In a previous column, I wrote about how to make the case for Israel. The approach was broad and did not fully consider two issues: the generational changes in the Jewish community and the priorities of younger Jews. It’s partly the difference between the macro approach to hasbara (or public relations) that has been the principal focus of advocates for decades and the need for seeking opportunities to engage young people on a micro level.
The generational issue is this: Many Jews today have never known a time when Israel was in grave danger. Roughly one-fifth of American Jews were born after 1989. For them, the Holocaust is about as relevant as the Peloponnesian War. For the oldest of that group, the last Israeli war ended while they were still teenagers, and the Second Lebanon War did not involve a threat to Israel’s existence. Terrorism has been incessant, but are they conscious of it? They’re more likely to read and hear about Israelis killing Palestinians than Israeli victims of terror. Even when Israel was bombarded with rockets, the casualty toll was low, especially compared to the Palestinians, and didn’t pose a danger to the state. Those of us who pay close attention know the Iranian nuclear program could pose an existential threat, but there is no Islamic bomb yet. Most young Jews probably assume, correctly, that it is Israel that has nuclear weapons.
One of the implications of the perception of Israel as invulnerable is the belief that Israel can and should make concessions for peace. Palestinians are human beings like the rest of us who simply yearn for normal lives. What’s the harm in giving Palestinians their independence?
This brings me to the macro/micro issue.
Younger Jews tend to look at the conflict at the micro level. This wasn’t entirely new to me, but I’m not sure I fully appreciated it until I had a conversation with a passionate Zionist student from Brandeis University who had just returned from a program at the Arava Institute that included Palestinian participants from the West Bank. She had her identity rocked by the experience of interacting with Palestinians her age, going to their homes and getting a small taste of what their lives are like under “occupation.”
When she talked about the humiliation they experience at checkpoints, I raised the macro issue of terrorism and why such barriers were necessary. When she mentioned how the Palestinians were like her, I said they might want to live peacefully, but their leaders didn’t. When she talked about their deserving a state, I referred her to the repeated offers of independence the Palestinians had rejected. She didn’t back down, but I could see she was deflated.
When I got home, my wife chastised me for trying to burst her bubble. I was looking at the conflict from a macro level, but the student was more interested in the micro level—the one-to-one, not the strategic. More seriously, my wife didn’t want my cynicism to rub off on her. I may have a good argument for why there cannot be a Palestinian state, but why should I discourage a young person from wanting to make a difference? I replied that there have been many kumbaya programs, and none have changed the reality that Palestinian leaders have no interest in peace, and continue to incite and educate their people against the Jews.
But that’s not what young Jews want to hear; they are tuning us out.
This reinforced my belief that Israel and the organized Jewish community need to give young Jews more opportunities to feel like they are making a difference. When it became popular for college students to help communities rebuild after disasters like Hurricane Katrina, I proposed that programs be created where students could help address problems in Israel. There may not be hurricanes there, but many issues—poverty, domestic abuse, drug addiction—exist. So why not create volunteer opportunities with organizations involved in these issues?
It’s expensive to go to Israel, but a second-best option would be creating projects in the United States or elsewhere where Israelis and American Jews could work side by side and get to know each other.
Also, instead of trying to convince young Jews why they should support Israel, we should be making a greater effort to connect them to the country based on their specific interests. Whether it’s the environment, social justice, mental health—even sports—there are similar organizations in Israel.
Supporting the protests in Israel offers an opportunity for young Jews to feel like they are part of a fight for democracy. At the macro level, one could argue that they should first educate themselves about judicial reform and that it is not for American Jews to oppose the democratically elected government, but at the micro level, the protests are happening, and, for better or worse, American Jews are involved. Standing with thousands of Jews their age holding Israeli flags can give them a greater sense of belonging to the Jewish people and identifying with their Israeli cousins.
Similarly, if students want to feel like they are making a difference by participating in programs to promote coexistence with the Palestinians, kol hakavod. Whether I think they can alter the macro reality is irrelevant. What is important is to allow them to be participants rather than just onlookers.
There is a danger, however, due to the Jewish community’s failure to provide the aleph-bet of Israeli history to their children and students. For years, to the extent students were taught anything about Israel, it was through rose-colored glasses. So, they can be easily disenchanted when they encounter Israel’s flaws. We often hear about how students feel like they were lied to by pretending that the Jewish state lacked warts. The problem is that too often they discover the imperfections out of context. Without exposure to the macro perspective, it is too easy for young people to be seduced by those less interested in seeing Israel become a better place than hoping it will disappear.