This Rosh Hashanah, as we welcomed the New Year with our families, I remembered the many Israeli families with newly empty seats at their holiday tables. While mourning the 23 soldiers and civilians terrorists murdered since last Rosh Hashanah, including an 84-year-old woman, Shulamith Rachel Ovadiah, who was bludgeoned to death last Wednesday, I kept a special place in my heart for Maj. Ofek Aharon, Maj. Itamar Elharar, and Staff Sgt. Nathan Fitoussi. A fellow officer mistakenly shot the two majors, and a close friend mistakenly killed Fitoussi – who wandered off to pray.
I lament such split-second catastrophic confusion. I am haunted by the anguish of each shooter and every affected family. I am also indignant. Why is it that so few American Jews even know the names of these young heroes, yet, another person killed in the fog of war, the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, is not only far better known but her equally-mistaken death has been turned into a “deliberate” execution by Israel?
The answer begins with media bias. But I have another answer too. Call it UG, the “urgency gap.” UG explains why otherwise good people discount Israeli sacrifices but swallow Palestinian lies. UG explains why most American Jews don’t know anything about any of these incidents. And UG explains perhaps the greatest threat to American Jewish life – what the philanthropist Michael Steinhardt calls in his new book, the American Jewish “malaise.”
“On the whole, we are not fired up,” writes Steinhardt, a co-founder of Birthright. “We are not in love. We are not, as a community, showing courage or creativity or heroism. If anything, the opposite is true. Every year, more and more young Jews seem to just drift away. However you want to measure it… our sense of Jewish purpose seems to be dissipating.”
Even in this unwelcome era of renewed Jew-hatred, indifference not intolerance most endangers American Jews: it’s their own yawns, not the enemy’s shouts.
What is this Urgency Gap?
I HAVE been struck by this Urgency Gap since hearing the co-founder of Zionness, the proudly Zionist and proudly progressive civil right attorney, Amanda Berman, speak at the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel. Berman reframes the great guilt-inducing privilege debate. She takes this trendy concept, often weaponized against all Jews, to urge her fellow Jews to ignite a modern passion for Judaism, the Jewish people, the Jewish state, and the Jewish national liberation movement.
In a recent email to me, Berman debunked the popular progressive slur that all Jews are white and privileged. “While much of the conversation that relates to any sort of ‘Jewish privilege’ sits on a foundation of base antisemitism,” she wrote, “American Jews today do exist with a privilege that Jews 75 years ago — or at any point during the 2000 years before that — could never have imagined. We are living in a moment with a strong, sovereign Jewish state, as well as a strong and generally secure Jewish diaspora.
"Assimilated, secular American Jews have never personally experienced violent antisemitism and have never felt Jewish existential vulnerability — not the way Israelis do almost daily, and not the way any Jew in history pre-1948 (well, really pre-1967) did. So when asked to choose, as they too often are, between domestic social justice issues that feel urgent and immediate, and Zionism, which feels abstract, impersonal to them, and potentially poisonous, it’s no surprise they prioritize a commitment to progressive advocacy.”
"When asked to choose, as they too often are, between domestic social justice issues that feel urgent and immediate; and Zionism, which feels abstract, impersonal to them, and potentially poisonous, it’s no surprise they prioritize a commitment to progressive advocacy.”Michael Steinhardt
By contrast, Israelis instinctively feel a sense of Jewish urgency – and integration. Israeli Judaism isn’t voluntary or compulsory – it’s simply natural. Beyond being forced to defend their state, Israelis are steeped in Jewish life from the moment they rise up to the moment they lie down. The Hebrew language is on their lips. Biblical dust swirls at their feet. Jewish fluency, destiny and intensity are in their bones. Removing Jewishness from the Israeli atmosphere is no more possible than removing oxygen from the air. Instead of pick-and-choose, part-time Judaism, it’s surround-sound, full-time Jewishness.
With the Oxford definition of “urgency” being “importance requiring swift action,” Jews often confuse urgency with emergency. Jew-hatred can offer urgency-infusions. But without a deeper, systematic, commitment, House-on-Fire Judaism quickly burns out. I prefer the Cambridge definition of “urgency”: “the quality of being very important and needing attention immediately.” We need slow-cook Judaism, with Jews from cradle-to-grave steeped in Jewish ingredients.
Too much American Zionism is about “them” – either defending “those vulnerable Israelis” from our enemies or trying to save “those misguided Israelis” from themselves. American Zionism must be rooted, organic, proactive not reactive, multi-dimensional, and about “us” not “them,” asking “what can Israel do for us,” not “what’s wrong with them” – be they friend or foe.
Religious Jews start with Jewish faith, seeing their lives minute-by-minute in partnership with God. A secular Jew like Steinhardt starts with his book title, Jewish Pride, appreciating how his life is suffused with a “simple, yet profoundly energizing joy in being Jewish, in having Jewish friends, a Jewish family, and leading a Jewish life.” Other Zionists might start with Jewish peoplehood or Jewish values or Jewish history and destiny.
This year, may we all experience a re-Jew-venation, by weaving various identity strands together, creating a rich, resilient, tapestry of Jewish identity, that is inspiring, enveloping and fulfilling. And may we sustain it with a sense of urgency – appreciating its importance and constant need for nurturing – for us not them, to satisfy our internal yearnings not stave off external attackers.
The writer is a scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).