Rabbi Daniel Gordis jokingly casts an eye at the nearest exit before telling his audience in Scotch Plains on Nov. 3 a few things he thought they wouldn’t want to hear.
Topping that list was a startling statistic on the dwindling numbers of young Jews who care deeply about Israel’s survival. Gordis, an Israel-based writer and educator, cited a study in which fewer than half of respondents younger than 35 said they would consider Israel’s destruction to be “a personal tragedy,” compared to 78 percent of those 65 and older.
He titled his talk at Congregation Beth Israel “Why Israel Is Necessary.”
“That title isn’t tongue in cheek or just being provocative,” he said. A generation or two ago, the question would have been laughable, but now it’s a serious query — and not just in countries that might be antagonistic to Israel.
“It’s central in the Jewish world as well,” he said.
Gordis, an American who made aliya in 1998, is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, where he is also a senior fellow. His most recent book is Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End.
The customary ways of eliciting support for Israel no longer work, he said. The young have “Holocaust fatigue.” For them, the Shoa is a thing of the past, and few American Jews believe that they will ever need a refuge from violent anti-Semitism.
What should matter to today’s Jews, Gordis said, is the confidence and self-respect they have thanks to Israel’s existence. Having a land of their own and a living language has made Jews “actors on the world stage, not victims.”
The 1967 Six-Day War reversed the image of the Jew, he continued. It provided a new concept of what a Jew is, and Jews in the Diaspora draw benefit from that. Israel has given Jews hope for the future that they didn’t have 60 years ago.
Arriving in Israel nowadays, the biggest problem is crowds at the airport and traffic jams — indicators “that there are too many Jews going to Jerusalem.”
He continued: “If we were to lose the state, within one generation American Jews would be like the Chechens and the Basques and the Tibetans. And to have had it and lost it for the second time in a century — could we survive that?”
Though it appears that the focus on the Mideast chiefly concerns the conflict with the Palestinians, Gordis said, the main danger facing Israel is a nuclear-armed Iran, once again making Jews fear for their existence. He also cited radical Islam as a threat not just to Israel but to the West. There are evil forces out there, he said, with a plan “to take over and destroy the hedonism of the West.”
Israel has said it is ready to fight that evil, he concluded, adding, “The West hasn’t.”
The event was organized by Karen Simon, chair of the education committee of Beth Israel, and was cosponsored by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, the JCC of Central New Jersey, and the Israel Support Committee of Beth Israel, Temple Emanu-El, Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, and Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah.
Bob Kuchner, immediate past president of the federation, recalled serving with Gordis on the Young Leadership Cabinet of United Jewish Communities — now the Jewish Federations of North America — in the mid-1990s. “He was always impressively intellectual,” Kuchner said.
Julie Singer, chair of financial resource development for the federation and a former YLD leader herself, was particularly perturbed by Gordis’ depiction of the apathy toward Israel among those 35 and younger. “That’s worrisome for the future of Diaspora Jews and their affiliations to our homeland,” she said. “I wish there was an easy fix, but I find myself stupefied at how to change this dynamic.”