Israel: Have We Lost That Loving Feeling?

(This article contains the remarks I was planning to share at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly, when I was invited to speak on a panel on the youth's connection to Israel. When, due to budget considerations, JFNA reduced the size of the panel, I decided to turn the ideas into a short article instead.)

Sometimes, I've found that I can get so wrapped up in a problem that I lose perspective on how others have dealt with something similar, or even how I have dealt with the same type of problem in the past. I'm sure others join me in falling for this 'blinder effect,' and in hindsight we wished we were able to learn more from our past experience and get outside perspective. Instead of having to figure out how to get get online or even soothe a relationship that had soured each time all over again just doesn't make sense. But unfortunately, we often aren't able to get that perspective in the moment, and it seems that we humans, and especially we Jews, are less able to gain perspective when it comes to those problems that strike at our very core: our continuity, and specifically how our youth chose to carry on, or not carry on, the values we hold dear.

The issue of Israel has particularly is at the center of current debates about Jewish identity, as it should be, considering that Israel was the central project of the Jewish People over the past century. But often discussions about Israel catch us with our blinders on. So before we address the present day and the relationship or lack thereof that our youth have to Israel, let's try to gain some perspective by looking back a bit to remember the origins of our current relationship to Israel and Jewish identity.

In the early 1920s a new movement started to grow in North America, especially among the young Jews who were of the first or second generation to be born on her shores. Zionism was a rebellious movement that rejected the reigning assimilationist ideology of previous generations of American Jews, and inspired young Jews to imagine themselves as a nation like other nations around the world. This collectivist impulse was as new as nationalism in Europe, and even newer amongst American Jews. Before, Am Yisrael was an abstract entity; in those times, Am Yisrael became a collective actor deserving of a homeland where it may create a foundation for a shared future, just as other people's yearned for self expression following the breakdown of Empires at the dusk of the first World War.

At first, the mainstream of the Jewish community rejected Zionism, and Zionist membership in the 1920s and 1930s never rose above 20% of the general population. But in the century that followed, Am Yisrael went through more as a collective than many peoples go through in a Millenia. First, Jews were given access to the great heights of Western society. Then, fear and loathing of the Jew drove the world to look the other way as six million human beings were led to their deaths in broad daylight. Shortly thereafter, a people without a State for two thousand years resumed sovereignty in their land. Only once the State was created did the Jews of America fully grasp what had transpired. It was the dream of Zionism and the guilt of being bystanders during the Holocaust that led to a movement among American Jewry: a non-Zionist love for Israel that expected every Jew to feel a special connection to the State of Israel so long as their heart did beat.

But in the past 20 years, the generations that grew did not share the same attachment to a State far across the ocean. Despite free and discounted trips to see the Land of their Forefathers, the general trend seems to be in the same direction: away from the type of connection our community leaders and philanthropists feel is the "right" connection to have, which often is summarized as ‘where-ever I stand I stand with Israel.’ Instead, our youth is used to weighing in with their personal opinion on issues of interest, through ‘liking’ comments of their friends to pitching in their own thoughts on anything from the choices their friends make to the policies of their government. Where-ever they stand, it is often in critical distance from others. 

Some claim that the reason my generation, sometimes called Y and sometimes Millenials, do not connect with Israel in the "right way" is due to politics. Stop the occupation, they say, and young Jews will be less dissuaded from supporting Israel. Others say that it is because we focus on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on the conflict or the geopolitical significance of the State, we should focus on the culture, the music, the traditions, and my generation will find our connection there. And yet others fault the education of the youth, blaming community leaders, rabbis, for not being pro-Israel enough, and implying that only the Orthodox retain the righteousness of the Jewish cause.

I think there is some truth to all of these opinions, except for the third, but as they say, a little knowledge might sometimes be a dangerous thing. A person with an incomplete picture might think they know what they are doing, and due to partial information come to the wrong conclusion with the best intentions.

