It has happened again. The rift between America’s Jewish Establishment and young, liberal-minded Jews has widened in the wake of the Gaza War. Synagogues, Jewish Federations, Jewish Community Councils, Rabbinical Boards and all three major Jewish movements (Orthodox, Conservative and Reform) from Detroit and Cleveland to New York and Miami have thrown their unconditional support behind Israel.
In the past few weeks, virtually every Jewish communal institution in the United States has organized, sponsored or participated in rallies to ‘support Israel’ or ‘stand with Israel,’ ambiguous language which actually means ‘stand with’ or ‘support’ the policies of the current Israeli government. Jews would certainly dispute this point, and emphasize that Israel is not perfect.
But I am not aware of a single rally organized by a single Jewish institution of the kind described above to have opposed the policies of the current Israeli government. If Israel is indeed imperfect, as we are so often told by its supporters, what are imperfections? I’m sure this magazine would gladly publish a statement criticizing Israeli policies signed by all the major Jewish organizations.
But there were no critical rallies at synagogues or Jewish Community Centers just as there were no statements from the major Jewish movements criticizing Israel.
Of course, there have always been Jewish groups to oppose Israel’s actions, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, but they remain at the margins of the ‘the Jewish Establishment,’ and have long been left out of organizations such as The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations – an organization which itself includes almost as many self-described ‘Zionist’ organizations as it does Jewish. Where does Zionism end and Judaism begin?
Our parents generation – people in their 50s and 60s – was prepared to stand behind their naughty better half across the Atlantic in good times and bad. But younger Americans, Jews no exception, have found themselves increasingly at odds with Israel’s actions.
Photos taken from pro-Israel rallies across the U.S. in the previous weeks suggest that the pro-Israel crowds were overwhelming aging adults (see Los Angeles and Chicago, for instance). The pro-Palestine crowds were noticeably younger (see, for instance, Washington D.C. and Baltimore).
Two recent polls taken about American attitudes towards the current Gaza War suggest that Americans, as a whole, are reflective of the Jewish community:
Younger Americans were three times less likely to show sympathy with Israel than were older Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll taken on July 23. Older Americans were much likelier to say Israel’s actions were justified: 55 percent of those over 65; 53 percent of those between 50 and 64; 36 percent of those 30-49 and just 25 percent of those 18-29.
In a Pew poll conducted only a few days later in late July, the numbers were equally remarkable: 29 percent of adults aged 18-29 held Israel more responsible for the conflict and 21 percent blamed Hamas.
The trend is undeniable, and its worrying pro-Israel propagandists, who are now speaking about it openly. Americans in general are less likely today to consider Israel’s response to Hamas “appropriate” than they were during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, down to 34 percent compared with 50 percent.
Peter Beinart blamed what he called the refusal of the American Jewish world to foster a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior. He argued that the Jewish establishment has increasingly found itself married to an abusive partner, Israel, while younger American Jews have increasingly been asked to “check their liberalism at Zionism’s door.” As it turns out, “to their horror, they [the establishment] are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
Whatever one thinks about the Gaza War – the reverberations set off by Peter Beinart’s now classic essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” are as loud today as ever, and should send all Jewish professional reeling back in their armchairs.
Israel may still be winning the public relations war in America, but it’s only a matter of time before people my age begin to reach positions of power and influence. Who are the New Jews?
I don’t suppose to speak for all of them; only social media likes, shares and comments can determine if my experiences are representative. We know the numbers are there. But where are their voices?
I was raised in a fairly typical, pro-Israel Jewish community in the Midwest. Day School. Summer camp. Hebrew school. Synagogue. Bar Mitzvah. Shabbat. USY Israel Trip. The whole works. In College I dabbled in ultra-Orthodox, Chabad, modern Orthodox, Open Orthodox, Carlebach and Reform – pro-Israel activism, liberal Zionist activism and eventually pro-Palestine activism.
I imagine my experiences reflect many people my age, born in the 80s and early 90s. We experimented with our Judaism and our relationship to Israel, and sought to figure out what seemed just and what worked for us, religiously and politically.
The American Judaism I was raised with was pro-Israel by definition. Israeli Independence Day was celebrated side by side Purim and Pesach. American and Israeli flags where hung side by side in the synagogue; the Prayer for America recited side by side the Prayer for the State of Israel during Saturday morning services. Removing Israel from Judaism would have been taking away the peanut butter from a PB & J sandwich.
