John Kerry and the Meaning of Israel

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With much of the mainstream media focused on this pesky shutdown and potential default, it was interesting to see a lengthy piece over the weekend in the Boston Globe about Secretary of State John Kerry's Jewish ancestry. News of his Jewish roots is nothing new; in fact, a Boston Globe reporter provided Kerry with information about his heritage a decade ago. So while the piece about Kerry and his newfound familial connections is fascinating, it's not necessarily revelatory. What is relevant about the story is the unmentioned connection to Israel.  According to the recent Globe story, two of Kerry's ancestors changed their name from Kohn because "it is [was] so typically Jewish" and was seen as a hindrance to their careers in Europe. This fear was not confined to early 20thcentury Europe, rife with anti-Semitic tendencies, but was also prevalent in the United States where many Jews actively tried to obscure their roots. (Who remembers that Mel Brooks was born Melvin Kaminsky?)

What changed over the last few decades to alter this dynamic? Though various societal factors, including the civil rights movement, may have played a role, the willingness and ability to demonstrate Jewish pride may not have developed without the rebirth of the State of Israel. As Daniel Gordis has argued, if it were not for the declaration of statehood in 1948 and stunning Six Day victory in 1967, Jewish conscientious may have remained tortured by centuries of exile and anti-Semitism.

In an article for Tablet magazine in August 2012, Gordis wrote:

There was an era not long ago in which American Jews tiptoed around America, nervously striving to stay beneath the radar. They evoked that image of the spies who reported back to Moses after surveying the Promised Land: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we appeared to them.”

…Jews today no longer think of themselves as a tiptoeing people. When Soviet Jews awakened and wanted out of their national prison, American Jews supported them, and the State of Israel made their rescue a national project. When an Air France flight filled with Jews was hijacked to Entebbe, the State of Israel rescued them, and American Jews were filled with unprecedented pride. When Ethiopian Jews were caught in the crosshairs of a deadly civil war, the State of Israel whisked them out, and American philanthropists continue to make them a key priority. Much of what fuels American Jewish pride is the existence and the behavior of the State of Israel.

In ways we do not sufficiently recognize, Israel has changed the existential condition of Jews everywhere, even in America. Without the State of Israel, the self-confidence and sense of belonging that American Jews now take for granted would quickly disappear.

This, then, is one of the great ironies of our era: The sense of belonging and security that leads many American Jews to believe that they do not need the State of Israel is itself a product of that very same State of Israel.

That last statement may be one of his most powerful, and worthy of repetition, especially with the latest Pew findings describing a "markedly stronger" emotional connection to Israel exhibited by older (and more religious) segments of the community. Be it in the now defunct Austrian empire, or early 20th century America, there was a time when outward expressions of Jewish identity and pride had to be tamed in order to advance professionally, or even survive a murderous dictator. And while everyone connects to Israel in a unique manner based on religious beliefs, personal experiences or collective memories, we should not forget the sense of hope, renewal, and yes, even that dirty word, power, that the rebirth of Israel has provided the Jewish people.

Perhaps had Israel's establishment occurred decades or years earlier, millions of lives could have been saved, and we may be now supporting the diplomatic efforts of Secretary of State John Kohn.