Think Again: Confronting the zeitgeist head on

As passionately as Daniel Gordis wishes that US Jewish youth knew more about Israel, he has little to offer by way of solutions to the looming crisis.

By
June 11, 2010 16:42
Young filmmakers pose with an IDF soldier.

young americans idf 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

I’m sure that I am not alone in thinking that my friend Daniel Gordis is the finest writer on life in Israel in English. He has a talent for finding anecdotes that illuminate a larger pattern, for example, the story with which he begins “The Storm Ahead” (The Jerusalem Post, May 28). He describes the terrible loneliness he felt when an identified young American Jewish woman, a student at the Conservative movement’s University of Judaism, asked him after a class in memory of murdered Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman, “What does any of this have to do with us?”

For Gordis that moment, nearly 16 years ago, was a warning signal of the large disconnect, if not outright alienation, between young American Jews and Israel. Even those described as young Jewish leaders, he laments, no longer view “Israel as central to Jewish identity and peoplehood.”

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He remembers the pride that he felt in his youth, indeed still feels, at the wondrous “cultural renaissance” that Israel has made possible, and wishes those same feelings upon young American Jews.

Militating against such feelings today is the universalistic ethic that dominates elite Western discourse – an ethic hostile to anything that reinforces divisions between people or peoples. Europe still sets the zeitgeist, and European elites remain in a permanent state of penance for the Holocaust and the ravages of two world wars. “For the penitents,” writes Alain Finkelkraut, “everything that distinguishes people from one another, that divides one man from another, is bad. Borders are bad; fences are bad. Internet is good.”

Europe today shows “the passion for sameness” that Alexis de Tocqueville identified with democracy.

The perilous state of the euro, which threatens the European monetary union, has revived economic nationalism, but the change has not yet been registered by the zeitgeist. In the meantime, Israel stands against the current. As Columbia University historian of ideas Mark Lilla puts it, “Once upon a time, the Jews were mocked for not having a nation-state; now they are mocked for having one.”

And to take pride in that state on the basis of ethnic identity cuts across everything in which young Jewish students have been taught to believe.



Even the religious rituals, if any, with which they have been raised – if they have been – train them to resist any notion of differences between people: between men and women; between Kohen, Levi and Yisrael; and in some Reform temples, even between Jews and non-Jews in the apportioning of honors.

These trends among young American Jews, bode ill for Israel, and ultimately for American Jews themselves, whose “vibrant Jewish life” (Gordis’s description, not mine) owes much to Israel’s existence – an existence made more tenuous by declining American Jewish political support.

AS PASSIONATELY as Gordis wishes that American Jewish youth knew more about Israel, he has little to offer by way of solutions to the looming crisis he has so perceptively identified and analyzed.

Israel has many things of which to be proud: its mere survival in a sea of hostility; the flourishing economy, despite the huge percentage of national resources devoted to defense and the absorption of millions of immigrants and the lack of natural resources; the resilience of her citizens and their unity in the face of external threats; the rebuilding of the world of Torah scholarship destroyed by the Holocaust, with the assistance of generous governmental support.

But to ask American Jewish youth to take pride in these achievements is akin to asking them to become fans of Team Israel. There is something more than faintly ridiculous about sports fans whose moods fluctuate wildly in response to the fortunes of the local sports team, populated by hired gladiators, to whose success they contribute nothing. Why should American Jewish youth feel pride in what others, halfway around the world, have achieved?

Worse, Israel is not the sort of team designed to attract fans. Sports fans want to feel good about themselves, either through vicarious victories or by identification with lovable losers, like the Cubs. And Israel does not make young Jews feel good. Rather it subjects them to profound discomfort. When Israel is accused of imposing a cruel and inhumane blockade, enforced by wanton murder, young Jews are inclined to flee from anything that identifies them with Israel, or even with being Jewish.

The younger they are, the more likely they are to hear such sentiments expressed by virtually all of their left-thinking friends, many of them Jewish. True, there will always be those who forge their identity in opposition to the received opinions of their environment. But that vast majority of university students are too conformist for that.

What is needed is something much more fundamental than reinforced ethnic identity in a post-ethnic age. The primary problem is not so much that most young American Jews do not see Israel as central to Jewish identity, but rather that they do not see being Jewish as being central to their personal identity.

Reversing the latter requires restoring the sense of Jewish chosenness that has animated Jewish history until very recently – on helping young Jews view themselves as part of a world-historical mission, links in an unbroken chain that depends upon each of them for its continuation. As the Sages teach, “The task is not yours to complete; neither are you free to leave it off.”


Chosenness does not mean identifying with the achievements of others, with whom one has no intrinsic relationship, but rather recognizing oneself as having a vital and indispensable role to play in the realization of the mission one shares with all fellow Jews.

No Orthodox Jew (aside from a handful of photo-hungry loonies), even the most fervent anti-Zionist Satmar hassid in Williamsburg, could have asked the question, “What does Nachshon Wachsman’s death have to do with me?”

Orthodox Jews, like everyone else, will be more powerfully affected by the death of those closest to them. But they feel bound to every other Jew and diminished by his or her loss.

Yes, Jewish chosenness flies straight in the face of the zeitgeist, but there is no choice. Jewish novelist Michael Chabon demonstrated the furies the concept arouses in last Sunday’s New York Times. Chabon gleefully seized on the Gaza flotilla disaster to prove that Jews can be as stupid as everyone else. And therefore, he argued, the survival of the Jews “across millenniums in spite of constant hatred, war, persecution, intolerance and genocide ... can [not] be credited to any kind of special trait or behavior,” but only to “luck.” 

Jews, however, never attributed their survival to their super-abundant “seichel,” but rather to the fact that God chose them to be His people, and has preserved them, despite all the vicissitudes, as a lone sheep among 70 wolves. We were chosen to be the people through whom He reveals Himself to mankind – examples of holiness and a life of purpose, in a world that increasingly denies their existence.

Each Jew is potentially part of that mission. Those who understand that will also understand that for all the apoplectic hatred directed at Israel last week, and all the discomfort felt by Jews around the world, a far greater tragedy could have taken place: One of the dead might have been a Jewish soldier, another Nachshon Wachsman.

The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders. jonathanbrosenblum@gmail.com


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