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.
Though few may doubt that Jewish life in America could be threatened, Gordis effectively explains why this luxury is precisely because of the modern state of Israel. In the most powerful passages of the lengthy piece, he describes the Israeli contribution to the strength of the American Jewish psyche and standing:
There was an era not long ago in which American Jews tiptoed around America, nervously striving to stay beneath the radar. They evoked that image of the spies who reported back to Moses after surveying the Promised Land: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we appeared to them.” The American Jews who believe they could survive the loss of Israel do not remember that era. They take it as entirely natural that thousands of American citizens confidently ascend the steps of the Capitol Hill on the lobbying day at AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference. Do they ever ask themselves why virtually no one ascended those same steps between 1938 and 1945 to demand that the United States do something to save the Jewish people from extinction?
After all, there were millions of Jews in America the United States during that horrific period, and they knew what was happening. But American Jews of that generation lacked the confidence and the sense of belonging in America that this generation of students now takes for granted. When some 400 mostly Orthodox rabbis marched on Washington in the October 1943, President Roosevelt simply refused to meet them and departed the White House via a rear door. There were no mass protests, no caravans of buses to Washington to demand help for their European kin.
Jews today no longer think of themselves as a tiptoeing people. When Soviet Jews awakened and wanted out of their national prison, American Jews supported them, and the State of Israel made their rescue a national project. When an Air France flight filled with Jews was hijacked to Entebbe, the State of Israel rescued them, and American Jews were filled with unprecedented pride. When Ethiopian Jews were caught in the crosshairs of a deadly civil war, the State of Israel whisked them out, and American philanthropists continue to make them a key priority. Much of what fuels American Jewish pride is the existence and the behavior of the State of Israel.
In ways we do not sufficiently recognize, Israel has changed the existential condition of Jews everywhere, even in America. Without the State of Israel, the self-confidence and sense of belonging that American Jews now take for granted would quickly disappear.
As a young Jew, the Gordis piece distinguishes itself for me because the author makes his case without employing a partisan or political angle. For too many of my Jewish contemporaries — many hopelessly liberal or politically uninformed (and too often a combination of the two) — an appreciation for Israel and her impact on American life is lacking. For these lost souls, political articles by my go-to writers on the subject (Caroline Click, Bret Stephens, Barry Rubin, and Richard Baehr, to name a few) fall on proverbially deaf, though more accurately jaded, ears. While certainly not immune to weighing in on political matters, Gordis is not overtly partisan and has a trackrecord writing for publications all over the political spectrum. Moreover, his thoughtful bonding of American Jewry and Israel’s survival transcends political debate.
As an enlightened reader, perhaps you would be so kind as to do the following: during these High Holy Days for the Jewish people — whether you’re Jewish or not — forward Gordis’s essay to a young Jewish friend or family member. As America’s secular Jews make their annual pilgrimage to synagogue, perhaps younger congregants can be persuaded to reaffirm their commitment to Zion and the core of its ideal, the state of Israel.