In the Diaspora: Arms and class

Today's generation of American Jews has become estranged from all things martial.

hesder soldier 88 (photo credit: )
hesder soldier 88
(photo credit: )
Fourteen months ago, The New York Times published a series of articles on class, the most hidden dividing line in American society. The package included supple, incisive explorations of immigration, education, and religion, among other topics. The Times, however, devoted no particular attention to military duty, and that was a revealing omission, suggesting that it is simply a given that the affluent do not sign up to serve. No aspect of daily experience more separates American and Israeli Jews than the role of military service and the broader sense of physical power and a classless society that it has come to represent. At a time when Israel has once again been compelled to take arms in national defense, the ignorance of soldiering among Jews in the United States is an essential element in the disturbing disconnect between the two largest Jewish communities in the world. This realization occurred to me when reading newspaper coverage of the mass rallies held by American Jews during the Six-Day War in 1967. The current struggle, what should be known as the Iran-Israel War, is as much an existential conflict as were those in 1967 and 1973. We all know now, if we didn't before, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meant exactly what he said when he pronounced his desire to wipe Israel off the map. He is perfectly willing to have a democratic, reviving Lebanon sacrificed merely as an opening skirmish. BACK IN 1967, when Nasser and secular pan-Arabism were Israel's enemies, American Jews rallied and gave money and volunteered and ultimately made aliya in unprecedented numbers. The gatherings in the United States, at least thus far in the Iran-Israel War, pale in comparison. CNN estimated that 2,000 people attended the protest outside the United Nations on July 17. Should the current war drag on, it is entirely possible that American Jews will equal, if not surpass, their philanthropy during 1967 and 1973 (adjusted for inflation), but I would bet that the money will come from a much smaller number of donors. During the Six Day War, a large share of American Jews had first-hand memories of the Depression, World War II, and the revelation of the Holocaust. As the historian Deborah Dash Moore has pointed out in her invaluable book G.I. Jews, thousands of young men had simultaneously reified their Jewishness and their Americanness by serving in the armed forces. During the Cold War years and the Korean War, the United States continued conscription. Those Jews who passed through the military understood full well the necessity, at certain moments in time, of fighting. They understood that some enemies cannot be bargained with, only broken or at the least deterred. An American Jew of age 40 would have been eating baby food during 1967, going to second grade during 1973. He or she would have grown aware of Israel mostly during the Lebanon invasion of 1982 and the stone-throwing intifada late in the decade. The image of the Jewish state as Goliath would have fit seamlessly with a world view, propounded in American colleges and universities, that human existence can be neatly understood as the interplay of oppressor and oppressed. The result is not a generation or two of American Jews who oppose Israel as much as wish to duck the question altogether, pretending not to recognize that coarse, unruly relative. It seems no coincidence to me that two of the contemporary writers most public in their Zionism, David Mamet and Rich Cohen, also are at home writing about the blue-collar world. WITH THE economic success story of Jews in postwar America, and with the creation of an all-volunteer military during the Vietnam era, American Jews have become estranged from all things martial. We have no problem with the expression of power as investment bankers, as litigators, as movie producers, as lobbyists, as political fund-raisers. When it comes to our own national defense, however, we rely on others. And when it comes to Israel, we feel somehow alienated from, even embarrassed by, the brutal reality of defense. At most, we cheer it on vicariously, safe on the sidelines. Two of my friends from high school in New Jersey have made aliya over the years. I remember one from our school plays, a gamine in a paisley kerchief as she sewed costumes, the other as a math nerd with a slide rule clipped to his belt. Hardly the macho sort, in other words, as olim they both have children in the Israel Defense Forces now. And while I've never asked them the question directly, my guess is that nothing in their Israeli lives more confounds their American friends than the notion of compulsory military service and all the mortal risk it connotes. If you have grown up in material comfort and social ease, like most American Jews, than there is something unsettling, disquieting, d class about the army. There is something difficult about holding in your brain two truths - that it is terrible to see Beirut being pummeled and to know civilians are dying but that it is more terrible to give Iran the moral victory of a stalemate now, emboldening it to mount even greater attacks against Israel. Or, as Sheik Hassan Nasrallah of Hizbullah put it in a quite precise phrase, "occupied Palestine." This is, after all, a war against sovereign Israel, a war fought after withdrawals from both Lebanon and Gaza. Through the Oslo years Israeli conservatives indulged themselves in all sorts of fulminations about how the new historians and their post-Zionism were going to corrode the national will to exist. Well, after the Aksa Intifada and now the Iran-Israel War, we know that fear was utterly unfounded. Maybe the concerns everyone should have had was about post-Zionism American-style, the post-Zionism not of passionate, informed disagreement but a shrug and a yawn and a certain comfort level at the cocktail party. The writer, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of books including Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.