Why Fewer Young American Jews Share Their Parents' View of Israel

September 29, 2011 |
It was only after I went to college, met Muslim friends, and enrolled in a Middle Eastern history and politics course that I was challenged to reconcile my liberal, humanist worldview with the fact that the Jewish state of which I was so proud was occupying the land of 4.4 million stateless Palestinians, many of them refugees displaced by Israel's creation.
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"I'm trembling," my mother says, when I tell her I'm working on an article about how younger and older American Jews are reacting differently to the Palestinians' bid for statehood at the United Nations. I understand the frustrations of the Palestinians dealing with ongoing settlements construction and sympathize with their decision to approach the U.N., but my mom supports President Obama's promise to wield the U.S. veto, sharing his view that a two-state solution can be achieved only through negotiations with Israel.

"This is so emotional," she says as we cautiously discuss our difference of opinion. "It makes me feel absolutely terrible when you stridently voice criticisms of Israel."

A lump of guilt and sadness rises in my throat.  I've written harshly of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and its assault on Gaza in 2009, and on civil rights issues in Israel. But speaking my mind on these topics — a very Jewish thing to do — has never been easy. During my childhood in the New York suburbs, support for Israel was as fundamental a family tradition as voting Democratic or lighting the Shabbos candles on Friday night.

My mom has a masters degree in Jewish history and is the program director of a large synagogue. Her youthful Israel experiences, volunteering on a kibbutz and meeting descendants of great-grandmother's siblings, were part of my own mythology. Raised within the Conservative movement, I learned at Hebrew school that Israel was the "land of milk and honey" where Holocaust survivors had irrigated the deserts and made flowers bloom.

What I didn't hear much about was the lives of Palestinians. It was only after I went to college, met Muslim friends, and enrolled in a Middle Eastern history and politics course that I was challenged to reconcile my liberal, humanist worldview with the fact that the Jewish state of which I was so proud was occupying the land of 4.4 million stateless Palestinians, many of them refugees displaced by Israel's creation.

Like many young American Jews, during my senior year of college I took the free trip to Israel offered by the Taglit-Birthright program. The bliss I felt floating in the Dead Sea, sampling succulent fruits grown by Jewish farmers, and roaming the medieval city of Safed, historic center of Kabbalah mysticism, was tempered by other experiences: Watching the construction of the imposing "security fence," which not only tamped down on terrorist attacks, but also separated Palestinian villagers from their lands and water supplies. I spent hours in hushed conversation with a young Israeli soldier who was horrified by what he said was the routinely rough and contemptuous treatment of Palestinian civilians at Israeli military checkpoints.

That trip deepened my conviction that as an American Jew, I could no longer in good conscience offer Israel unquestioning support. I'm not alone. Polling of young American Jews shows that with the exception of the Orthodox, many of us feel less attached to Israel than do our Baby Boomer parents, who came of age during the era of the 1967 and 1973 wars, when Israel was less of an aggressor and more a victim.  A 2007 poll by Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of UC Davis  found that although the majority of American Jews of all ages continue to identify as "Pro-Israel," those under 35 are less likely to identify as "Zionist." Over 40 percent of American Jews under 35 believe that "Israel occupies land belonging to someone else," and over 30 percent report sometimes feeling "ashamed" of Israel's actions.

Hanna King, an 18-year old sophomore at Swarthmore College, epitomizes the generational shift. Raised in Seattle as a Conservative Jew, last November King was part of a group of activists who heckled Netanyahu with slogans against the occupation at a New Orleans meeting of the Jewish Federations General Assembly.

"Netanyahu repeatedly claims himself as a representative of all Jews," King says. "The protest was an outlet for me to make a clear statement, and make it clear that those injustices don't occur in my name. It served as a vehicle for reclaiming my own Judaism."

A more moderate critique is expressed by J Street, the political action committee launched in 2008 as a  "pro-Israel, pro-Peace" counterweight to the influence in Washington of the more hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Simone Zimmerman heads J-Street's campus affiliate at the University of California-Berkeley. A graduate of Jewish private schools, she lived in Tel Aviv as an exchange student during high school, but never heard the word occupation spoken in relation to Israel until she got to college.

During Zimmerman's  freshman year, Berkeley became embroiled in a contentious debate over whether the university should divest from corporations that do business with the Israeli army. Although Zimmerman opposed divestment, she was profoundly affected by the stories she heard from Palestinian-American activists on campus.

"They were sharing their families' experiences of life under occupation and life during the war in Gaza," she remembers. "So much of what they were talking about related to things that I had always been taught to defend, like human rights and social justice, and the value of each individual's life."

Even young rabbis are, as a cohort, more likely to be critical of Israel than are older rabbis. Last week, Cohen, the Hebrew Union College researcher, released a survey of rabbinical students at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, the premier institution for training Conservative rabbis. Though current students are just as likely as their elders to have studied and lived in Israel and to believe Israel is "very important" to their Judaism, about 70 percent of the young, prospective rabbis report feeling "disturbed" by Israel's treatment of Arab Israelis and Palestinians, compared to only about half of those ordained between 1980 and 1994.

Ben Resnick, 27, is one of the rabbinical students who took the survey. In July, he published an op-ed pointing out the ideological inconsistencies between Zionism, which upholds the principle of Israel as a Jewish state, and American liberal democracy, which emphasizes individual rights regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion. "The tragedy," Resnick says, is that the two worldviews may be "irreconcilable."

Still, after living in Jerusalem for 10 months and then returning to New York, Resnick continues to consider himself a Zionist. He quotes the Torah in support of his view that American Jews should press Israel to end settlement expansion and help facilitate a Palestinian state: "Love without rebuke," he says, "is not love."

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