Adventures of an Accidental Zionist: Encounters with the Anxiety of Jewish Extinction

On a domestic flight earlier this year, I found myself next to a sleek woman and her wide-eyed toddler. The stylish mother tended to her daughter. Industrial zippers on leather sleeves clinked softly against her slim, bangled wrists as she held a juice box for the thirsty child. Discretely, the mother quenched her own anxiety with a Xanax.

She talked to me, distracting herself from imminent take-off. A former television executive until recently, she had worked in a leadership role for a national network. Like many women in the workforce, when it came time to start her family she relinquished her profession to focus her energies on the animated bundle that now sat between us. A devoted mother, she had brought a selection of activities for the blue-eyed baby who was already busily engaged. Unlike her mother, the child was still innocent of fear. The mother talked rapidly, unable to conceal her building anxiety.

"Right now I am paying dues to three Temples in Manhattan. We just cannot decide which one is best for our family. For us to give her the right religious education, we have to be members of the community for some time. I know its crazy, but we hope to be able to settle on one soon. They just get so expensive!"

She expanded on Hebrew schools and congregations. Being neither a mother, nor Jewish, I tried hard to follow. In time, she leaned forward to retrieve a fallen toy, though the child did not demand it. By now we were long airborne, when she said, almost as an aside, " Sometimes, I wish my daughter wasn't Jewish..." She sighed, deeply, gazing at her child.

" What do you mean?" I asked, genuinely shocked. "You are Jewish, aren't you?" She waved away my confusion, nodding in affirmation.

"I wish she wasn't Jewish because I fear for her. If my daughter wasn't Jewish, she wouldn't have to face the possibility of hardship, or who knows what else...I don't know what my child will face in her future because she is Jewish" explaining she didn't ever worry about these things until after she had become a mother. She trailed off into a private silence, locked in fractured, frightening thought.

We both watched the child. Fat, dimpled hands grasped toy blocks well beyond the span of a tiny, determined grip. Every moment, it seemed the block might fall, yet somehow it did not. In the unspoken future her mother envisioned, Judaism too might slip away just as abruptly, and finally, from humanity's futile, infant clasp.

Months later, at the University of Cambridge, I found myself ensnared in discussions with a visiting professor from Bar Ilan University, Israel. Dr. Noah Efron was speaking about Science and Judaism for the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship.

As the seminar developed, Noah described the role of migrant American Jewry in promoting secular systems of education here in the United States as a safeguard for parental autonomy over religious instruction. Promoting secular education allowed the newly arrived Jewish migrants to teach their children themselves, initially inside the home. Later their efforts led to schools attached to religious congregations and finally these efforts laid the path for parochial Jewish schools, the Yeshivot which would eventually follow. In time, Noah reminisced about the changes in American Jewish identity through the course of his lifetime,

'... there is a lot of discomfort in a lot of quarters about what they call 'continuity', a buzzword which means ensuring there will be Jews in the next generation and the generation after.........many feel nostalgic for something of beauty and importance in their Judaism that's being lost... that won't be transmitted to their children... they are (very) worried about it... and so.... some are returning to more traditional forms of Judaism including orthodoxy... and if it turns out that this was all a 5000 year adventure that was to end sometime....I feel this is a tragedy and yet... I believe in God and I have faith it will work out."

For a time, I lost my place in the seminar. Again, the unspeakable had been articulated, again, almost as an after-thought. The anxiety of extinction wasn't a figment of my overactive imagination, but in fact a palpable reality for thoughtful, articulate Jews. This anxiety of extinction represents a fearfully practical concern, which is not relegated to dusty academic treatise studying the 20th century, but rather a living tension every Jew must reconcile, rationalize, repress. Nor is this a new phenomenon. In the 1840s, French Jews (besieged by virulent anti-Semitism) sought desperate, linguistic shelter by striking the word Jew from the dictionary.

'The necessary and perhaps sufficient condition for ending anti-Jewish hostility was to make the word Jew- a distillation of venomous passion, a diatribe, a calumny- disappear' Alain Finkielkraut in The Imaginary Jew, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Later this summer, I was speaking to a physician, once my teacher, now my friend and colleague. On a rare afternoon slowly unfolding between patient consultations we talked about politics. An American by birth, his heritage is Ashkenazi Jewish. We talked about our experience of near synchronous generational migration, my family from 1947 India to Pakistan; his, from Europe to America, both under difficult but very different circumstances. " America is a great place for us. Our home." My feelings are the same, I found myself thinking, "But that's while times are good. If things ever change here, the only refuge we have is Israel. When times are bad, who can say..." and he daren't finish the sentence.

