Thirty years ago I journeyed to Europe on a youth heritage tour sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Our group of students had the honor of meeting Wiesenthal – his office in Vienna was guarded like a fortress – and we took in the sights of the city and the Austrian countryside. On this American Independence Day I remember one sight in particular from that trip: the police van guarding a Vienna synagogue only a few yards away from the statue of Lessing, the hero of the Enlightenment who befriended a young Moses Mendelssohn and introduced the Jew to the elite of Christian society.
The irony was almost a shock to me: Jews having to be protected from Jew haters in the shadow of the representative of a failed emancipation.
And the synagogue was being guarded only 40 years after the Shoah.
The images of that 1984 pilgrimage still trouble me. My wife and I were recently enjoying sushi and pepper steak at a glatt kosher Asian restaurant here in South Florida – but lately the food does not have the same taste. This is not the fault of the chef at the restaurant – he still prepares the tasty meals that I have always enjoyed. Still, there is something wrong with America and American Jewry that I simply cannot force out of my mind. Was I sitting with my wife in a trendy café in Vienna in 1937? No, I was not, and I do not foresee in America the same genocide as Jews faced in Europe 70 years ago. Yet, the days of enjoying kosher sushi in peace and protection are slowly coming to a close. The US will not be a comfortable place for Jews to live in the future. All the signs of the end of paradise in the Golden Land are clear.
Look at America today. Does no one see the signs of decline of the US as a beacon of hope for the world? This is not an issue of Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal. This is all about the Orwellian phrase of “leading from behind.” Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, China – the world is spinning out of control and American leadership is on a coffee break. On the domestic level, we are headed toward the failed models of Europe, of a declining France and a collapsing Greece.
American Jews should know better about the future here: If America declines, so does American Jewry. I think often of the Jews of the great Ottoman Empire of 500 years ago. Those Jews did not foresee that their thriving culture and leadership would be eclipsed by events and movements in Europe because the Muslims failed to acknowledge the gains of the West.
At the end of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was known as “the sick man of Europe.” Is America on the road to becoming “the sick man of the West?” As I have written in these pages before – we American Jews think of ourselves as the modern Babylonia.
But if the recent Pew Research Center Study poll of American Jews is on the mark, our Jewry will resemble the failed Biro-Bidzhan of the Soviet period.
This is a sobering thought for the Fourth of July. It flies in the face of the egos of American Jewish leaders who believe the Jewish world cannot possibly survive without them. Nobody is indispensable.
I am just being honest: I am someone who has been involved in American Jewish life as an educator for 20 years. I do not write as a Zionist ideologue or an advocate of parlor arguments over some imaginary “negation of the Diaspora.” We are living this.
I am a realist and a student of history.
This is about survival – not theory.
Recently, in response to the abduction by Arab terrorists of the three young men from Gush Etzion, I have been leading my synagogue in prayer for the kidnapped teenagers’ safe return. There have also been a series of “solidarity rallies” throughout the United States to “bring home our boys.” These rallies are admirable and inspiring.
At the end of the day, however, they are exercises in making us feel good about ourselves, and heighten our paternalistic self-importance.
Would it not be more effective to begin a mass movement of aliya of American Jews in response to the threats facing the Jewish state? I have sermonized about this at my synagogue and I have spoken on this issue to American Jews involved in Israel advocacy. The response has not been enthusiastic.
I support Israel advocacy with a whole heart but I cannot be optimistic.
American college campuses – following a 40-year period of conversion of academic scholarship into forums for propaganda – are hotbeds of hatred of Israel. This demonization of the Jewish state and Jews is producing a generation of Americans being fed a libel that will not go away. Yet, American Jews often believe that Israel cannot survive without them and that there must be Jews left in the Diaspora to defend Israel in public discourse.
Let us finally give up that notion.
The numbers of American Jews are dwindling and we will cease to be the force in American political life that we have been for many years. The growth of Islam in America will certainly impact Washington’s attitude toward Jerusalem, if it has not done so already.
Despite any great transformations in 2014 or 2016, the damage to the “special relationship” between the US and Israel has been done and will not be reversed. That is simply common sense.
If the situation has deteriorated so badly on campus and in Washington, the rest of our comfortable life is not far behind. The day when American synagogues and Jewish institutions will be guarded by police or by security guards is coming soon. Jewish communities will have to live behind fortified walls.
The ghetto is returning. We can tap into the resources of our Jewish faith and law – but will that be enough? We can make alliances with Christians who support Israel – will that be enough? Americans should wake up to the collapse of our role in leading the world and to the coming collapse of our currency – but will they? American Jews must confront dwindling numbers and eroding commitments to Jewish values and ideals – but it is better to continue eating kosher sushi and ignore reality.
This is not the way. Perhaps we should start thinking of joining the parents of Eyal Yiftah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel and raising our families in Israel. We all know that life in Israel can be a tremendous challenge, especially when we want to maintain an American standard of living. That standard, however, is eroding each day. We here in America are headed for “rough waters.” If we stay where we are and remain in denial, we will be woefully unprepared for difficult life ejected from our Eden.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.