I recall, very vividly, when this worldview began to seem odd to me. I had just returned from a month long trip to the Balkans in July 2006, the height of the Hezbollah-Israel war. I trekked over to the Conservative shul my family attends Shabbat morning, and I was handed the usual synagogue flyers and announcements, as well as six talking-points on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, such as Hezbollah hides behind civilians while Israel distributes leaflets to warn civilians before bombing. A prepaid postcard was also distributed, addressed to President George W. Bush, thanking him for supporting Israel. Asking around, no one seemed to think much of it.
I suppose you could say, the Jewish community ‘lost me’ on Israel. During that war in 2006, all the Jewish organizations I was involved with urged me to support the current policies of the Israeli government. A prominent International Jewish assembly suggested I send a message to Kofi Annan reminding him of the Bush administration’s jargon, a “sustainable ceasefire.”
My Orthodox Minyan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was an undergraduate student, as well as my Conservative Rabbi from West Bloomfield, Michigan, pressed me to stand in solidarity with Israel by attending a rally. The local Chabadnik in Ann Arbor told me I could support Israel by wrapping phylacteries (tefillin for those who speak English) and installing mezuzot on my doorposts.
(I wonder now if I should have depose as many mezuzot as I could find to bring an earlier end to the war? Or, alternatively, I could have hid the tefillin of my religious roomates, prevent them from wrapping their leather straps and black boxes, and then perhaps the war might have ended sooner?).
But Judaism was not Zionism, at least not to me. It was certainly not Netanyahu’s Zionism and definitely not the Zionism of the currently Israeli government.
In 2012 I attended a Bat Mitzvah in a northern New Jersey suburban Conservative synagogue. It was about as typical an American Conservative Synagogue I had ever seen. Here, the announcement board was decorated with pictures of Israeli soldiers as well as flyers to take home for purchasing Israel bonds online.
Where did Judaism end and pro-Israel propaganda begin? How could one feel comfortable in any Jewish community at all?
Sociologists of religion disagree about a lot of things. One of the few consensuses in the literature is that people will only join religious movements if they develop strong personal ties with members of those movements. No Religion is just about sharing some belief in the supernatural or shared customs and traditions, but also about developing social bonds with other people in a community.
The politicization of the Jewish world has pushed many young Jews away from organized Jewish life, who intermarry at rates above fifty percent. Meanwhile, as Beinart has explained, the Jews that are left are looking increasingly Orthodox.
I remember very vividly one of my last Shabbat dinners as a senior at the University of Michigan’s Hillel. Friday night services and dinner, back in those days, was the most quintessential encounter your average Jewish student had with the organized Jewish community on campus. Based on my experiences elsewhere at Columbia, Princeton and Georgetown, my alma mater was no exception. Hillel was the place to be Friday night.
I recall in the winter of 2007 that the largest pro-Israel student group on campus, AMI (American Movement for Israel), one of the Hillel “affiliated” groups, “sponsored” one such Shabbat Dinner. Blue and white ornaments bedizened the otherwise austere basement, where the masses of Jewish students on campus congregate to enjoy a scrumptious Shabbat dinner. A giant Israeli flag was posted in the middle of the room and small Israeli flags lay dispersed across the tables. “Fun facts” about Israel were also placed on the tables for Jewish students to read (e.g. did you know that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East?). Student leaders spoke romantically about the connection between American Jews and Israel.
Asking around, I seemed, again, to be the only student uncomfortable with the Zionist symbols plastered around the fundamentally Jewish function (there is a Jewish commandment to make three Seudot, or meals, on Shabbat).
Upset over the intrusion of politics into Judaism, I met with three Jewish professionals back in 2007 to ask Hillel to sponsor a new student organization called “Jews Against Zionism,” or its watered down version, “Jews Wrestling with Zionism.” Then I could “sponsor” a Shabbat, post Palestinian flags around the room and warn students of Zionism’s consequences. How might students have reacted?
The idea, of course, in 2007, was rejected immediately by the Hillel professionals, who explained that such groups had no place at Hillel. Indeed, they had no place in the organized Jewish community.
With the rise of groups such as Open Hillel, which rejects pro-Israel litmus tests for speakers or groups that want to associate with Hillel, the Jewish establishment is now feeling the threat more than ever.
Some small amount of progress has been made, but the gains have been marginal. “Resetting the Table,” funded by the UJA Federation of New York, is a Brooklyn-based initiative and part of a project called to Civility. It aims to discuss openly, within the Jewish community, issues such as “should there be red lines around who speaks in Hillel, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions?”
At an April 2014 meeting, the results were mixed, wrote, Elisheva Golberg. “Some groups were heated, like the one on “legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel,” where the conversation revolved around the word “apartheid.”
These are steps in the right direction and they are conversations that need to be had. Hopefully the Jewish establishment will come to terms with their antiquated views about Israel. If not, plan for a struggle between the establishment and the New Jews.