Each of these conversations occurred within the past year. Together they revealed to me for the first time what Jews must contend with: a visceral, unique anxiety of extinction. As a Muslim, it is critically important to first acknowledge this and then empathize. For now, I am one of 1.57 billion. A population the size of the Muslim Ummah cannot begin to fathom its own possible extinction. Certainly, we have our own fears, some more acutely heightened in the startling ascent of modern Islamophobia, the unwelcome and, as yet, fetal legacy of a contemporary, ferociously radical Islam. One can only imagine what else Islamist extremism will beget. Our inability, however, to envision the infinite perpetuation of Muslims and, through them, an immortal Islam, is not typically one of these fears. Certainly, the anxiety of Muslim extinction never emerges during ordinary conversation with a Muslim mother, a Muslim scholar, a Muslim physician.

That such fears are even part of the lucid and rational concerns of thoughtful, educated Jews is everyone's disgrace, everyone's concern. Followers of Judaism embody the oldest form of monotheist, Abrahamic faith. Jewish scriptures, commandments, traditions and rituals are inextricably woven into the fabric of faiths which would follow in Judaism's wake. Muslims, particularly so, are immersed in this fused engraftment. When I bend at the hip during supplication and pause in ruku, I move according to a legacy of Judaic prayer. When Muslim women enforce their Islamic rights to an independent inheritance, they do so just as the Daughters of Zelophelad once claimed of behalf of their brethren. While we would be guaranteed our inheritance through Mohammed, these six Jewish sisters were guaranteed theirs through Moses, millennia earlier.

An anxiety of extinction cannot continue to be propagated, enfolded in silence and fear. Articulating this fear is the first step towards its dismemberment. If our fellow believers, followers of Moses, keepers of the Torah's Covenant, fear an envisioned extinction, it is our responsibility as Ahl-al-Kitaab (People of the Book) to alleviate these fears. Call me an Accidental Zionist, if you must, but Eretz Yisrael is a vital shelter, an only shelter, from lethal, genocidal anti-Semitism.

There are numerous forces fueling resurgent anti-Semitism today, one of the foremost perhaps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a conflict which has been portrayed as over faith but is in fact a conflict over land. If Muslims must choose, we must believe more in Islam than in Palestine. Palestinians are on the verge of a two-state solution and will retain their national identity. Many do so now, even outside of the territories. But even if this wasn't to be the case, Palestinians will always be Muslims and for them there will always be a Muslim world within which they may be re-settled, would the Muslim world receive them as Muslims are mandated to receive their brethren. But, should Palestine one day not exist, the Palestinian will always be able to be Muslim and so too, his child.

In contrast, without modern Israel, Jews may indeed, one fearful day, become permanently lost to us. Without Israel, there is no Jewish nation. One need look only to history for its appalling, awful testimony of what is humanly possible.

As Muslims, over a billion and a half strong, we can never understand this fear, once grotesquely animated in Hitler's appalling vision still accessible to us in living memory. Muslims may indeed have faced mandatory migration, as my family did from India to Pakistan in 1947, but we didn't face extinction. More than sixty years later, the 'case for Pakistan' is uncontested, yet the 'case for Israel', authored by the same powers, is perpetually raised.

Muslims (and indeed all faithful) who fail to shelter the treasures and followers of Judaism must know when we deny their origins, when we deny their painful history, when we deny the Shoah, when we instead feed or fuel their current fears, we stand to lose our own noble origins and our fused, quite pulsatile heritage. Ultimately, doing so we are seeking nothing more than the abruption of own umbilical connection to Abraham. The loss of Global Jewry would be cataclysmic, the legacy irretrievable and humanity become a gruesome amputee, floundering, adrift.

Far from an hysterical abstraction, this scenario, in an age of the digital armies of Al Qaedah and the repugnant oratory of Ahmednejad, in an age of fracturing Islamic identities snapping into unprecedented, feral Islamic extremism is fast becoming a tangible diplomatic, political and military concern.

As co-religionist Muslims tarred by the Taliban, as silent Muslim moderates stained by the soldiers of Al Qaedah, Muslims must ask ourselves what feeds such fundamental fears that a young mother regrets her child's Jewish origins. As Muslims we must ask what security and assurances can we, as younger siblings to God's firstborn, contribute to begin repairing these deeply visceral anxieties. And we must ask of ourselves, what can we do that extinction of Jewry as a valid fear might itself be extinguished, finally, and emphatically so.

Preserving, celebrating and perpetuating Judaism is not a solitary work but a noble collective pursuit, one within which each of us, Jew, or non-Jew, has a vital part and valued role. For the Palestinian, there is always a place in a billion-strong Ummah, even our Prophet Mohammed himself was the prototypical Muslim migrant. But for the Jew, there is no such luxury. There is only Israel. If we care for wider humanity at all, we must all be 'accidental' Zionists and want for the Jews, for the Israelis, what each Muslim already has for themselves: a future, a nation and a faith, secured.