Every now and then, it is useful to return to basics. With regard to Israel, and more particularly with regard to how we might respond to young people who wonder why they should care about what happens there, this seems to be one of those times. We are in a kind of holding pattern; one might call it “between disengagements,” after Gaza and before whatever withdrawal crisis is next.
Some ask: Why not give in to the temptation to shunt Israel to the periphery of our consciousness? Is it so wrong to focus instead on Iraq, or Katrina or even what movie to see this week? Why Israel, always Israel, that distant, confusing, often irritating place?
For my generation, Israel is magical. Mine is a generation that remembers a world without an Israel, for whom Israel’s birth was a transcendent event. But Israel’s birth was, to put it mildly, a while ago.
Now? The current generation of Jews under the age of 60 has no recollection of such a time. Indeed, those under 50 were no more than 12 during the time of the Six-Day War, those under 40 were 11 or younger when Entebbe happened. And so forth.
Magic? What magic? The siege of Beirut in 1982? The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995? For one generation, Israel as magic, real and also mythic; for the next, Israel as fact, sometimes mundane, sometimes troubling, entirely earthy.
Some say: Because of the Holocaust. We need such a place, just in case. We need to show the world we can stand and we can fight, if we have to.
No, Israel is not mainly an act of spite, of retribution, or even of resilience. Nor is it a safe house; although that is how many intended it, history has played a cruel joke on those who saw it that way.
Others say: Scattered among the nations, and shrinking in number, we decline. Our diverse Diasporas — above all, the North American with its myriad achievements — no longer can make it on their own. Without Israel to give us pride and a spine, to remind and inspire us, we would inevitably sink, eventually vanish — except perhaps for a sturdy few who, like the Amish, would persist as a quaint cult, tiny and essentially irrelevant.
Pride? Inspiration? On balance, yes — but it is a teetering balance. These days, for example, the most recent data show that one in five Israeli families lives in poverty and, shockingly, that this figure includes nearly one-third of Israel’s children. (By way of comparison, the poverty rate in the most advanced European countries is 10%; the rate of poverty in Israel is higher than in any of the 15 core states of the European Union.) And the rate of inequality in income in Israel is astonishingly high.
Some explain these disparities by pointing out that it is Israel’s Palestinians (20% of the population) and its fervently Orthodox community, with its large number of children, that swell the bottom statistical measures. But that merely shunts the problem to a different sphere: What place is there in Israel for the one of five Israelis who is not Jewish? What are the sources of their generally poor social and economic condition? And how, if at all, to integrate the fervently Orthodox, now separate and unequal?
And how to disentangle religion and state, whose current unholy embrace so obviously corrupts both? And how to reform a political system so removed from the people it allegedly serves? And how to repair an educational system that has precipitously declined in quality?
Now: Are all these reasons to draw close, or to step away?
To draw close: We care about Israel, and we should, because it is the most compelling and consequential collective project of the Jewish people in our time, perhaps even of all time. It is the signal undertaking of our people.
Whether the undertaking was necessary or not, whether it was wise or not, is no longer an important question, nor an interesting one; the question comes too late. Whether Israel proves to be a goy k’chol hagoyim, a nation like all others, or an or lagoyim, a light unto the nations, no one today can safely predict — nor is there any need for such a prediction; the question comes too soon. Here Israel is, and its failure would be more than bitter; it would be a poison from which the Jewish people could not and would not recover.
Plainly, the success of the project we call Israel is by no means guaranteed. There are, obviously, those who are determined to destroy it. Yet whatever one’s assessment of the external threat — and surely by now we ought recognize Israel’s strength, its capacity to ward off that threat — the project’s success depends on more, much more, than successful defense against those who would do it ill. One does not measure the success of so ambitious an undertaking merely by celebrating its series of anniversaries; those who dreamed up the project had more in mind than mere survival. And we have been partners to their dream.
Why care? Why be devoted? Because the Israelis, with our support, are trying to make a go of it, and because we are not summer soldiers, sunshine patriots. Because Israel has been our project, too, and one does not walk off the construction site with the job only halfway done. Because, finally, for better, for worse, in sickness, in health, as Israel goes, so go the Jewish people.