The head of the American Jewish Committee is pained by the fact that young Jews are expressing “apathy” or outright “hostility” toward Israel. He wonders what his generation did wrong in schools and homes not to convey “a sense of unbridled joy and pride and thrill” in Israel.
David Harris expressed these anxieties in a speech at Temple Shaaray Tefila, a Reform congregation in Bedford Corners, N.Y., last week (from which I’ve already published two riffs here and here). The speech concluded with Harris’s lament over the community’s inability to tell the Israel story with pride.
Finally, there’s a… good story to tell. It’s the story that I think we need to tell ourselves. It’s not debating those on campuses. It’s not debating those in the cyber-world. It’s telling ourselves and especially our children and our grandchildren something that too many of us have failed to tell. Every time I hear in a Jewish meeting concerns about our children and their lack of interest in Israel, their apathy about Israel, their hostility to Israel, those friends of theirs who are involved in anti-Israel activity on their campuses or in their schools– to me it’s extraordinarily painful, and I ask myself, Where did we go wrong? Where did we go wrong?
No, no, no, Israel is not a perfect country. I would never argue that it is. I would never try to present it as a perfect country. It’s a country made up of human beings who like human beings everywhere make mistakes. Israel has made its share of mistakes, and we need to acknowledge it. Israel is making its share of mistakes and we need to acknowledge that as well. But if we hold Israel to such a standard that it will never achieve it, no nation on earth will achieve it, then we’re being completely unfair to the proposition.
Israel has a fundamental right to live! Israel has a fundamental right to exist! Israel has a fundamental right to defend itself! [Pounding the podium] And Israel has a rightful place not just in the community of nations, but in the community of democratic nations. This country, our beloved country, certainly has its share of flaws and at least 50 percent of our nation believes that our country is completely misguided today, not to mention the Europeans think that our obsession with capital punishment, with weapons, I could go down a longer list, is completely off the wall. This country is not perfect. Would I defend this country? With pride and pleasure. Even as I understand that America is a work in progress and always will be a work in progress.
And the genius of democracy is that it allows us to believe that we with our own hands and our own voice can change what we don’t like. Whether we start on this side of the spectrum or this. Israel is part of that community that says we are a democracy ultimately responsive to the people. And as a consequence, We are a permanent work in progress.
But to wait?! As someone once said to me, I will visit Israel for the first time when they achieve peace. Nuts! First of all, they’re depriving themselves of the privilege of visiting Israel. Secondly, they’re handing to the Palestinians the decision when to visit Israel, if ever.
Why? Why can’t we convey to our own children successfully– why can’t Jewish day schools and synagogues in their after-school programs convey successfully a sense of unbridled joy and pride and thrill that in our lifetimes, the prayer, l’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim [next year in Jerusalem], has become this year? Let the prayer be a metaphysical prayer, but let the actual prayer be this year, today.
What is it? What is it that allows us to ignore this extraordinary journey, the journey that Churchill once said was a journey not to be measured in years or decades, but centuries and millennia, in the extraordinary excitement of the Jewish people returning to their land and rebuilding their state and defending their state.
What is it that brings shame among some? What are we doing wrong in our homes? What are we doing wrong in our schools?
Why can’t we on this 70th anniversary celebration that’s upcoming go back to basics and remind us all why above all it is an occasion for celebration?
In the Q-and-A, I went to the mike with a feeling of trepidation (the synagogue is beautiful and austere and was filled with a somber, wealthy crowd, and I’d worn a sweater with holes in it) and said that Harris had been very specific about Palestinian mistakes, but vague about Israel’s. If you’re trying to win the young Jews, “wouldn’t you be more persuasive if you were to itemize mistakes by Israeli leaders?”
Harris replied, “The answer is, Absolutely and it depends on the audience.” He related that in 1987, a Washington Post reporter whom he knew and trusted had asked if she could attend an AJC meeting about the first intifada and the Israeli response to it, and Harris invited her to come, and the next day on the front page of the Post there was a headline saying, Jewish leader assails Israeli policies. The reporter hadn’t cared about anything he said about Palestinians, that wasn’t news. So while Harris said he is critical of settlements and prayer issues in Israel, “I want to be very careful not to play into the hands of those who are Israel’s adversaries…. I don’t want unwittingly to become the stuff of headlines.” (That Washington Post story is 30 years old, and qualifies as a war story. I wonder when if ever Harris can express real criticism of Israel…)
A few other highlights. On BDS, or boycott, divestment and sanctions:
“I would like to declare perhaps counter-intuitively that the BDS movement has failed abysmally. That doesn’t mean we ignore it. That doesn’t mean we pretend that it is not poisoning the minds of young people on campuses. It is. But in terms of its actual goals, boycott, divestment, and sanctions– Failure failure failure.”
There has never been a longer line of nations seeking to engage Israel, Harris said. BDS, he said, could be “shortened… to just BS.”
Harris was defensive about the charge that Israel doesn’t want peace. That’s “chutzpah” on the part of non Jews.
I don’t know of another nation that wants peace as much as the nation of Israel. Precisely because, One, it has not known a true day of peace, and two because the Jewish people are a peaceseeking people…[He cited the famous passage from Isaiah about beating swords into ploughshares.] We don’t need lessons in the desirability of peace. There’s a certain chutzpah in trying to teach us about the importance of peace, and we get those kinds of lectures when AJC travels the world, especially in Europe.
Harris reflected on the 1000 days between May 1945 and May 1948, as the lowest and highest points in Jewish history. The first date was the end of the war in Europe:
“We the Jewish people had learned of the Destruction of two-thirds of the 9 million Jews in Europe. 1.5 million Jewish children were exterminated in a new alphabet of genocide created for us, the Jews. an alphabet that began with the letter A for Auschwitz and ended with the letter Z for Zyklon B. Imagine– all for us.”
And 1000 days later, Israel is born:
We’re talking here about the stuff of miracles. But we’re talking about the stuff of faith fortitude and strength of a group of people that decided this was it. Either the Shoah would define the end of Jewish history. Or the new Jewish history would be written with us in a sovereign land and no longer as minorities living at the mercy of majority societies and their good will, which too often was lacking in the good part. This was the story of the rebirth of the state of Israel.
That is an important statement because it reflects the historical frame of so many Zionists, and why they insist on the need for a Jewish majority in Israel. David Harris is 68 (and makes about $500,000 a year).
The Jewish-centrism of his statements, leaving out other victims of the Holocaust for instance, recalls Norman Mailer’s comment, that Hitler’s bitterest achievement was reducing Jewish life to the question, “Is it good for the Jews?” The speech was of course also Israel-centric. Many Jews would define their Jewishness on a broader basis. For Harris, Zionism is everything.