My Word: Unhidden identities

Who are we? And who would we like to be?

By
November 7, 2013 21:00
A man with angel wings.

angel wing 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Who are we? And who would we like to be? I’m throwing the questions out not because of some personal identity crisis, thank heavens, but because like anybody who reads a great deal of news stories on the Jewish world, they have accompanied me over many cups of morning coffee, Facebook networking and in editorial discussions.

Some friends claim to have overdosed on the Pew survey findings last month that one in five Jews in America “have no religion” and the rapid rise in rates of intermarriage; others, like me, consider them ongoing food for thought.

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According to the Pew Research Center, some 32 percent of the millennial (younger) generation define themselves as Jewish “on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.”

The paradox of surveying Jews and then finding a certain percentage religion-less lies at the heart of the identity issue. Trying to pinpoint where the Jewish religion ends and Jewish peoplehood begins could keep you busy were you ever in need of a change from discussing whether the chicken or the egg came first.

The findings predictably threw the Jewish world into a whirl of soul-searching and questioning – two ancient characteristics that could themselves be used to help define who we are; they are certainly as good as having a Jewish sense of humor, as another popular answer proposed.

The data will also feature in many of the meetings, both formal and informal, that will take place in Jerusalem next week under the auspices of the 65th anniversary of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), fondly known simply as “the GA.”

As JFNA head Jerry Silverman notes elsewhere in this paper, the Pew findings raise questions about how to engage the younger generation of Jews. And the answers can be found both in the Diaspora and in Israel. For that is the nature of peoplehood – it doesn’t matter where members of your family live, your fates and future are tied together.

TOMORROW, NOVEMBER 9, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, essentially the turning point when German persecution of the Jews was transformed into the Holocaust, an act of genocide so unprecedented in scope and evil that a new word had to be coined to describe it.

It should be remembered, as writer Haim Gouri once told me, that Israel was not founded because of the Holocaust but in spite of it.

The dream of returning to Israel was as old as the exile that preceded it.

Zionism did not start with the war in Europe.

Jewish identity cannot and should not rely on victimhood.

Jewish identity can only last when based on Jewish survival, as we say in Israel: Avarnu et Paro, na’avor gam et zeh – we survived Pharaoh, and we’ll get over this too.

In a world in which the new form of anti-Semitism expresses itself in anti-Israel attacks, it is vital that Jews abroad, no less than those in the Jewish state, be taught to have pride not only in their heritage – something in their past – but also in the accomplishments of the present and contributions to creating a better future for all.

The increasing level of delegitimization of Israel is among the greatest threats to Jews everywhere.

The state gained independence from the British more than 65 years ago, roughly the same time as India, among others, but when was the last time you heard India’s right to exist come up as a matter for negotiations? Delegitimization – and its even more dangerous ugly sister, demonization – have turned into such a popular sport that it sometimes seems there is an unofficial World Cup taking place in which Israel is the ball (and the UN and EU the referees).

Just last week South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana- Mashabane declared, “The struggle of the people of Palestine is our struggle,” and said that there were no ministerial visits to Israel as an act of sympathy. Last week, not by chance, also saw acts of vandalism and desecration in the more than century-old cemetery of the South African Jewish community in Krugersdorp.

The right to criticize is legitimate (although strangely underused by South Africa, for example, when it comes to the human rights situation in Iran or Syria). It should not, however, be confused with the rejection of Israel’s legitimate right to exist and defend itself.

Committing national suicide can only be considered doing the right thing if your version of “tikkun olam,” fixing the world, requires taking the Jews out of it.

It is also time to realize that just as Israel – and the Jews – is not the core of the world’s problems, neither is the creation of a Palestinian state the all-encompassing panacea.

Even those of us who favor the establishment of a Palestinian state – and pray there will be leaders strong enough on both sides to accomplish it one day – know that there are other issues at stake, and not only in this region.

A little more peace cannot hurt, but it’s not enough to conquer the clash of civilizations taking place through global jihad – a clash in which Christian communities are no less at risk than Jewish ones, by the way.

In the meantime, our strength lies in continuing to demonstrate that Israel can thrive even in the current hard circumstances.

Here, too, Diaspora Jews can play a role – by visiting, investing and showing support in whatever way they can.

Birthright trips have a positive effect. Masa projects, too, help expose young Diaspora Jews to Israel the country – the most vibrant place in the world when it comes to Jewish life. Participants must find a way to maintain the energy and vibe after they have returned to their original communities.

(They should also maintain their Hebrew – a key to understanding Israeli culture; Yiddish has its place but it is not the lingua franca of the Jewish people in its Homeland.) Ironically, the greater the delegitimization of Israel on university campuses around the world, the more opportunity it provides for the millennial generation to rally around a cause. Just as I can’t imagine my adolescent years in England without participating in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, so, too, defending Israel – a unique entity whichever way you look at it – should be natural to young Jews.

Boycotts should be countered with buycotts; disinformation with informed facts. Israel’s existence does not endanger the world, it enriches it – as anyone who truly tried to divest themselves of Israeli medical, technological, scientific and cultural innovations would soon find out.

Surprisingly, again, part of the solution could lie in exploiting the acts of those who try to harm the Jewish people. Communities in Europe and other places where the basic tenets of faith such as circumcising boys, slaughtering animals for food in a certain way and wearing a head covering are coming under fire can find partners in local Muslim communities who share the same beliefs and customs.

Asking Diaspora Jews to engage with Israel without asking Israelis to engage with their peers overseas would be wrong. We have to find the delicate balance between different customs and viewpoints. And we must understand that there is no zero-sum game. It’s a family – arguments are to be expected.

Nonetheless, if we can still discuss, passionately, who we are after more than 4,000 years, it bodes well not just for the next generation, but way, way beyond that.

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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