As hard as I try there is one lesson I try teaching Jewish teenagers today that never seems to sink in – today’s Jewish people live in incredible times. I try to explain what Jewish existence looked like over the past 2,000 years of exile and that today’s Israel is a privilege and luxury in comparison to our past. I ask them to think about what life was like for a Jew who couldn’t even consider visiting or moving to Israel. I juxtapose their life, in which a plane ticket is all they need to enter Israel, with their ancestor’s lives a mere one hundred years ago who couldn’t come to Israel. I usually fail getting the teenagers I’m teaching to recognize the privilege they enjoy by having a State of Israel. Admittedly, it’s challenging imagining a different reality than the one they currently live in. There is a State of Israel today, and therefore that’s the only reality teenagers can imagine.
Over the past 2,000 years Jews have suffered through exile and desolation. Starting from the Romans two millennia ago through the Germans during the Holocaust Jews faced enemies and antisemites who tried to annihilate the Jewish people. Even when the goal wasn’t annihilation, antisemites killed tens of thousands of Jews during the Crusades and then pogroms. The Holocaust brought an already concerned Jewish world into frantic worry. It became imperative that the Jewish people have their own state.
Fifty years before the Holocaust, early Zionists, led by Theodore Herzl, were worried about a mass violent antisemitic event that would decimate European Jewry. The early Zionists couldn’t envision an event as horrific as the Holocaust, but they knew something terrible was destined for European Jewry. The early Zionists’ first priority, and main motivation, was to establish a Jewish state as a place of refuge and safety for fleeing European Jews.
Early Zionists also aimed to create a Jewish state specifically in the land of Israel. They understood the Jewish people, like all peoples, had a right to their historic homeland, and to practice self-determination in their land. They intended to change the course of Jewish destiny. Cultural Zionists hoped to create a state where Jewish culture would flourish. Religious Zionists wanted to recreate the Torah study houses of thousands of years ago. Zionism had a rich and diverse set of goals as it worked towards the creation of a Jewish state.
A hundred and twenty-five years after the start of the modern political Zionist movement it can claim success. The Jewish people have established a state of their own that provides refuge for countless Jews in need. It has a military that is one of the best in the world and has proven itself capable of protecting Jews both at home and abroad. The modern State of Israel is a center of Jewish culture and religious studies. Every major Israeli city has a theatre playing Jewish works. There is more Torah studied in Israel on any given day than at any previous time in Jewish history – including at Mount Sinai. Israelis are also the fourth happiest people in the world.
The headline of the Jewish people’s story in the 21st century is “Renaissance.” A downtrodden people, the Jews post Holocaust were missing six million of their people, refugee survivors were stuck in displaced person or internment camps, unable to restart their lives. It would only be a few years before millions of Jews living in Arab lands would face their own wave of persecution and need a place of refuge. The turnaround the State of Israel brought to the Jewish people in all areas of their existence is remarkable. The Jewish people have experienced a renewal that is unprecedented.
Teaching a comparison between the Jewish past and its present state of success leads me to the question of whether its better for our teenagers to know how privileged they are by being aware of their traumatic history or to live in the bliss of ignorance and take Israel for granted. Judaism places a premium on remembering and Jews study their past much more than they plan for their future. One can’t help but wonder if Jewish teenagers would be better off without knowing all the trauma of their past. Maybe it is healthier to have Jewish children lead the people without the burdens of our dark past. This way they can simply enjoy the wonderful world provided to them.
A life without trauma always seems more advantageous and attractive. Yet it is specifically the Jewish memory that motivates the Jewish people to create a better future for their nation. Knowing the alternative to success isn’t mere failure, but the very real possibility of annihilation as been demonstrated by every preceding generation of Jews, puts the importance of the Jewish state into perspective for Jews. Although it’s challenging teaching Jewish teenagers the privilege of their current lives, it’s necessary so they keep working hard to preserve the Jewish State and its success.