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Author Michael Chabon.(Photo by: BENJAMIN TICE SMITH)
Watching what we wish for
By DOUGLAS ALTABEF
06/12/2018
It is hard not to conclude that the Jewish DNA is highly infused with a strong need, urge, instinct, to survive under the most adverse of circumstances.
In his recent column, commenting on the already infamous speech by writer Michael Chabon at the ordination/graduation ceremonies of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, Daniel Gordis noted the irony in that Chabon castigated Judaism for – among its many venalities and sins – an obsession with its own disappearance (A Dose of Nuance, “Quo vadis, Judaism,” June 8).

Gordis astutely mused that it was in fact this focus on the disappearance of the Jews that might have contributed to their survival. What he did not do was to ask the logical follow-up question, why Jews might have been so focused on the possibility of their disappearance.

Let me offer an answer that very likely captures much of our history in a nutshell: There have always been a great many people who would have been happy to help usher the Jewish people off the stage of human history.

Chabon’s much derided focus on the issue of our disappearance failed to understand that it was not only rooted in a common-sense appreciation of the world around us, but also had a galvanizing effect on us, increasing our resolve not to hand such a victory to our adversaries.

It is hard not to conclude that the Jewish DNA is highly infused with a strong need, urge, instinct, to survive under the most adverse of circumstances.

But what about our “thrival” skills? How well do we do when there is not a surrounding hostility around us? In this regard, I remember what one of my son’s teachers said about him: “He has a hard time handling success.”

Transposed to the national level, I remember a rabbi in New York once said to me that America was in the process of “killing” almost as many Jews with kindness as Hitler had done with murder. Obviously, he was not referring to bodily death, but a death of peoplehood affiliation, a kind of spiritual death.

Which brings us back to Chabon’s speech. The great, sad irony of the speech was that Chabon was completely clueless as to what it took to bring the Jewish people to the day when he could contemptuously castigate us for self-obsessed survival.

Here he was, totally opposed to the continuation of the saga of the Jewish people, because, among other things, he saw no reason for it to go on. And from his perspective, why should he?

Why should we be any different from our neighbors, when those neighbors are inviting us to be just like them, to marry their sons and daughters and to blend seamlessly into the fabric of the larger society?

In the absence of both a deep appreciation of our tradition, and a hostile environment that constantly reminds us of who we are, an insistence on continuing the Jewish story is chauvinism, white privilege, racism and all the other anathemas of the progressive world.
When pundits talk about the super slow-motion train wreck that is the ongoing dissolution of the American non-Orthodox Jewish community, this factor of not having external adversity or pressure must be recognized. With less affiliation, less education and, simply stated, less awareness of who they are, nonreligious Jews are nevertheless not being forced to stay in the room by those who would reject them.

Quite the contrary, they are being invited to leave the fold, either to embrace progressive political values or just to meld into the societal woodwork.

Contrast this situation with that in Israel. Yes, there might on average be more knowledge and appreciation of the Jewish tradition here. Sadly, however, Israel is increasingly being beset by Jewish ignorance of Judaism, in all its different facets.

What Israel does have that is very different from the American scene are enemies, enemies on our borders, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and a would-be genocidal enemy in Iran. These enemies require Israel to live in a reality that is not completely different from what we have historically experienced.

Of course, and thankfully, we are differently situated from times past. We have our own nation, our own army and our own resources. But the sentiments around us are startlingly familiar. To paraphrase Mark Twain, Jewish history might not repeat itself, but when it comes to Israel, it sure does rhyme.

I admit that when I read, often through tears, of young soldiers embracing their duty with statements that they are protecting their families, their communities and, yes, their people, part of me is grateful that we have to defend ourselves, that we have to be resolute and aware, committed and mindful.

I have a son who was in the Golani Brigade, and our youngest will join the army after an upcoming year in a pre-military preparatory program. I am certainly not hoping for war or hostilities. But I think I have discerned enough of the Jewish DNA to understand that what we perceive as a necessary unavoidable burden might, in its way, be a blessing. A cursory look at the two largest Jewish communities leads to this unescapable conclusion.

For whatever reason, I have little doubt that our mission to be a light unto the nations will be realized under pressure and adversity. We are the people who make deserts bloom, who persist and succeed despite all the odds, and who perform best when we are under the gun, often literally.

Let’s be willing to see the great blessing in the adversity we live with, and to be oh, so watchful of what we might wish for.

The writer is chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu and a director of the Israel Independence Fund. dougaltabef@gmail.com
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