Caring about Israel isn’t essential to being Jewish today.
For many, it
doesn’t even come close to being as fundamental an element of Jewish identity as
is having a good sense of humor.
But I’m not laughing and unfortunately,
this isn’t a joke.
The latest study of Jewish Americans, undertaken by
the Pew Research Center and published this month, found that only 43 percent of
the entire community believe that concern for the Jewish state is integral to
defining who they are. Among the increasingly large percentage for whom religion
does not enter into their definition of being Jewish, that number drops
precipitously to 23%, compared to a full 40% who are convinced that being Jewish
requires a well-honed wit.
Curious about other vital ingredients of the
Jewish persona they consider more important than worrying about us? Remembering
the Holocaust (73%), leading an ethical and moral life (69%), working for
justice and equality (56%), and being intellectually curious (49%). Ritual, by
the way, is nearly off the charts altogether, with only 19% of the Jews in
America indicating that observing Jewish law is integral to their
As the Jerusalem Program, the official manifesto of the
Zionist movement, maintains that a belief in the centrality of Israel in the
life of the Jewish people is fundamental to Zionist ideology, the logical
conclusion is that the Jewish community in the United States, as a whole, is not
Zionist, even if many of its members and institutions are. But before we
reproach our brethren overseas for forsaking us, let’s take a good look at what
is happening at home.
At the same time as the findings of the Pew study
were front-page news in the American Jewish press, our own was abuzz with
reports of unprecedented numbers of Israelis moving abroad – particularly, of
all places, to Berlin.
This phenomenon was made all the more painful by
the contemporaneous revelation that two of this year’s Nobel laureates were
Israelis who had chosen to live their lives and make their careers in
This disappointment highlighted the findings of another recently
published study, conducted by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, which
revealed that Israel suffers from a “brain drain” significantly more pronounced
than that plaguing any other developed country. Israel, it seems, isn’t so
central even to Israelis, a matter we’d best digest before wagging our finger at
our cousins across the Atlantic.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, speaking
from Budapest, was among the first to comment on the situation, berating
Israelis who abandon their homeland in search of economic prosperity. In doing
so, he aroused the ire of those who applaud the global village we are in the
midst of creating, who defend the pursuit of happiness as the individual’s
inalienable right, and who hold our country responsible for not providing its
citizens with the conditions allowing them to live comfortably, even when both
spouses of an average family are gainfully employed. Barely had that bombardment
of criticism subsided when, a week later, Lapid was being castigated by
politicians from across the political spectrum for asserting in Manhattan that
it was safer to live as a Jew in New York than in Israel. The angry response
from back home: “How can we expect anyone to join their fate with ours when a
government minister can make a statement like this?” Actually, the answer is
rather simple: because today, the question of whether or not to live in Israel
should essentially have nothing to do with matters of safety.
that such a question is being asked at all underscores the failure of Zionism –
or, more accurately, the failure of even many of our own leaders to have
internalized the full scope of the Zionist idea, a lacuna well illustrated by
another episode involving Lapid in Budapest.
I happened to be in the city
at the same time as the finance minister, and recounted the following harrowing
tale to those whom I was guiding on a journey in Herzl’s footsteps.
year is 1944. Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the 13-year-old future MK, has been marched
out of the ghetto together with his mother and hundreds of other Jews on the way
to the banks of the Danube. He knew what was to happen next. The Nazi guards
would line them up on the edge of the frozen river, tied to one another, and
then shoot just enough of them to cause the rest to plunge through the holes
that had been hacked in the ice below, to drown in the frigid
Suddenly, a Soviet plane flew overhead and in the ensuing havoc,
Tommy’s mother managed to shove him into the public toilet that stood just a few
feet from where they were. There they remained when the others resumed walking.
“Half an hour later, not a single person from the march was left alive,” Lapid
writes, and recalls his father telling him years later that “it was at this
place that I became a Zionist. It is the whole Zionist idea, in fact,” he
continued, explaining to his son that the reason Israel was created was “so that
every Jewish child will always have a place to go.”
I don’t agree, and
actually, I don’t believe the finance minister does either.
story is powerful and moving, if this were really the meaning of Zionism in its
entirety, then indeed, if it is safer to live elsewhere than in Israel, there
really would be no reason for Jews in the Diaspora to come here to live – or for
those born here to stay.
But there is more to Zionism than that and there
always has been, and Lapid knows it well: “I live in Israel,” he went on to say
in New York, “because I want to live in a country that’s a place, but also an
The cultivation of that idea is what the Pew and Taub studies
require of us. We need to be able to articulate the meaning of our existence
here in terms that transcend mere survival, to convey first to ourselves and
then to others that this country is more than simply a shelter for those who
have nowhere else to go.
Until we are able to do that, we can no longer
expect that Jews living abroad will care about us, nor that they will consider
moving here. Nor would we have any reason to hope that we might be able to
arrest the flow of those born here to what they perceive of as greener pastures
We need, in short, to reclaim and reframe the Zionist idea in
a manner that is captivating and compelling. A vision of an Israel striving for
a higher ideal is one that the Jews of the Diaspora will care about, and that
Israelis will be prepared to engage in building – even if doing so might require
a measure of self-sacrifice. The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist
Organization and a member of the executive of the Jewish Agency. The views
expressed herein are his own.
Stay on top of the news - get the Jerusalem Post headlines direct to your inbox!