Wasted On The Young

I am spending a good deal of time these days talking to Jewish undergraduates in various universities, drumming up interest in my newly published book. As always, the experience of speaking to young people is humbling. Their minds are as taut as their bodies. They have never heard of you. They give any published visitor too much deference, but the moment you say something they don’t understand, you can almost hear them thinking about their plans for later. Yet you also feel that when you connect, you are giving a meteorite a small shove, knowing that a light year from now it will have moved a great distance from where it might otherwise have gone on its current trajectory.

I wouldn’t miss these lectures. But one recurring pattern to their questioning gives me pause. Again and again, I present my case: that Israeli centrists cannot enjoy Hebrew globalization if they are mired in an ongoing war, that they’ll need to bring their democracy up to code if they hope to avoid an internal Intifada, etc.—the book’s array of “if-then” statements, algorithms justifying democratic life, ultimately. Again and again, the students tell me they agree with both the principles of action and the political dangers I’m describing, but then they ask: “Given the politics of the situation, in Washington and in Israel, how can we possibly get there? Aren’t you being naïve to talk about this future when you can’t show that we’ll realize it?”

NOW, I DO not mean to denigrate this response. Ought implies can, after all. But hearing this from, of all people, students on their campuses struck me as both odd and yet oddly true to the zeitgeist. They have time to gravitate toward their convictions. Who, when I was their age, could have claimed realism and also predicted the European Union, the fall of the Berlin wall, the bourgeois revolution in China, the triumph of the civil rights movement, women CEOs, the reciprocities of globalization, the success of Canada’s federation, married gays, or, indeed, the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

I answered them: “You keep asking me, can I show you what will happen. That is the wrong question. The right question is, What is justice? It is not your responsibility to know the future. It’s your responsibility to know what’s right. Once you have a firm idea about what’s right, you’ll have a problem for the rest of your life, and that problem will be your future.”

This answer brought nervous smiles to some faces, but it was clearly not something most were accustomed to hearing. Right meant next. Pursuing virtue was a philosophical version of voting for “electability.” It felt slightly sad, the way management consultants preparing for a client's board meeting feel slightly sad.

SO I AM going to request a little favor from the readers of this blog. The next time a young person asks you, “What do you think is going to happen?”—not only about the peace process, about anything—tell them that you are only going to answer the question, “What do you think should happen?” Pass it on.

And while you’re at it, you might want to send them to this remarkable speech which President Jimmy Carter delivered to the Knesset in March of 1979, just before bringing off the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and written (though I did not know it at the time) by a man who would become my friend, The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg. I felt proud for both Israelis and Americans when I sat in the Knesset gallery and heard it. I never forgot it:

Our vision must be as great as our goal. Wisdom and courage are required of us all, and so too, are practicality and realism. We must not lose this moment. We must pray as if everything depended on God, and we must act as if everything depends on ourselves.

What kind of peace do we seek? Spinoza said that peace is not an absence of war: it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, for confidence, for justice.

There is still no peace. He was right.