Finished Not if diaspora pulls closer to Israel

Even before Israel has the chance next month to celebrate the remarkable achievement of creating a state and surviving for 60 years in a hostile environment, and of having forged a modern, democratic society in the Mideast, there is growing discussion of how long it can last.

The cover story of the May issue of the Atlantic magazine is titled “Is Israel Finished?” The award-winning author, Jeffrey Goldberg, justifies the topic, saying it is important to deal with real concerns, however unpleasant, rather than avoid them. (He didn’t choose the title, he notes.)

His concerns are valid, and we are all too aware of them.

“This fear that Israel will not exist anymore hovers over us all the time,” the dovish novelist David Grossman said in an interview with Goldberg, noting “how few we are” and how “we have never been accepted” by surrounding Arab states who view Israel as a usurper, and far worse.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Goldberg that while Jews in Israel may not be safer in Israel than they are in other countries where they live, “there is only one place where Jews can fight for their lives as Jews, and that is here.”

A sobering image — Jews fighting for their lives as Jews — but one all too grounded in reality.

How does such talk resonate with American Jews, though, particularly those born after the proud achievements of statehood and victory over hostile armies? Many young Jews today grew up knowing of Israel mostly in the headlines — for occupation, the Yitzhak Rabin assassination and intifada, not for the miracles of making the desert bloom or the Six-Day War or the Entebbe rescue.

When these young people see Israel on the defensive on so many fronts, do they want to stand up and be counted among the targeted, or do they prefer to shed their identification with Israel and focus on their personal pursuits?

That is the challenge for those of us in the diaspora who want to ensure Israel’s survival and growth in the 21st century and beyond. And the first point we should make is that the fate of the Jews of the world is linked to those of our brothers and sisters in Israel. They are on the frontlines, true, but those who would destroy them would come after us next because the issue here is not just land but religion, identity and ideology.

Goldberg focuses much of his thoughtful article on Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as the chief cause for its predicament today. But for militant Muslims, jihad is to be waged against the Jews, not just the Zionists, and against Western culture, especially the United States.

We American Jews must come to realize that our support for Israel stems not just from compassion and connection, but self-preservation.

Yet with it all, there is much to be optimistic about, based on our history, faith and future. Israel has faced an uphill battle since the day of its creation, literally, when on May 14, 1948 the Arab armies united to attack the fledgling state of 600,000 souls, a society of immigrants who had no professional army or air force. Somehow Israel persevered and has defied the odds ever since, flourishing in so many fields, including agriculture, finance, science, the arts and high-tech, even as it has become the most powerful military presence in the Mideast, out of necessity.

Zionism is grounded in the reality of dreams, turning age-old yearnings and prayers into the stuff of everyday life, a Hebrew-speaking culture gathering exiles from around the globe. Israelis have never known a day of peace, but they know how to live fully, hoping for a better tomorrow.

Whether American Jews will be engaged in this heroic drama or not will depend on how our relationship with Israel develops, or dissolves. From the creation of the state, our role primarily has been defined by financial support. We were the rich relatives and we’ve been most generous, from the sidelines. But a dozen or so years ago Israel let us know that it doesn’t need our charity as much anymore, and rather than expressing relief, we were annoyed — because we knew no other way.

We’re still trying to forge a new relationship, beyond the dollars, and we’ve had successes through community-to-community partnerships and especially Birthright Israel, giving tens of thousands of our young people a personal Israel experience. But for the most part our community is growing smaller, older, less affiliated Jewishly and less emotionally invested in Israel.

There is no one silver bullet to reverse these trends, but we are seeing the buckshot effect of many different approaches, from strengthening Jewish education to Zionist advocacy to Internet connections, and they must be supported, continued and expanded.

We can help Israel deepen its commitment to more representative government and society; Israel can help us deepen our understanding and appreciation of what life is like in the Mideast, and of the pride — and price — of serving in the Israeli army. We should make greater efforts to speak Hebrew; they should do more to understand the diaspora.

The common goal would be to close the gap between “us” and “them.”

In the end, our success will depend not only on what we do but how we see ourselves — simply as supporters of Israel and its goals, or as fully invested partners in this noble Jewish enterprise that goes back to the beginning of Jewish history, when God pledged never to abandon the Jewish people.

Is Israel finished? Only if we allow it to be; its fate is our own, for the next 60 years and for all time.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of the N.Y. Jewish Week, where this column previously appeared.