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Do Young Jews Care about Israel?

by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub | Published on June 5, 2008

Panel Sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and The Jewish Week 

I was 19 years old when Professor Steven M. Cohen’s “Distancing from Israel” hypoth­esis took root in my life.

I was a bene­fi­ciary of your average Gen X Reform upbringing, only perhaps a bit more ardently Zionist. Growing up in an Evangelical, midwestern town where anti-Semitism was alive and well, I saw Israel’s tanks as protecting me even in the American heart­land (in some ways placing my expe­ri­ence emotion­ally closer to my parent’s gener­a­tion than to my own). I was the sort of 15-year-old who set out to memo­rize AIPAC’s Myths and Facts, and at 17, I applied this knowl­edge in an amateur film about mobi­lizing American support for Israel against its critics and enemies. 

So what happened when I was 19 and a starry-eyed sopho­more at Harvard? I tell this story with sadness, now from my vantage point as a Conservative Rabbi devoting my life to the Jewish people and to Israel’s well-being, with a bit of a sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” 

Like many of my gener­a­tion, I was a budding social justice activist with a weak Jewish educa­tion, tikkun olam my only sacred Jewish phrase, fond of char­ac­ter­izing my iden­tity with prefixes like post– and multi-. Despite my litur­gical recita­tions of Myths and Facts, I was really a novice in under­standing the layers and complex­i­ties of the conflict when I went to hear Alan Dershowitz speak at Harvard Hillel.

I don’t remember any of the content of his talk. 

What I do remember, vividly, was a young man calmly raising his hand and intro­ducing himself as Rami, a Palestinian from Ramallah. I remember sensing he had some­thing impor­tant to say, and I wanted to know what it was. He phrased his ques­tion concisely, and respect­fully, as if to chal­lenge, but not to provoke. I don’t remember his ques­tion, only that it struck me as reason­able, and that he used the phrase “collec­tive punish­ment,” the first time I’d heard that term. And I remember the tension that filled the room. Eye-rolling and mocking if not hostile looks. Smirks as Alan Dershowitz verbally boxed him in response, seem­ingly more concerned with defeating than hearing or engaging him.

And I suddenly felt in that moment that I too had been trained (or trained myself) to shut down rather than to hear and truly engage.

So this expe­ri­ence was not the only salient factor in my atten­u­ated Jewish iden­tity in college, but it did mark my last visit to Hillel for 3 years. 

Like many other social justice activists on campus, prob­ably 60% of whom were disaf­fected Jews, I took to using words like “myopic,” “parochial,” and “solip­sistic” to describe the Jewish commu­nity on campus. And for us post– and multi-everything activists– such “narrow­ness” was heresy.

When I heard a Jewish-born Buddhist nun say she’d become a Buddhist because in her obser­va­tion, being Jewish meant rooting for a foot­ball team, while being Buddhist meant striving to be a good person by alle­vi­ating the suffering of all human beings, I thought then that she was right. And among the fore­most images on my mind, in so believing, were Alan Dershowitz and his chided ques­tioner, Rami. 

I’m telling you this story because I think it anec­do­tally captures what Professor Cohen has substan­ti­ated in his studies. 

Now, I would like to locate my personal expe­ri­ence in the context of some more empir­ical obser­va­tions about my gener­a­tion and Israel.

In addi­tion to the report that Professor Cohen authored, the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies put out another study that’s more qual­i­ta­tive than quan­ti­ta­tive, enti­tled, “Israel in an Age of Eminem” (the rap artist, not the candy). This study doesn’t address whether young Jews are distancing from Israel, but rather why and how. It’s based on a number of focus groups convened of Gen X and Gen Yers, and notes perva­sive aver­sion to much of the marketing conducted by Israel advo­cacy organizations.

I would like to accent two find­ings from this study:
First, young Jews want to be exposed to a multi­plicity of perspec­tives, not black-and-white, us-and-them thinking. Young Jews don’t think about Israel (or any other country) in morally pris­tine terms. Many of us have mixed feel­ings and crit­ical judg­ment towards all sides, including “our own.”

Relatedly, young Jews want open and welcoming settings in which to explore and decide for ourselves what we think. We don’t want to be spoon-fed, polit­i­cally or intel­lec­tu­ally, in a heavy-handed way.

When I walked away from Hillel at 19, after witnessing a Jewish commu­nity that seemed anything but welcoming and respectful of multiple perspec­tives and complexity rather than us-and-them soli­darity and intol­er­ance of dissent, I didn’t know the extent to which I was a cari­ca­ture of my gener­a­tion. I did know, trav­eling in my orbit of social justice Jews who wouldn’t be caught dead at Hillel, that I was far from alone. 

I’m now going to ever so briefly touch on what I do now, as a way of briefly gesturing at what all of us can do if we want the next gener­a­tion to care about Israel and the Jewish people.

