Young American Jews and Israel

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Click photo to download. Caption: Eric R. Mandel.

When a recent Cohen and Kelman poll reported that 50 percent of young American Jews would not consider the destruction of Israel a personal tragedy, it sent shock waves through the pro-Israel community. In contrast, 80 percent of their elders—American Jews over the age of 65—reported that Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy for them.

In his new book, The Promise of Israel, Daniel Gordis observed that “…when the ingathering of exiles after two thousand years does not strike a chord of sheer awe, Jews have lost sight of the real significance of Israel’s recreation. When Jews the world over do not recognize that the delegitimization of Israel affects them…a renewed discourse is desperately needed.”

Why don’t more young American Jews feel this awe and connection to Israel? 

One explanation is that many young American Jews feel that Zionism conflicts with their liberal values. Raised on the ideal of universalism and exposed to post-nationalist ideology on campus, they cannot grasp how a nation state of and for a particular people is not racist by definition.  

More importantly, many young Jews are compelled by the Palestinian narrative of victimhood. They have internalized the belief that the underdog is always an innocent victim and holds the moral high ground, and they cannot give their allegiance to the “oppressor.” The anti-Israel bias at many schools, particularly in Middle East Studies departments, reinforces these negative views, as does the propaganda of anti-Israel campus movements like BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions).

There is cause for concern that the American Diaspora’s support for Israel will not be inevitable. The erosion of support from young people is amplified by other disturbing trends. The vast majority of non-Orthodox American Jews list Israel as a relatively low priority when they vote for a national candidate. Intermarriage rates are crossing over 50 percent and it is well documented that intermarried families have weaker associations and support for Israel compared to non-intermarried families.

The news is not all bad, however. The challenge is significant, but there are many things we can do.

Education is a critical tool. Many young people feel more positively about Israel when they learn that Israel’s Basic Laws uphold equal rights for non-Jewish citizens, and that Israel is the only Middle Eastern country where treatment of minorities matches the standards of other liberal democracies. Still other young people are reassured when they learn that the unique intertwining of Jews as a national group and a religion should not disqualify Israel as a state. 

Many of Europe’s liberal democracies have official state religions and use Christian images in their nation’s symbols. It helps to expose the hypocrisy and dishonesty of political views that call for sympathizing with Israel’s enemies. Surely supporting or excusing Arab countries that deny basic civil rights, oppose women’s and gay rights, torture homosexuals and stone women, should be far more incompatible with the student’s liberal values than supporting Israel which lives up to all these standards.

It is unrealistic to expect that in the next 50 years, most American Jews will be supporters of Israel. What we need is a core of committed people who will challenge the delegitimization of Israel, and tell the compelling story of Israel and Zionism. They will remind Americans that it is in America’s best interest to maintain and support a strong Israel.

We can help make this happen.  We need to identify and support a committed group of young leaders on campus and beyond who will take the pro-Israel reins into the future, and begin by educating their peers and by countering those who create their own sets of false facts. Now is the time for to take action by supporting groups that are giving students the facts and tools to advocate for Israel, fight BDS, and plan positive programs that inspire the support Israel so richly deserves.

Eric Mandel, MD, is the co-chair of the StandWithUs/New York office.

Posted on October 21, 2012 and filed under Israel, Opinion, U.S..