Here’s a Jewish-caring test. Israelis just finished an intense annual national roller coaster. We remembered the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, the 23,544 Jews and non-Jews killed defending the Jewish homeland, the 3,117 terrorism victims.
Then, barely catching our breaths, we celebrated the miracle of Israel. Some call this Aseret Yemai Tekumah, The Ten Days of Renaissance, balancing the Ten Days of Penitence. Every Israeli I know got emotional at least once this past week, about our past, present, or future; hit by one story or another of suffering, survival or sacrifice. So Diaspora gut-check time: did you feel moved about Israel and the Jewish People during this last week? Did others? Be honest. Did you feel that pit in your stomach, that joy in your heart? In Israel, it enveloped you: the sirens, the ceremonies, the heartbreaking then awe-inspiring stories on television, in newspapers, online, around dinner tables, at picnics.
Sixty soldiers died last year. On Remembrance Day 1.5 million people attended formal ceremonies or visited military graves. Numerous private moments, family gatherings and community events magnified this already impressive number. My 16-year-old son Aviv said: “This is when it’s really special to be an Israeli. I can’t imagine observing these days anywhere else.”
These new holy days reinforce the power of place in Jewish peoplehood, and Israel’s amazing cultural accomplishment in creating a Jewish democratic public space.
While speaking Hebrew, while incorporating Jewish words, values, ideas and memories into daily life, Israelis collectively rest on Shabbat, eat matza on Passover, mourn the Holocaust, cry for fallen soldiers, and party on Independence Day. At the same time, the diverse cultural expressions, the free-wheeling society and the fact that, ultimately, everyone here is an Israeli by choice, free to leave – as some do – demonstrates Israel’s democratic character.
More than culture, this is about community.
Israelis understand that belonging to this community called Israel entails commitments, occasional sacrifices, and certain boundaries. From the borders that protect our lives, to the rules that organize them, to the values that give those lives meaning, Israelis have clear lines distinguishing who belongs to the community and who doesn’t. Some Knesset members push the necessary loyalty demands too far – triggering justifiable pushback from others. But all Israelis – as citizens – must respect certain rules, boundaries – called laws.
This commitment to commitments, accepting some communal boundaries, clashes with the approach too many American Jews take today. Those who insist that intermarriage is not a problem, but Israel is; those who want to pick and choose whatever “Jew-ish” prop works for them, when convenient, are trying to make possible the impossible – and sustain the unsustainable. By definition, a community with no boundaries isn’t; it’s not a community.
Just as only very few jugglers can pass the juggling objects on without crashing, few people smoothly pass their idiosyncratic Jewish juggle to the next generation, without crashing.
The sages taught “if I am not for myself, who will be for me; but if I am only for myself, what am I?” Jews with no commitment to others, to our democratic values, have no soul; but Jews with no commitment to each other, to our people, have no pulse. Transforming the People of the Book to the People of the Facebook group, easily, casually, sloppily drifting in and out of affiliation, will doom us. We must be people of the Open Book – welcoming, worldly, wide-ranging, but defined. And commitment to the Jewish community involves commitment to our great Jewish peoplehood project, Israel.
In the 1950s and 1960s, most American Jews understood this. Well before the term was invented most American Jews were “Blue” Americans, meaning liberal socially and economically. Yet most were Blue Communitarians – with universalist aspirations and strong communal affiliations – like many liberal Israelis today. Increasingly, many American Jews are Blue Cosmopolitans, trying to be citizens of the world, misreading Jewish and American history to conclude, incorrectly, that you can contribute to the world without being grounded, rooted, anchored. This violates Momma Troy’s warning that “if you are too open-minded, your brains fall out.”
There are two kinds of Israeli Zionists.
There are those who, like me, fear the trends in the Diaspora but still seek a unified Jewish people. Others, like Israeli novelist Irit Linur, whose Haaretz column last week objected to non-Israelis lighting a torch on Independence Day, repudiate Diaspora Jews. Because I value this partnership – I offer passionate criticism – and loving encouragement.
I toast Diaspora Jews who invest in Israel, engage with Israel, and whose heart skips a beat when it comes to Israel. I take pride in my Birthright friend and role model, Michael Steinhardt, who lit that Jewish people’s torch on Monday night at Mount Herzl – emphasizing Jewish interconnectedness.
At a Birthright celebration honoring him, Steinhardt called his involvement with Taglit-Birthright “truly ennobling.”
Steinhardt got it. Belonging to something greater than yourself is good for the soul, not just the cause. As meaning- seeking creatures, people appreciate that a real, defined, Jewish communal framework is a vehicle for meaning, a path toward happiness and purpose.
So, for those who felt nothing this week, here’s a homework assignment: in building toward Israel’s 70th anniversary, get committed, get engaged, and get ready to get emotional next year. To care is to be free to belong, to be a part of something, in this case, a great, historic, meaning- making old-new endeavor.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University.Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.