A Lot Of Talk About Engaging Younger Jews On Israel; Now What?
03/18/2011 - 10:37
Gary Rosenblatt

I spent almost 10 hours at the American Jewish Committee headquarters yesterday, most of that time engaged in discussions on whether young American Jews are distancing from Israel.

The answer -- first heard at a six-hour colloquium with about 45 Jewish leaders and thinkers and later at a panel discussion for young AJC lay leaders -- was yes, younger Jews feel less connected to Israel. But that was the easy part.

The deeper exploration was into why that was the case, with responses attributing the problem to: the failure of the American Jewish establishment to provide adequate Modern Israel education; a parallel (and connected) lack of interest among the young in Judaism itself; and the policies of Israeli governments on dealing with Arab citizens, relations with Palestinians, women, liberal Jewish denominations, etc., all of which were said to clash with the liberal values of young American Jews.

Peter Beinart’s name was invoked too many times to count, with the former New Republic editor’s article, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” published in the New York Review of Books last May, the central reference point throughout the day, referred to and picked over like a page of Talmud.

The lengthy essay asserted that young American Jews are in conflict over their Western values clashing with Israel’s alleged less than democratic policies, and as a result, they are distancing themselves from Israel.

Participants took exception to degrees of emphasis Beinart made in the article and his lack of emphasis on the very real threats Israel faces. But they agreed on the key thesis, and focused on what, if anything, can be done about it, particularly by an establishment organization like the AJC.

No easy answers there, and some of the generational tensions discussed in the colloquium played out in the room.

Steven Bayme, the AJC’s national director of contemporary Jewish life, noted the effort to have younger people represented in the discussion; more than one-third of the participants were in their 20s and 30s. But several of the younger people noted that the “gray haired” participants gave the main presentations, and wondered if the younger attendees had been invited as “window dressing.”

Some of the observations that resonated with me, include:

* “Israel education has been hijacked by Israel advocacy programs”;

* “We as a community have made the Holocaust the central narrative while Israel has nowhere near that status”;

* “The problem of indifference to Israel is much more troubling than hostility among younger people, which at least shows passion”;

* “Our community has been a total failure in teaching Modern Israel, and we are paying the price”;

* “If you invite young people to the table, you have to give them a say in the decision making, too – and that’s a risk”;

* “A way to engage young people on Israel is to focus on social justice issues rather than the political conflict.”

* “The topic of this program should have been ‘How Young American Jews Are Distancing Themselves From Idiocy’ because we don’t even have the language for talking about Israel.”

The evening program, sponsored by Access, an AJC program for younger Jews, echoed and reinforced much of what had been talked about earlier in the day. More than 50 participants focused on who should be allowed in the big tent of pro-Israel support and who left out. The consensus was to make that tent as wide as possible, even talking to enemies of Israel for the purpose of civil discussion.

As with many of these day-long conference and discussions, the level of discourse was high and the comments made were thoughtful and often provocative.

But the proof will be in whether there is follow-up, and if so, what comes of it. Stay tuned.

Comments

I too grew up in a Conservative synagogue, was a relatively successful Hebrew school graduate, Ramah, USY chapter president, List college grad, etc. But unlike the previous comment, now I live in Israel and am a full supporter (not uncritically) of the Jewish State.

Why?

In the Conservative synagogue and education of my youth, three pillars made up what we would call today Jewish identity – Holocaust, Soviet Jewry, and Israel.

The Holocaust was simply a negative reason to be Jewish.

Soviet Jewry – post the Soviet Union, that is kind of pointless.

Israel education was basically: “The Arabs tried to kill us, but we won several wars.” Unfortunately, now many people wish we would had lost. Some prefer Jews as victims than as heroes.

And the worst – apathy and complacency – has taken root in much of the greater American Jewish community.

What is needed is a positive reason to be Jewish, to be affiliated, to like Israel.

Jewish rituals and text represent some of the most profound, potent, and moral ideas humanity has. After 2000 years of homelessness and oppression (sometimes benign often malignant) the State offers us a unique opportunity to become lights to the world. Israel is young and has much growing up to do. But we created an instant (yet imperfect) democracy, we strive (although sometimes stumble) to secure human rights and dignity, we have stimulated unprecedented Jewish creativity, and all this with a feeling (sometimes imagined but usually real) of existential danger.

Stop feeding our youth (and our adults) on a diet of negativity and stagnancy. It is pathetic and boring. Instead, learn with them, engage them in the beauty (but don't whitewash the difficult issues), and show them and the world the wonders of Jewish tradition.

Mr. Rosenblatt, it appears that you are successfully changing the focus of the Jewish Week into a pro boycott, divestment and sanctions anti-Israel weekly paper. I strongly disagree with your new anti-Israel editorial focus and the resultant increase in anti-Israel commentators. The AJC has no influence in mainstream congregations. I disagree with your representation that Peter Beinart's far left politics are a true reflection of the Jewish Community. I urge you to reconsider your editorial focus. It would be tragic for your paper to become predictably stale and irrelevant.

Just as politicians remind themselves that "It's the economy, stupid" we Jews should continually repeat to ourselves that "it's the Occupation!" multiple times every day. How can we support Israel when she's continues to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians 24/7 365 from their own land? It seems to me that a secular binational state with constitutionally-guaranteed equal rights for all is Israel's only hope. You can forget about young Jews supporting apartheid Israel.

Hahahahaha. I grew up in a conservative shul, was a straight A Hebrew school student and spent a year of High School in Israel. Do you know what drove me away from the Jewish community and from Israel? The apartheid policies of the Israeli state. When I saw the ruins of villages that the JNF built forests over. When I read the first-hand accounts, written in 1949, in Hebrew, of Israeli soldiers expelling Palestinians from their homes as a matter of policy. When I saw checkpoints and the Wall.

And the fact that when anyone wanted to talk about these things you wouldn't listen, you plugged your fingers in your ears and shouted "lalalalala antisemite antisemite."

You drove me away.

When I was active in the Washington DC Jewish community In the '70's as a member of Habonim and of the Jewish Youth Council, we worked across the board mainly on the subject of Soviet Jewry and Israel. It didn't matter which youth group you belonged to. We all knew that the place for Idealogical discussion was within the Movement and that as a Jewish community we must be united to achieve our goals. The exception was Kahane's JDL. I don't recognize the Jewish community anymore, It is separated and polarized along Israeli political party lines. Living here in Israel I am disgusted by our own polarization, but to see it imported to the American Jewish Community is especially sad to me.

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