Published in the Wall Street Journal – July 2014
A few months ago when I last attended synagogue, an older woman approached me, having overheard that I had served in the military. Speaking in Hebrew, she said, “Kol ha’kavod,” or “All the respect”—akin to “well done.” Actually, she said a bit more, but because—like many young American Jews— I don’t speak Hebrew, I didn’t understand what she was saying. I stared at her blankly and finally mustered “Ani lo m’daber evrit,” or “I don’t speak Hebrew.” She responded incredulously, asking, “How did you serve in the IDF”—the Israel Defense Forces—”without knowing Hebrew?” My answer was simple: I didn’t—I served in the United States Marine Corps.
She thanked me again for my service but went away still a little perplexed. For as long as I can remember, American Jews have revered those who volunteered for the IDF. I also admire them, having founded a pro-Israel club in the 2000s in a suburban Philadelphia high school that coincidentally was the same one attended by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel. I went on to Brandeis University, which was founded by and for Jews in response to discrimination by elite American institutions. It was understood that to serve in the IDF was to fight for all Jews, in Israel and the diaspora, and in some sense for Jews who lived and died—often slaughtered simply for their Jewishness—before Israel’s founding.
It was not unusual to hear of American Jews choosing to serve in Israel, where military service is mandatory and the country is under constant threat. It was much less common to hear of them joining the all-volunteer U.S. military. That is largely how Jews serving in the U.S. military today are considered by fellow Jews: as anomalies.
The attitude doesn’t suggest any diminished respect toward those who serve in the U.S. It is more indicative of wonder or a slight bewilderment. I can’t imagine asking or anyone else asking a young American Jew who volunteered for the IDF why he joined. The answer would be obvious—Israel needs defenders. In the U.S., where most Americans go through their daily lives rarely encountering a member of the military, much less a Jewish one, I was often asked why I had joined.
The answer was easy: because I am an American. Yes, Israel will always hold a special place in my heart. Israel is the embodied dream of a people—my people—exiled and downtrodden for 2,000 years, returning to their homeland, a unique historical event. But in the grand sweep of history, it is America and the American dream for which I hold the most awe.
America is a country for all peoples. Like the identities of all other modern nation-states, Israel is one based on an ethnic, cultural or religious affinity; it is a state for a specific people with an exclusive identity. In that regard it is not dissimilar to what the Palestinians desire in a Palestine, the Kurds in a Kurdistan, or what the Slovaks desired in a Slovakia. It is similar to the ethno-nationalism that undergirds the founding of modern European nation-states.
Namely, this means the ancestry, cultural attitudes and shared history attendant to what it means to be English, French or Greek—as borne out by the recent electoral success of rightist parties in those countries and the difficulties Muslim immigrants have experienced in assimilating. It is the same understanding that lies behind the historical enmity between, say, China and Japan. They are all states for specific peoples.
That is where America differs. American identity is heterogeneous. America is for everyone in general and no one in particular. There may be hyphenated groups—Jewish-American, African-American, Chinese-American, Irish-American—but the “Americanness” of any group is not in doubt. There are legal means for anyone from anywhere to obtain American citizenship and to be accepted as American citizens both by the government in its official capacity and by native-born Americans in their unofficial one. You may be asked about where your family is from originally, but that is not intended to cheapen your U.S. citizenship—the assumption is that in the land of immigrants, nearly everyone has roots somewhere else.
Yes, American history has the stain of slavery and Jim Crow laws, but just as all people are sinners, so are all nations. As long as we continue to struggle to live up to our founding ideals, just as sinners continually strive for righteousness, it is that ennobling ideal that sets America apart. It is an ideal that young Americans of every religious and ethnic background should consider fighting for.
Mr. Luxenberg, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps (2009-13), is in a masters-degree program at Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.