,” and over 30% reported sometimes feeling “ashamed” of Israel’s actions.
One other reason has more to do, ironically, with Jewish success and assimilation in America. Gordis explains:
Many of these younger Jews now also believe they simply do not need Israel any longer. Having matured in the Shoah’s long shadow, their parents and grandparents still perhaps feel marginally vulnerable in America. These young people do not. They feel safe and do not fear anti-Semitism. Why, they therefore ask themselves, express fealty to a country they do not need and that often makes them feel ashamed?
In response, Gordis provides a rudimentary history lesson of false safe-havens for the Jewish people, suggesting that our “newfound confidence has historical antecedents.” The Jewish people flourished in Spain and Germany before Inquisition and Nazism, respectively, threatened their survival. These are only two examples of many.