Yesterday, Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky, two of the most feted Jewish men alive, took the stage at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in Baltimore. The event was billed as a “historic dialogue to commemorate the 1987 March on Washington for Soviet Jewry,” but it ended up being more of a lament. Both Wiesel and Sharansky expressed dismay at the fact that today’s young Jews seem to have no idea what the March was really about. Many have never even heard of it.
Sharansky, who endured nine years in a Russian gulag, called the story of Soviet Jewry’s escape “an extremely powerful story of our strength as a people, no less than the Exodus from Egypt.” But while every young Jew I know is familiar with the basic narrative of the Exodus, I can count on my fingers those who know about the battle for Soviet Jewry. Which leads to the question: Why doesn’t my generation remember this story?
The answer came to me in a flash when, following the “historic dialogue,” I bumped into an old friend of mine outside the auditorium. I asked her what she’d thought of the event, and she replied that it had seemed, well, kind of…old school. “Retro Judaism,” she called it, grinning.
This term was new to me, so I asked for clarification. “It’s just, you know, Wiesel and Sharansky are from a different generation, a different world.” She didn’t elaborate further, but I think I see now what she meant: These men come from the age of concentration camps and gulags, from a time when Jews were the perpetual underdogs living at the mercy of the goyim. We, on the other hand, have grown up in an age of Jewish power. Whereas our parents remember watching thousands of Ethiopian Jews trek toward the rescue planes that would airlift them to Israel, we are watching as Israel deports Sudanese and Eritrean refugees to their deaths.
Because we’ve grown up in the age of Uzi’s and M16’s, battles like Wiesel’s and Sharansky’s—over the bare fact of Jewish survival—don’t resonate for us the way they do for our parents.
Of course, the Holocaust figured prominently in my Jewish education. Like many of my millennial peers, I read Night in high school, visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and even went on a field trip to Auschwitz (most depressing field trip ever, by the way). But then—also like many of my peers—I went and spent some time in Israel. Where, it seemed, the very existence of a Jewish state was clear proof that the old battles had already been won.
The upshot is that now, what concerns young Jews is not: How do we get more power? What concerns us (or what should concern us, anyway) is: How do we wield power ethically, now that we’ve got it?
Ironically, that second question—and, I suspect, attendant guilt over our inability to properly answer it in the context of Israel—is now galvanizing a renewed commitment to social justice issues among young American Jews. In fact, that has been one of the unifying themes of this year’s GA, where the words tikkun olam are being bandied about like they’re going out of style. It seems Jewish millennials are rediscovering that, as Wiesel put it yesterday, it is “romantic, suddenly, to work for human rights.” I hope he and Sharansky can take comfort in that, if nothing else.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.