For reasons I can’t quite understand, many leaders in the pro-Israel community continue to insist that the young generation of American Jews has abandoned Israel.
That’s just not true.
“Ours is the first generation in which the centrality of Zion in Jewish dreams is beginning to fade,” Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote in this week’s Tablet, an online Jewish magazine. “It is fading rapidly, and we know why. … [A] younger generation for whom war is anathema and occupation is morally unbearable has begun to drift away. …Young Jews today, discouraged by Israeli policies that they cannot abide, either explicitly or tacitly join those who condemn the Jewish State.”
John F. Kennedy International Airport, Aug. 14. Amid the bustling crowd, one group of 15 men and women, ages 18 to 22, all clad in dark green T-shirts, stands out. Although they shout to one another in English, their T-shirts have just Hebrew writing: “Olim Tzahal” — Israeli Army Immigrants.
They are on their way to join the Israel Defense Forces.
This year, a record group of 127 men and women flew on the Soldier Aliyah flight sponsored by the Israeli immigration group Nefesh b’Nefesh. Thirty-two of these young volunteers are from the greater Los Angeles area. They were joining an increasing number of young Angelenos who choose to enlist in the IDF.
I know a lot of these kids. Ezra, the Milken student who lives down the block and used to carpool with my son — soon he’ll be driving a tank. Alexi Rosenfeld, who just graduated from Milken, snapped the “class picture” of the group at JFK Airport and sent it to me with a note, “Hi Rob, As you may remember I have decided to join the IDF and will be postponing my photography career (unless the IDF sends me back!).” The daughter of a friend who is participating in secret training maneuvers in the Negev. The son of another friend, who just completed parachute training.
But this is just a small group, right? Anecdotal evidence is hardly proof that the rest of American Jewish youth isn’t drifting away.
Except it just isn’t.
Gordis writes: “A recent study asked American Jews if the destruction of Israel would be a personal tragedy for them. … Amazingly, 50 percent of those 35 years old and younger said that Israel’s destruction would not be a personal tragedy.”
Amazingly! Amazingly, Gordis considers a study conducted in 2006 to be “recent.” And amazingly he neglects to mention a truly recent study that completely contradicts his point. In May 2012, Steven M. Cohen, who conducted the 2006 survey, completed a new study that found “Non-Orthodox younger Jews, ages 35 and under, are substantially more attached to Israel than those ages 35-44.”
That’s right: There is no evidence Israel is losing the next generation of American Jews. In fact, the opposite is true.
This proves a couple of things:
1. Never ask a young person if the loss of anything would be a “personal tragedy,” unless you’re talking about his immediate family member or his fake I.D.
2. In the pro-Israel community, bad news travels fast, good news takes the 405 at rush hour.
Trading on the “next generation” fear is a useful device for Jewish leaders across the political spectrum. Peter Beinart got a whole book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” out of it.
“For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at the door,” Beinart famously and hyperbolically wrote, “and now, to their horror, they are finding many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
Except, of course, they haven’t.
Gordis, senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award for “Saving Israel.” Get it? “Saving Israel,” “The Crisis of Zionism” — though Beinart and Gordis disagree publicly, and stridently, on Israeli policies, they have a kind of Mutual B.S. Pact, bonded together in their common fear mongering.
So why? Why do we insist on looking at the dark side? The thing we most repress comes to define us, Carl Jung once said. If the Jewish people’s shadow is fear, is it surprising that Israel adopted as its national anthem, Hatikvah, “The Hope?”
We want hope, but we can’t quite embrace it. And when good news comes, when our hopes are realized, we continue to live in its opposite.
In the case of Israel, I believe that’s because the truth is just a bit messier than Gordis and many in the pro-Israel community would have it. The point of Gordis’ (truly) recent essay is that American Jewry depends on Israel for its very survival.
“This is the point that today’s younger generation of American Jews simply do not understand,” he writes. “American Jewish life as it now exists would not survive the loss of Israel.”
Hard to argue with a sentence that includes the phrase “as it now exists.” Because it’s impossible to imagine a world without Israel in which Israel’s largest protector and supporter, the United States of America, would turn its back on its ally, or not have the power to protect it. In that scenario, the loss of Israel might be just one of a host of American Jewish worries.
But dangling visions of post-nuclear Armageddon before us is just Gordis’ way of trying to tell us how much Israel strengthens American Jewish identity.
“Jews today no longer think of themselves as a tiptoeing people,” he writes. “Without the State of Israel, the self-confidence and sense of belonging that American Jews now take for granted would quickly disappear.”
Again, after the Apocalypse I’m not sure our biggest worry will be our depleted self-confidence, but so be it.
Where Gordis, and to a lesser extent Beinart, misread or misrepresent young American Jews is in not defining more carefully the word, “Israel.”
The American Jewish romance with Israel, like America’s relationship with Israel more generally, changed dramatically after the Six-Day War in 1967. What had been a largely supportive community turned overnight into a passionate, proud and activist one. After that war, romance turned into love.
The reasons for this are integral to understanding the truly recent statistics.
In 1967, Israel fought and won a defensive war against daunting odds. Israel was restrained until it couldn’t be, tough and brilliant when it had to be and united as much as it ever would be. The Six-Day War burned an ideal of Israel deep into the American, and American Jewish, psyche.
In the 45 years since, the closer Israel comes to achieving that ideal, the more American Jews are drawn to it. The farther it drifts, the farther their affections do as well.
So when Gordis writes that it is Israel that has stiffened American Jewry’s spine, he is only half right. It is a certain kind of Israel — that state that strives toward its ideal state — that resonates, and will always resonate, with American Jewish youth.
There is no blank check of American Jewish love for Israel, but there is a lot of money, a ton of money, in the account. The idea that support for Israel has ever been completely independent of its actions is ahistorical, and doesn’t apply to any Jewish group — Orthodox, right, left, secular.
The bottom line is this: If we who love Israel worry about quality, the quantity will take care of itself.
You can—you should—follow Rob Eshman on Twitter @foodaism.