As someone who has lived amongst and observed on a daily basis my peers, through my life and my work to present, the one thing that is clear is that the present is in no way like the past. The very way we identify ourselves in the world has changed. The word 'friend,' that core word that relates who we are through who we feel emotionally close to, has been altered. The way we communicate, share our experiences, and through our experiences describe our identity has been irrevocably changed by the advance of social media.

Our collective communication and collective identification has changed too. In the era where the Arab Spring can sweep across a region overnight, where the Rothschild Tent protests in Tel Aviv can share the same aesthetic markers of protests with Occupy Wall Street across the Atlantic, it should be clear that the youth of today are less connected to a certain space than ever before. Think of yourself ten years ago and today. Ten years ago, how much would you know about the daily affairs of friends and family that were over 150 miles away? Compare that number to the ones you know about today, from status updates and tweets. I'm willing to bet the difference in number is a factor of 10: that you now keep in touch with ten times as many people far away as you did in 2001, when Hotmail and AOL were the leading ways to connect over the Internet.

In this era, therefore, the fundamental way that humans connect with each other is different. Just as the early Zionists were responding to a different paradigm in their time (nationalism), the youth of today are responding to a globalized, networked world that our older generations are only beginning to understand the implications of. And as we agreed previously, since it makes no sense to try and solve each problem as if it is unique – and makes more sense to learn from previous experiences and the experiences of others – a new, more systematic approach is needed if we truly want to strengthen a Jewish identity and relationship with Israel that will last throughout the social evolutionary leap of the 21st century.

While I do not have a definitive idea as to what the right approach to strengthen continuity and the youth's relationship to Israel is, here are a few thoughts as to what the effects of the 21st century will be on our youth and what our community should do or not do if it wants to ensure our youth share our values and live in a better future.

First, it is clear that there is strong cognitive dissonance between the values the Jewish People holds dear and the political situation in Israel. Such a clash is bound to happen when values developed over the two thousand years of powerlessness meet up with the reality of sovereignty and military action. Instead of berating youth for pointing out those contradictions, the community should encourage the youth to explore them, to delve into the complexities of power and politics and to understand the challenges of living as a free people in the world. We should ask more of our youth, exposing them to the conflicting motivations and goals of the parties in the region, so that they can offer solutions and roll up their sleeves to get involved. This means more opportunities to see the underbelly of Israel, and not just 10-day party buses. Just as adults need to make hard choices to keep their families safe, so too do States and sovereign Peoples. Likewise, not every decision an adult makes is the right one. If we cannot approach the Occupation in a mature way, we should not be educating youth.

Second, we need to learn from other Peoples who have been wrestling with the State/Diaspora divide alongside us. The Basques, for example, developed their Euskadi movement at the same exact time as the Zionists, and since then have been through a history almost as challenging as our own. So too have the Irish, the Indian diaspora, the Sikh's and others. Maintaining identity and culture in the 21st century is not a burden we carry alone, and we should share information and learn from others.

Third, and most important, we need to invest in deeper thought about why this is all worth it in the first place. When the Zionists started their rebellion, the mainstream of the Jewish People rejected them, and even demonized them, for what they thought was stirring up trouble. When history justified the Zionist yearning, it became evident that their underlying philosophy and understanding of the world was essential and existentially relevant. Today, however, if you ask our leading communal professionals why being Jewish matters in the grand scheme of things, you generally will get one answer: fixing the world. So how is Israel connected to fixing the world? Why is maintaining a sovereign Jewish identity important if fixing the world is our overarching goal as a community? And is fixing the world the right driving value we should be aspiring to as a community?

We are at the gateway to a new world, and without recognizing what the true challenge is, we will not be able to learn how to overcome it. Instead of getting bogged down in yester-century's system of classification and ideological debate, we need to think both deeper and broader about the issue of Jewish identity and the role the State of Israel has to anchor it. Above all, however, we must remember Simon Rawidowicz's insight: although we may think of ourselves as an Ever Dying People, no People has been able to survive through so many of history's twists and turns as our own. Or to quote the Israeli poet Meir Ariel, if we were able to overcome Pharaoh, we'll overcome this too.  


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