The concerning disconnect between how older and younger Jews view the State of Israel
Israel at 75: For many of our more or less assimilated children and grandchildren, Israel’s power is all they see — not, as we did, her embattled route to it
Israel marks the 75th anniversary of its founding this year, and the National Post is launching a five-month celebration of the Jewish state, telling the remarkable story of its rebirth and resilience against all odds. We’ll toast its food, its multiculturalism, its world-leading innovation, its most intriguing people and more. Look for commentary, video, podcasts and more feting the “startup” nation.
My generation of Ashkenazi Jews rejoiced in the miracle of Israel’s rebirth, a fragile phoenix rising from the ashes of the crematoria. Our pride and attachment never dimmed. But for many of our more or less assimilated children and grandchildren, Israel’s power is all they see — not, as we did, her embattled route to it. Idealistic but naive, a significant number of post-boomer Jews accept the false narrative of the political left that Israel is a uniquely oppressive, “apartheid” state. Israel embarrasses them.
This generational gap isn’t news to Jewish leaders, who frequently lament the trend, but the zeitgeist offers little hope for its reversal. Yet, at the same time, Israelis have become less concerned about the opinions of Diaspora Jews.
Instead of hand-wringing, we must acknowledge and accept a painful reality: namely that the United States has been the centre of Jewish life for a century, but centres tend to shift. As far back as 1989, historian Arthur Hertzberg argued that, “The momentum of Jewish experience in America (had been) essentially spent.”
On achieving statehood in 1948, Israel was a tiny, fragile state with 600,000 Jews, or 5.2 per cent of the world’s 11.5-million Jews. At the time, Diaspora support was crucial to Israel’s domestic viability. Today, Diaspora support and investment is helpful, but far less necessary.
Israel is one of the developed world’s fastest-growing economies, with a robust currency, a healthy debt-to-GDP ratio, low unemployment and inflation rates, and a high standard of living. The Abraham Accords have sidelined the stagnant issue of Palestinian statehood, and the BDS movement, for all its pernicious cultural effects in the West, has had little effect on Israel’s trading relationships.
My generation’s relationship with Israel was quasi-parental, anxiously hovering over a plucky target of schoolyard bullies. Many of us have failed to realize that Israel is now a robust young adult that’s capable of its own defence.
Modern Israel is bursting with energy. And in the process, becoming more attractive to immigrants. With the rise in global antisemitism, many Jews in Europe are inclined to believe they are not safe from hatred anywhere but Israel. A considerable number of them have already made aliyah, including an estimated 50,000 from France, where antisemitism levels are high. But the last few years have seen an uptick in aliyah from North America, as well.
By 1967, Israel’s Jewish population was 2.4 million, and in 2012, 5.9 million. Today, there are seven million Jewish-Israelis, two million Arab-Israelis and 500,000 residents of other ethnicities combining for a total population of 9,593,000 residents. About 8.25 million Jews live outside Israel (including approximately six million in the United States).
These numbers signify a momentous turning point in Jewish history. A few years ago, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Hebrew University demographics expert Sergio Della Pergola estimated that by 2030, barring an “extreme event,” “most of the Jewish nation will be living in the State of Israel.”
This is a demographic accomplishment that’s unprecedented since the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile of 586 BCE, and will entrain consequences that cannot be predicted with precision, but that are bound to be transformative to all self-identifying Jews’ sense of peoplehood and destiny.
In the past, most of Israel’s growth came from mass immigration. First from eastern Europe, then from Arab countries that expelled their Jews (900,000 Jewish refugees) and then over a million Jews from the former Soviet Union. In 1991, Israel airlifted the majority of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Finally, in 1992, Syria’s remaining 5,000 Jews were freed.
Today, with Jews worldwide enjoying the freedom to worship and emigrate to Israel, the trope of the “wandering Jew” may be retired. But even if the era of mass immigration is over, growth continues because of Israel’s high fertility rate, an average of three children per family. Religious Jews and Muslim Israelis have the highest numbers, but the secular Jewish rate is robust at two children per family.
High fertility rates are often said to be a sign of national confidence, low rates a sign of cultural decline. According to Della Pergola, Israeli figures are a “miracle,” with “no equivalent to this trend anywhere in the world.” Della Pergola expects that the Israeli growth trend will continue.
In spite of continuing external security threats, and Israel’s famously turbulent internal political life, Jewish-Israelis do not — apart from a cadre of self-hating, extreme left-wing intellectuals — agonize over their country’s legitimacy.
Neither, readers might be surprised to learn, do a solid majority of Israeli Arabs. An in-depth 2018 poll funded by the European Union and the Government of Japan found that most Israeli Arabs want distinct Jewish and Arab states, but also want to be a protected minority within the Jewish state.
You wouldn’t know it from United Nations resolutions or most mainstream Middle East media coverage, but Israel — 78 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and 126 years after the First Zionist Congress — is a flourishing democracy, whose citizens rank themselves happier than Canadians or Americans.
Woke BDS Jews are backing the wrong horse, but — not for the first time in Jewish history — they’ll learn that lesson from rude experience. Disillusioned, some of them will end up in Israel, because, as the poet Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”