Ari Shavit, while speaking at the Standard Club on Monday December 9, said lots of things about Israel and its people that I continue to think about, but his comment about American Jewry really caught my attention. It arose during the Q and A portion of his presentation on his recently published My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Near the end of the address, Shavit expressed a profound concern over the relationship between Israel and Jewish American youth, especially those from secular, non-orthodox communities. What he said had nothing to do with synagogue participation, intermarriage, or the like. It had to do with the political behavior of Jewish American adults.
In early November, I came across the first of several reviews of Shavit’s My Promised Land. In this book, Shavit, an Israeli author and columnist for Haaretz, embarks on an exploration of Israel’s history from the early Zionist movement (of which his own grandfather played a significant role), to the present, in order to understand the source of Israel’s state of “duality” and his own fears about Israel’s survival that have dogged him since childhood. By “duality,” Shavit explains, “On the one hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened. Both occupation and intimidation make the Israeli condition unique” (xii). All of the reviews I read convinced me that Shavit had compelling things to say, so when I heard that there would be a Temple Sholom presence at the Standard Club to hear Shavit speak, I signed right up.
Shavit described why he embarked on this venture and underscored several interesting points that are taken up in the book. He postulated on what he perceives as the “seed” to Israel’s complicated relationship with the Palestinians – the fact that the early Zionists and nation builders were so committed to the project that they just didn’t “see “ the Arabs who already populated the land. He spoke of – indeed insisted upon- his deep love for Israel. He admires the intellect, creativity, skill, and accomplishments of his fellow Israelis. Simultaneously, however, he is critical of many government policies and, in particular, of the settlements and the nature of the occupancy.
The point he made about American Jewish youth arose when a young woman asked him about his response to J Street and AIPAC reviews of his book. He answered, speaking in broader terms, with his own assessment of Jewish American politics. What is transpiring here, in the U.S., he said, threatens the important and fragile symbiotic relationship that exists between Israeli and American Jews. The American conversation over Israeli policies has become so single-minded and polarized that it has turned toxic. He was careful to say that he felt debate and discussion on Israel are important, but they should not become virulent. The good feelings about Israel that were commonplace in the 50s and 60s among almost all young American Jews, religious and secular alike, are dissolving. As a result, we (Jewish adults) have endangered the interest and commitment to Israel of our children. I don’t know if this is statistically borne out, but it sure makes sense to me and has me thinking.
My daughter is in Israel right now on a Birthright program (her twin sister went on Birthright last summer). What a privilege! It is wonderful that they can be there, physically, on the ground, with a group of American peers and five Israeli solders. They have climbed Masada, visited the Kotel, and experienced an unusual major cold snap and snowfall. But just as important as having the chance to BE in Israel, I’d like to know that when she is here – back in Chicago – she can feel attached to Israel, a part of the place – intellectually, emotionally, politically, and spiritually. In short, I hope she appreciates her continued role in the state of the nation.
If the debate over policies reduces Israel to a hot potato, she and her peers may find it too much to handle. This, Mr. Shavit points out, is dangerous for all Jews. I don’t want her or any of these kids to walk away.
Barb Wolf and her family have been members of Temple Sholom for 17 years. She practiced law and then taught high school English for several years. She currently is a member of the Visioning Committee at Temple Sholom and participates in adult education.