Changing the Paradigm
Support for the State of Israel, once a matter of consensus among American Jews, is now the most divisive issue in the Jewish community. The weakening of support for Israel among many young American Jews is real and significant, while the reasons for this trend are complex and multifaceted.
I’m not talking about unaffiliated Jews; they are distancing from Judaism in general, and their disengagement from Israel is merely a symptom of this larger phenomenon. Nor am I focused on the Orthodox community, where staunch support for the Jewish state remains the norm.
However a growing number of socially and politically progressive Jews are becoming increasingly critical of Israel’s rightward shift. They feel that their commitment to Israel compels them to speak out against continued occupation and settlement growth, policies that they see as morally indefensible and that only serve to undermine Israel’s own strategic goals. Their support for Israel is inextricably tied to the pursuit of peace; for them, the need for a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and secure Israel’s future as a Jewish state is axiomatic.
A new generation of Jews needs a new paradigm for supporting Israel: their advocacy is not only about defending Israel on campus, but also about challenging the status quo and working to make Israel a better, more perfect country. Young American Jews are grappling with difficult questions about Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and Israel’s state monopoly of religion, to name just a few. The one-dimensional pictures of Israel painted by advocacy organizations or the honeymoon experience of a ten-day Birthright trip are no longer sufficient to help students wrestle with the multilayered, chaotic montage of life in Israel today.
The Jewish community should be engaging with this demographic—young Jews trying to make sense of their identities in the face of a complex reality in Israel—rather than pushing them away. We must foster an open environment that will encourage them to build more sophisticated and authentic relationships with Israel, teaching them to embrace Israel despite its imperfections.
Sadly, the mainstream Jewish community’s hypersensitivity towards efforts to delegitimize Israel is often extended to liberal Jewish groups (e.g. J Street). At Harvard, the Open Hillel Campaign, a student-led initiative aiming to expand Hillel International’s guidelines on discussions about Israel, has been at the center of recent clashes between the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Jewish community. There is always a double standard in the Jewish community when it comes to criticism of Israel: To criticize from the right is legitimate, but to criticize from the left is to stab Israel in the back. This is hypocritical and wrong. Most criticism of Israel—not all, but most—comes from a place of deep love and commitment. Just because left-leaning Jews are critical of the occupation does not mean that they’re anti-Israel; rather their critical engagement is an expression of commitment to securing Israel’s identity and future.
That said, progressive Jews must also do more to mitigate the often-legitimate concerns of the Jewish community. They shouldn’t expect moral exceptionalism from Israelis in dealing with the realpolitik demands of sovereignty. Nor should they dismiss or legitimize efforts to undermine the moral and political foundations of the State of Israel (as opposed to the occupation). The rejectionist and zero-sum ethos of anti-Israel activists presents a significant threat not only to Israel’s future but to the viability of peace in the region as well. We need not look further than tactics like Israel Apartheid Week or campaigns to boycott Israel to see the destructiveness of activism focused more on demonizing the Other than on resolving the conflict.
Nevertheless, stifling debate about Israel—no matter how prejudiced or uninformed—or marginalizing liberal Jewish voices is wrong and ultimately self-defeating. The Jewish community shouldn’t be afraid to engage in difficult conversations about Israel. Ideas should be tested in the open marketplace through rigorous intellectual debate and civil dialogue; that is the only effective way to discredit bad ideas and amplify good ones.
To that end, the Jewish community should be just as invested in helping young Jews cultivate meaningful relationships with Israel as it is in defending the Jewish state. For a state will only endure—it will only remain relevant to Israelis and Jews around the world—if it can be defended not only militarily but also morally. Indeed, there is no inherent contradiction between the responsibility to defend Israel and the imperative to perfect it; the two are reciprocally linked: Defending the state is a necessary condition for perfecting it, just as a more perfect Israel will be easier to defend.
If the American Jewish community does not promote a more nuanced and sophisticated conversation about Israel, if it does not actively change the way Israel is discussed on campuses and in communities, it risks alienating a growing number of young Jews. Make no mistake: The future of the Jewish community and the State of Israel depends upon securing the continued support of liberal and open-minded Jews.
Yoav Schaefer '15 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.