In his 1938 book, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, Jewish American author Delmore Schwartz wrote of a young man in a crowded movie theatre. This is no ordinary cinema. Playing on the screen is his own mother and father, repeating their teenaged romance. The young man hates it. The lighting is bad. Worse, his parents play their roles wrong – his father is too anxious, and his mother isn’t the right fit.
Since action begets action, the young man tries to change the plot, much to the dismay of the other patrons. When his father proposes to his mother, the unnamed narrator starts to yell madly: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it.” But, of course, this is a cinema, and nothing is achieved besides a threat from the usher. Although the movie and the outbursts continue, by the end, the usher with his heavy flashlight escorts the young man out, and the young man wakes up in his bed.
There’s a lesson here. As this secular year ends and the Hebrew calendar catches up to the feats of the Maccabees, I think much of what has transpired so far this year is useful to be thought of as happening inside a movie. After the boycott-divest-sanctions (BDS) vote at University of Ottawa, the anti-Jewish propaganda at McGill University, and the typical lunacy over inviting Linda “Zionists can’t be feminists” Sarsour and the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace to a conference on anti-Semitism, what matters most?
For starters, none of it. “Envirez-vous,” the French poet Charles Baudelaire declared as the key to life, “De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu… mais envirez-vous!” (The English translation, “Get drunk on wine, poetry or virtue, but get drunk!” sounds considerably less refined.) Perhaps not coincidentally, Jewish practice synthesizes all three – and though this fact doesn’t dominate column inches or Facebook posts as much as (literally) sophomores debating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it should not be understated. There are more Jews now than at any point since the Shoah. At Hillel Ottawa and the Chabad Student Network, almost every day there are new and meaningfully Jewish connections for the generation written off as “secular” or “apathetic.” The 2016 Canadian census and the curious case of the unreported half of Canadian Jewry is only partly to blame. When we talk of statistics, we generalize – but young Jews aren’t writing off their faith, insofar as they find a myriad of Jewish connections in mysterious ways.
In other words, I imagine that sitting through this recast movie would take a bit longer than in the original – the romance between Jews and the Shabbat queen and bride far outlasts a single generation. The actions of the pro-BDS movement is contemptible, but even if they succeed, and they haven’t, is the threat existential? Judaism is more than Portnoy’s Complaint, Larry David, and a Woody Allen joke wrapped up in a Q&A by Bernie Sanders or a Seinfeld reference in a Ben Sasse speech. Israel isn’t important because it’s simply the restoration of an eternal dream (“If you will, it is no dream,” as Herzl wrote in The Jewish State), but because of what it continues to represent: Jewish values, Jewish continuity, Jewish tradition. The BDS movement threatens none of these accomplishments – besides our shared Israeli-Canadian values.
Therefore, if we do include the BDS movement in this film, it would have to be as comedic relief. For the ninth consecutive time in two years, BDS failed in Canada – and the only resolution their proponents passed at the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) was the promise for SFUO “to do all in its power to peacefully resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” (Quick, someone please notify the Israeli Embassy: a Canadian student union is willing to talk.) From a student association that banned yoga, whose last president threatened legal action against a campus newspaper and three members of his own executive for “defamation of character,” comes the next big idea: Peace in the Middle East. Compared to Iran’s nuclear and hemogenic ambitions, do we seriously think this is the largest challenge facing Israel?
On campus, and as a community, we have bigger ambitions than campus politics: Hebrew illiteracy, intermarriage rates, donations, federal and provincial politics. The next time an anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli motion passes, which it invariably will somewhere, and there is a debate over how to respond, consider Schwartz’s outcry: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change our minds.