February 27, 2015
- Jewish Community
A version of this article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.
It has been almost 25 years since I became a Jewish professional, a stunningly long time from virtually every perspective. And while it is hard to remember much from the early 1990s, I recall feeling a sense of optimism as an American, as a Jew and as a Zionist. The world seemed poised for unprecedented peace and prosperity; the Berlin wall had been dismantled, the shackles had been removed from Soviet Jewry and the first Oslo Accord had been signed. Indeed, Francis Fukuyama suggested in The End of History and the Last Man (1992) that:
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Fukuyama was not alone in his idealism. Many of us shared a comparable, if not identical, world view, especially in the Jewish community. We were living in the Golden Age of Jewish history, a period of unparalleled acceptance, affluence and influence both in America and abroad. Anti-Semitism was no longer one of our dominant concerns, and important voices in Jewish life urged us to shift our focus and financial support away from “defense agencies” in favor of a more forward-thinking Jewish agenda.
The prevailing mood in Israel was also positive. Peace with the Palestinians finally seemed within reach, and the Israeli GDP placed her among the top 20 countries in the world. The future seemed very bright.
Today, of course, the situation is drastically different. Jewish students on college campuses across the United States are facing extraordinary and unrelenting animus. Anti-Semitism has reached alarming and murderous proportions in Paris, Copenhagen and elsewhere. And Israel is facing external challenges unlike any since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in addition to internal strife that threatens the very fabric of her society.
For those of us in the Jewish community born in the 1950s and after, the world has never felt as treacherous and dangerous as it feels right now. Comparisons to Germany in the 1930s that once seemed absurd can no longer be so easily dismissed, even though admitting this dark truth feels unduly alarmist.
Of course, the news is not all bad. We are seeing positive developments, with public displays of support and solidarity, and incredible acts of courage and human kindness. In many communities in Europe and elsewhere, young Jews—the lifeline to the Jewish future—are among those rallying their communities and engaging new people in Jewish life and with Jewish values.
Ever since the Holocaust, the Jewish people and all those who cherish freedom and liberty have vowed “never again.” Today, we need to embrace a second rallying cry for world Jewry: never before. To assure “never again,” we must respond to the obstacles we face in this generation with unprecedented strength and coordination.
While each of the challenges we confront will undoubtedly require specific responses, there are a few general principles to which we should adhere so as not to allow the scope and complexity of the task to divide or intimidate us.
1. We must encourage the broadest possible participation in our community. The diversity of the Jewish people is one of our greatest assets, and our ultimate success lies in our being able to knit together the various strands of the Jewish people into the strongest of fabrics.
2. Even as we embrace and draw strength from our diversity, we must do our absolute best to present a united front. It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. To the contrary, we benefit from spirited discussion and constructive debate. But we cannot allow the voices on either extreme to dominate and drown out those seeking to build consensus on a way forward. Instead, we must find a way to resolve our differences respectfully and without resorting to personal attacks or public insult. How we approach this work is a subject we will need to explore at length, but it must start with a fundamental belief that what unites us in our shared commitment to the Jewish future is far greater than any ideology that may divide us.
3. We must push ahead with exciting engagement and identity-related work for teens, young adults and young families. We must help the next generations of Jews value the relevance, meaning and richness of Jewish life, both for the benefit of our community and what we have to contribute to the world at large. Only when our young share our dedication and passion for Jewish life will they join us in the fight to assure a vibrant Jewish future, including a safe and secure Israel.
4. We must allow the most collaborative and influential among us to succeed as leaders. One of the reasons the Jewish people have become so fragmented during the past few decades is because we seem to spend more time undermining our leaders rather than helping them achieve our shared objectives. Our community does not lack leaders; Jewish people can be found at the helm of all sorts of institutions and organizations. What we are missing is leadership, an unattainable goal unless we also promote the virtues of “followership.” If each of us demands to be the captain, not part of the crew, our ship will not advance very far.
5. We must help people understand that the challenges we are confronting are universal, not simply Jewish issues. The forces that seek to destroy Israel and Jewish life as we know it will not be satisfied until the entire Western world is vanquished. The freedoms all of us hold dear are under attack, and there is no “middle ground” to be found with radical fundamentalists intent on destroying all ways of life except the one in which they believe.
In 1993, just one year after Fukuyama, Samuel P. Huntington published his seminal essay, The Clash of Civilizations?, which foreshadowed this future.
The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict [in the future] will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.
The conflict Huntington predicted is playing out on the world stage with increasing frequency and escalating barbarism. For the sake of humanity as well as the Jewish people, our community has to engage directly in this fight.
Diversity. Unity. Meaning. Leadership. Universality. These principles are the foundation on which our response must be built. For those of us deeply engaged in Jewish life, as lay leaders or professionals, it is no longer “business as usual.” The times demand we must adapt as necessary to meet the current realities, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable.
The challenges we face today are not unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people; to be sure, we have fought and overcome extreme adversity in many generations over the past 3,000 years. And yet, the seriousness of the current situation has reached depths previously unseen by Baby Boomers and younger members of the Jewish community. We can no longer afford to engage in Jewish life passively. We need to act now to confront and defeat all of the forces that threaten us as individuals, as a people and as human beings.
To ensure “never again,” we must join and work together like never before.