amotz asa el 88.
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Compared here last week to the Lost Tribes of Israel and to "the second camp" Jacob left behind as war loomed, some American Jews were insulted.
One asked how I could say American Jewry was impotent in the face of the Holocaust, considering his and many others' participation in the war on Hitler. Another wondered whether I thought Israeli Jews were more Jewish, and whether Middle Israelis think all Jews should live in Israel.
Some assured me that American Jewry will recover once its rapidly growing Orthodox portion outnumbers its steadily shrinking non-Orthodox rivals. Some decried secular Israel's Judaism deficit, and others accused me of trying to "shake American Jewry's money tree." Still others ridiculed my "hysteria" in the face of the Iranian threat. Finally, some stated they were happy to shed their Jewishness, and that Israel's problems were not theirs to solve.
So here's the deal.
First of all, American Jewry's failure to unite and do something serious about the Holocaust is a historical fact. Here is how historian Henry Feingold summed it up (in Jonathan Sarna (ed.), The American Jewish Experience, p. 252):
There was something tragic in the way each separate Jewish constituency was compelled in the absence of a united front to go to Washington to plead separately for its particular refugee clientele. In 1944 Rabbi Jacob Rosenheim, director of theâ€¦ rescue committee of the Orthodox wing, explained why he found it better to act alone. He observed that the rescue scene "was a dog eat dog world [in which] the interest of religious Jews [is] always menaced by the preponderance of the wealthy and privileged Jewish organizations, especially the Agency and the Joint."
Clearly, for Rosenheim the Nazis were not the only enemy. It did not take long for the unfriendly officials in the State Department to learn about the strife within the community. In 1944 we find [assistant secretary of state] Breckinridge Long writing in his diary: "The Jewish organizations are all divided amidst controversiesâ€¦ there is no cohesion nor any sympathetic collaboration [but]â€¦ rather rivalry, jealousy and antagonism."
It was a fairly accurate observation.
NOW WE SAY that American Jewry today is yet again disjointed and disoriented in the face of impending Jewish calamity, though the calamity to which we refer is not the physical one that awaits us here, but the spiritual one that is well under way there - in America.
Yes, individual American Jews fought fascism as US soldiers, often gallantly, and Middle Israelis, who know a thing or two about battlefields, obviously appreciate this. Yet in the face of the Holocaust, American Jewry did nothing bold, sacrificial or effective, having patently lacked the vision and guts it later demonstrated in its struggles for Israel's establishment and for Soviet Jewry's rescue.
Secondly, while the Diaspora's generosity remains valuable emotionally and ideologically, the dry fiscal reality is that even when combined with US aid it adds up to less than 2 percent of Israel's GDP. The rest comes from the sweat of the Israeli taxpayer's brow.
In 2006, in fact, despite last summer's war, Israel's economic maturity reached new heights as the GDP grew 5% (the highest among developed economies) to $147 billion, the shekel appreciated 8.2%, foreign investments (not to be confused with donations) soared more than 80% to a record $23.7 billion, and the current account registered a record $3.9 billion surplus.
What, then, do Middle Israelis want from American Jews, if not their money? Frankly, at this point in its history, they think American Jewry should focus on making more American Jews.
SOME AMERICAN Jews - many in fact - no longer care about their own Jewishness and Israel's vulnerability. To them, we calmly wave goodbye as they sail into the sunset; they have made a conscious choice and, much as we lament it, we must also respect it. Our plea goes to those who do care.
To them we say, don't make Rabbi Rosenheim's mistake; don't just look at your immediate circle, whether it be in your block, synagogue, Hillel, JCC, Hadassah chapter or AIPAC parlor meeting. Scan what transcends your horizon - coast to coast and century to century. Think of your ancestors who came to America materially destitute but Jewishly rich, at least compared with their descendants, who can't even read a Hebrew character, let alone cite a verse from Genesis, not to mention the Mishna, Talmud, Rashi, Maimonides, Bialik or Agnon. If I were to meet one of our mutual ancestors from the shtetl, I would find a common cultural language with him. Would you? And if you would, would your cousins, children, and grandchildren?
We are not out to tell you whom to marry or what to observe; what we say is that as a community you are fast losing touch with your roots, in most cases haphazardly, and in a way that inadvertently betrays the American value of cultural pluralism. The fact is that, even if passively, you are part of the most colossal decline in the history of the Jews. Now, are you happy with this dubious distinction, or do you want to do something about it? Do you want to look this reality in the eye, or do you prefer to bicker with whoever holds this mirror to your face?
JOSEF BURG once said that to understand the full scope of the Holocaust's damage one must think not only of those who perished, but also of those who were not even born. American Jews should think of the millions of Jews who will not even be born due to American Jewry's spiritual degeneration.
Today, with Israel prospering but threatened while US Jewry dwindles, the imperative is to spread Judaic literacy among adults in North America, to launch programs like birthright israel for young adults, to reduce tuition in Jewish day schools, kindergartens and summer camps of whatever stripe, and open hundreds more of them. Such projects are the most urgent thing for American Jewry to promote, even more urgent than buying the IDF another tank, submarine or warplane. They are also cheaper.
Middle Israelis are not out to bicker with the Diaspora; they care for it no less than it cares for itself. Yet as they face an annihilation threat not unlike the one the Diaspora underestimated once before, they must remind US Jews that in case calamity befalls the Jewish state, Jewish America will be tasked with restoring the Jewish people. And judging by its current condition - American Jewry may not be up to the task.