Thirteen years after I walked away from Hillel, I’m a conser­v­a­tive Rabbi, and the founding co-director of an orga­ni­za­tion that has brought hundreds of Jewish leaders from a stag­gering range of polit­ical and reli­gious back­grounds to Palestinians cities in the West Bank to listen, witness, and learn.
• About 80% of our past partic­i­pants, at this stage, are 20–30-something emerging Jewish leaders– educa­tors, young communal leaders, Rabbis-in-training from every semi­nary and several Orthodox yeshivot. From this young demo­graphic, we have waiting lists for every trip, and more demand than we’ll be able to meet ’til we arrive at Birthright scale,
• About 20% (and growing) of our partic­i­pants are more estab­lished Jewish leaders: Federation exec­u­tives, JCRC direc­tors, phil­an­thropists, jour­nal­ists, Board members of major Jewish organizations.,

Our primary mission is to catalyze an impor­tant conver­sa­tion between Jews and other Jews every bit as much as between Jews and Palestinians. 

We are committed to creating a safe container for right– and left-wing Jews to encounter each other with real mutual listening and respect, to sit down in front of the sepa­ra­tion barrier together and grapple with what it means. Often our partic­i­pants claim that our trips are the first time they’re able to hear other Jews who think radi­cally differ­ently than them, let alone Palestinians.

We target committed, rather than disaf­fected Jews, because we believe that expo­sure to Palestinian narra­tives and real­i­ties is an essen­tial part of the educa­tion of Jewish leaders who will build a more vibrant, open, and appealing Jewish commu­nity for the next generation.

I want to give you two snap­shots of our partic­i­pants to demon­strate why:

The first: a story of two Encounter partic­i­pants. One of them, we’ll call her Stacy, returned for a second Encounter trip as a small group facil­i­tator. These are groups that meet before, during, and after each trip to digest the expe­ri­ence together. We obsess over making these groups as diverse as possible. Picture Yeshivat Ha-kotel students sitting with HUC rabbinical students, if that means some­thing to you.

What we didn’t know was that on this trip we had placed in Stacy’s group the former President of the Hillel where Stacy had been a student, who had publicly ostra­cized Stacy because of her views on Israel. At the end of her first day in Bethlehem, the young woman who had been the President of her former Hillel took Stacy’s hand, and simply said, “I’m so sorry. I was so wrong.” She didn’t say whether she was revising her views, or just that her tactics had been wrong…she simply said, “I’m sorry”.

Three years later, when we asked Stacy to describe the moment that most struck and moved her from her trip, she didn’t describe anything she’d heard or seen from Palestinians. Her most moving recol­lec­tion of being in Palestinian terri­tory was the healing moment in which a fellow Jewish leader took her hand, and said, ‘I’m sorry I shut you down’.

The second snap­shot is of Michael, who is a Yeshiva University-ordained Rabbi educating Orthodox youth in Toronto through NCSY, the National Council of Synagogue Youth. Michael was scared for months to share his expe­ri­ence on Encounter because he was afraid that doing so might turn his students off to Israel. Just last week, I received this email from him (and I will quote him in his own words because they’re so powerful):

I real­ized that while I’ve been sitting at home worrying about how my expe­ri­ences in Bethlehem and Hebron could create nega­tive PR for Israel, my students have been out in the world hearing those messages from a hundred other sources. They hear about it in the news. They hear about it in their public schools. And they hear about it from each other. These issues are on the conscious­nesses of young North American Jews. If they don’t hear about what’s happening from me, they’ll hear about it from someone else. Someone who is likely to have a strong anti-Israel bias, and who will present the infor­ma­tion without balance and nuance.

So last week I shared my Encounter expe­ri­ences with my Grade 12 class….Many students in the class had decided, based on what they had heard from other sources, to turn against Israel entirely. They were embar­rassed about what goes on in the West Bank, and were using that as reason to give up on the whole Israel exper­i­ment. They didn’t see construc­tive crit­i­cism as an option. They had never heard someone crit­i­cize Israel out of love. I was able to model an approach for them that balances a love for Israel and a recog­ni­tion of Israel’s mistakes. It was a perspec­tive that they needed to hear. And it was thanks to Encounter that I was able to present it to them.

This is an Orthodox Rabbi working in perhaps the most polit­i­cally conser­v­a­tive city in Jewish North America, at least in rela­tion to Israel. And he says his students were at risk of giving up on Israel because they had no exam­ples of the balance and nuance that our gener­a­tion craves.

I’m going to close with my core prescrip­tive message:
If we want the next gener­a­tion to care about Israel, we need to replace a para­digm of black-and-white soli­darity with a para­digm of informed, nuanced, and open-eyed engagement. 

We need day school class­rooms, syna­gogues, and forums to be open, inclu­sive settings in which we explore multiple narra­tives and conflicting claims (including those of Palestinians as well as diverse view­points of Israelis). We need to allow our students and constituents to decide for them­selves what they think, without gag orders or required party lines. We need to grapple and disagree over Israel’s future with love, and without taboos.

Doing so will not only better attract the next gener­a­tion of Jews to Israel. It will also restore the very vibrancy and creative problem-solving that we need to survive and thrive as a people in both Israel and here at home.

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