This article was written in response to Enrique Krauze’s working paper, It’s Still Hard to Be a Jew, which was presented at the Bronfman Vision Forum’s Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
Es iz schwer tzu sein a yid. It is hard to be a Jew. I hate Sholom Aleichem‘s weary expression; to me it reeks of herring and Holocaust, of Jewish weaklings and wimps, of Diaspora and despair. It does not speak to me as an American (and an American historian), privileged to be part of one of the greatest success stories in world history. Nor does it speak to me as a Jew born over a decade into Israel’s existence, viewing Israel and Zionism as one of the last century’s great redemptive stories.
Woman at a pro-Israel rally
The expression reminds me of my debate with my late Polish-born grandfather. Having fled the Polish army during the First World War, arriving in the Golden Medina, America, just before the immigration restrictions of the 1920s began, he saw anti-Semites behind every tree. He embraced what the great historian Salo Baron dismissed as the lachrymose view of Jewish history, seeing the Jewish experience as a vale of tears. In contrast, I, a post-Auschwitz New York Jew and Zionist, appreciated the triumphs shaping Jewish history as well as the tragedies.
My stance is both ideological and tactical. Ideologically, I consider the phenomenon of Jewish continuity and the story of rebuilding Israel as among the great miracles of human history. I delight in seeing Jews in New York living the most modern, technologically-sophisticated, culturally-enlightened, intellectually-rich life any human being has ever dreamed of, while being able to pray three times a day, study Talmud in sleek corporate board rooms, and eat kosher food in trendy restaurants. And I marvel at most Israelis’ quality of life, building equally sophisticated lives in the Jewish people’s ancient homeland.
At the same time, strategically, given our modern culture’s lures and happy talk, I do not believe we will inspire a next generation if we make Judaism all about oppression and dilemmas. I have seen from working with Birthright Israel participants that members of this generation want to pursue their own particular Jewish journeys rather than be burdened by the ancestral guilt trip.
A Daniel Pearl Jew
I am not a Pollyanna. I have studied the horrors of the past, am acutely aware of the identity dilemmas of the present, and have experienced the renewed anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism of today. I often call myself a Daniel Pearl Jew. Like the murdered Wall Street Journal correspondent who was approximately my age, I was born into the post-Auschwitz covenant wherein the non-Jewish world implicitly promised to end anti-Semitism, only to see that covenant broken when the Palestinians turned from negotiations back toward terror starting in September 2000 and the world blamed the Jews for defending themselves.
Like Pearl, I felt protected from anti-Semitism, and in many ways from the vicissitudes of history itself, as an American, as a graduate of America’s elite schools, and as a professor at McGill University.
The ugly Islamicist anti-Semitism that led to Pearl’s beheading outraged me. The indifference or even rationalizations of such violence from so many academic colleagues and other supposedly sophisticated Westerners left me feeling betrayed.
The question, however, is how centrally does this renewed anti-Semitism loom in my Jewish identity, how do I balance what Naomi Shemer famously called the dvash, the honey, with the oketz, the sting.
Similarly, I reject a “it is hard to be a Jew” worldview that sees Israel only through the lens of Palestinian suffering, or even of Palestinian attacks. I acknowledge the moral strains arising from the Palestinian problem but do not see them as completely defining Israel or modern Zionism.
Yasser Arafat‘s central conceit was to make every conversation about Israel become about him and his people. It worked on most of the world; it worked for too many Jews from the right and the left. I, for one, refuse to give him or his people that victory. Again, I do not minimize the tension, the suffering on both sides, or even the sins on both sides (although I don’t equate them and reject the condescending, one-sided narrative that absolves Palestinians of any responsibility for their plight). Still, my experience with Israel and with Zionism is not only through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Life in Israel is too multi-dimensional, too rich, too successful, too complex, to be so simplistic, reductionist, bleak, and hard.
In my Judaism and my Zionism, I am a romantic utilitarian. I am moved by being part of a continuing 4000-year-old conversation about who we are, where we are going, and what the meaning of life is through this Jewish framework. I can get goose-bumps from experiencing the timeless tableau of Torah study, from the modern miracle of young kids speaking Hebrew in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City or on the beaches of Tel Aviv, from the depth and breadth of the Jewish experience. That is the romance. But I am also pragmatic.
I believe that human beings need communal groups, and that those communal groupings need a vision. I am not arrogant enough to claim that my–our–Jewish, Zionist communal grouping is the most virtuous or that this Jewish, Zionist communal vision is necessarily the best. But it works, and it’s mine, and it beats the me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, now-now-now nihilism and materialism of modern life.
So, when I look at our Jewish situation today, and consider our future, I do not say Es iz schwer tzu sein a yid–it is hard to be a Jew. Instead, I channel the words of the non-Jew Balaam, from Numbers 24, who, when sent up the mountain to curse the people of Israel instead said: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov–How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.