The 19-year-old who joined the IDF after Birthright represents the best of American Jewry.
by Naomi Ragen
Not so long ago, American Jewish children learned from their parents to love the State of Israel. Even secular, assimilated American Jews gave their kids charity boxes to collect nickels and dimes to plant trees there, as the parents do in Woody Allen’s 1987 film Radio Days. But that was a time when Jews remembered the tragedy of the ship St. Louis, with its hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazis and not a single country willing to take them in.
Only a generation or two later, so low is the interest in the miracle of Israel that warm-hearted Jewish philanthropists have had to create Birthright, a program that actually pays for young Jews to visit their homeland.
For us in Israel, this fact has not gone unnoticed. The growing distance between American Jewry and the Jews of Israel had its most profound expression in the election of the current American administration, arguably the most hostile to Israel in American history. Despite what I believe were numerous clear signals that this president would be hostile to the Jewish state, from his association with a church that honored Louis Farrakhan to his use of advisors such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, 70 percent of American Jews voted for him. My attempts to deter those registered on my pro-Israel mailing list from doing so were met with hostility and an unsubscribe notice. But what stuck in my mind most were those who responded that they were Americans first and had to do what was best for America.
That American Jews had come to the conclusion that American interests and Israeli interests no longer coincided was—to say the least—frightening, an extreme and telling indication of the ignorance and naiveté eating away at a once proud and united American Jewry.
Perhaps this is why Israelis came out in the tens of thousands to pay their respects to Max Steinberg, a “lone soldier” from California who fell in the recent war against Hamas in Gaza and was buried on Mt. Herzl among Israel’s heroes. On a sweltering day in August, while rockets were still being fired and sirens were still blaring, they stood in the shadeless heat listening to eulogies in English that most didn’t understand. They came because Max was a rare American Jew who had left his family and birthplace behind and joined his fate to that of his brothers and sisters in Israel.
While the current number of lone soldiers from America is reportedly 1,500, the true statistic is difficult to gauge because many of these are Israeli-born whose parents left the country. Israelis would consider them Israeli. Max Steinberg is certainly not alone, but let’s face it, when there’s a conflict in Israel, most American Jews don’t even come on vacation to five-star hotels, let alone send their sons to the Israel Defense Forces.
Israelis responded by weeping for Max as one of their own. They honored his desire to be one of them, to protect their lives, their values and the little homeland they have carved out of this hard planet so that the next St. Louis might find a port.
Rather than joining Israeli Jews’ emotional tribute, some of Max’s fellow American Jews viewed his death quite differently. It is perhaps indicative of the current ugly morass among many young American Jews that on the day Max was buried, Slate published an article by senior editor Allison Benedikt that asked whom to “blame” for Max’s death and wondered how “a Birthright trip convinced an American with shaky Hebrew that he was ready to die for another country.”
The article was shocking not only for its revelation of the demise of Jewish solidarity with Israel but for its ugly denunciation of what have long been considered core American values.
I would argue that in fighting against Hamas, Max Steinberg was honoring a deep, lifelong American heritage that urges one to stand up against evil and injustice. He was following in the footsteps of people who didn’t speak Spanish but nevertheless went to Spain to fight against fascism during the 1930s and of people who didn’t speak English but nevertheless volunteered to fight alongside American troops against Hitler.
American Jews aren’t sure of these shared values anymore, maybe because they don’t see America standing up for freedom and against evil—instead pulling out American troops as fast as they can, allowing atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan. Young American Jews are also in a state of flux, to put it kindly, on Jewish values, siding with the left on most issues, including Israel.
That an American Jewish writer should think it fitting to “honor” one of her own by suggesting he was brainwashed by a single trip to Israel—a Jew who had the courage and integrity to join body and soul with Israel against Hamas, a barbarian terrorist group whose goal is to wipe every Jew off the planet—is more evidence of the decline of both American and Jewish values in what was once the greatest bastion of human freedom the world has ever known.
Max bucked this norm, and in so doing he managed to bring honor to both his birth country and his homeland. His decision is one that he and I and every American who makes aliyah to Israel have to make based on faith, kinship, history and a deep appreciation for their own particular place in history. Max’s own belief—as his siblings told the thousands of us who crowded together at Mount Herzl—was that in the words of his beloved Bob Marley, “Live for yourself, and you will live in vain. Live for others, and you will live again.”
Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright living in Jerusalem.