Tuesday, January 31st | 10 Shevat 5783

July 29, 2021 2:05 pm

American Jews Can No Longer Afford to Be Apathetic About Our History

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avatar by David M. Litman


Remains of a 2000-year-old building recently excavated near the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Photo: Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

By now, most people have read about the poll suggesting that far too many American Jews have bought into objectively false claims of “apartheid” and “genocide” in Israel. Whether the poll is accurate or not, it hints at a deep problem facing the American Jewish community that many have suspected for some time now.

There have been many brilliant recent analyses of the particular brand of rot afflicting the US Jewish community. Seth Mandel rightly pointed to the complicity of the ADL in the mainstreaming of antisemitism and anti-Israel libels. Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy eloquently traced the phenomenon of the “Un-Jews” from Tiberius to today’s “anti-Zionists.” Caroline Glick observantly pointed to the difference with the British Jewish community, which has responded to its own challenges far more successfully than their American counterparts. Another extremely eloquent Jewish advocate, Bari Weiss, has with great passion and clarity raised the alarm of the dangers bigger than those facing just the Jewish community — but which have particularly acute effects among us.

Beyond the concerning state of public education in many parts of the United States, discourse at all levels has embraced — to some degree — the trends of post-modernism and post-truth.

A society which dispenses with the need for facts, historical context, and nuance is one not likely to be favorable to the Jewish State. It’s not hard to understand why even young Jews, indoctrinated in such worldviews, would be so quick to turn their backs on their fellow Jews like a 21st century Yevsektsiya.

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I do not pretend to have any keener insight than those amazing Jewish voices I previously mentioned. I also will not pretend to have a magic bullet solution. Though many antisemites seem to think otherwise, we can’t control the country, let alone the world. Nor do I think we’re in any position to do so, anyway. Like a passenger plane losing cabin pressure, we need to secure our own oxygen mask first or we risk suffocating and proving useless for those around us.

I also don’t know if we can change the hearts and minds of those young Jews who already buy into the “apartheid” and “genocide” libels. It’s hard to imagine changing the minds of people who so readily redefine the language and let facts fall by the wayside to maintain ideological purity. As we’ve seen throughout our history, all too often such Jews don’t wake up to the danger until it’s too late.

What I do know is that we can do better with future generations. That begins with teaching them about past generations. That means teaching not only about Jewish values, the ancient Israelites, Moses, and Bar Kokhba, but of our shared history of exile. American Jews must learn of the trials, tribulations, and successes over the many centuries of our brothers and sisters wherever we went — whether Ethiopia or Poland, Yemen or Persia.

We should teach not only of our times of unimaginable suffering like in the Shoah, the Farhud, or the pogroms, but also of the daily indignities of dhimmitude, ghettoes, and the constant scapegoating of our people. We must also teach of the good times and our successes, and of the righteous gentiles. Younger generations need to understand we’ve been here before, and that the good times don’t always last. The benevolence of others can be fleeting.

And we must also pridefully teach about Zionism and Israel. As Faith Quintero, the author of a novel inspired by Jewish history, told me: we must teach about Israel “including its flaws, from a place of love and context.” We cannot, and should not, shy away from difficult conversations. But we also cannot, and should not, concede to dishonest narratives and revisionist histories.

Antisemites through the ages have tried to erase who we are as a people.

To fail to pass down our story would be to hand them a victory without even a fight. This is where many legacy American Jewish institutions have failed most spectacularly at their most basic of responsibilities. And now is when we must hold them responsible and demand real change. If they won’t change, then it’s time to find or build new American Jewish institutions that will remember their core mission and honor our history.

It’s time to stop being apathetic and responsive. It’s time to start taking the initiative and remind ourselves of who we really are and where we came from.

David M. Litman is a lawyer, researcher, and advocate for human rights.

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