Chanukah, among its many meanings, reminds us that assimilation is not a new problem. Throughout history small pockets of traditionalists have sought to maintain their faith while larger numbers have been lost to the dominant culture or, too often, to the forces of anti-Semitism, coercion and murder.
In 167 BCE, at the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the Greek ruler Antiochus outlawed the holy services and ordered that an altar be built to Zeus. Pigs were sacrificed in the holy of holies; brit milah was banned. These threats to Jewish survival prompted the small band of Maccabees to organize a revolt, which also became a clash with fellow Jews who had adapted to the prevalent Hellenist culture. You know who won that war.
Fast forward to the open society of 21st-century America, where Jews enjoy more freedom than at any time in history. Here the threat to our future comes from within. Anti-Semitism has given way to the acceptance and even embrace of Jews, who are sought out as preferred marriage partners — considered to be well educated, caring and devoted to family values.
Committing to a Jewish life in a society focused on openness, pluralism and diversity is swimming against the tide, and we’ve all seen the statistical data to underscore that reality.
In the last 20 years a great deal of attention has been devoted to countering the forces of assimilation through education and inspiration, with mixed results. While much of the concern to date has been about the large numbers of our youth who are apathetic about Jewish life and Israel, the American Jewish Committee convened an all-day colloquium the other day to focus on a relatively small but critically important cohort: young highly engaged American Jews who are distancing themselves from the Jewish state.
The interest arose from reports six months ago that during their year of study in Israel, some of our most committed American Jewish young people — students from progressive rabbinical schools — were expressing dissatisfaction with Israeli policy, particularly regarding the Palestinians.
This sparked a lively and sometimes bitter debate, mostly in print and based primarily on anecdotal evidence, over whether the younger generation of liberal rabbis and future rabbis is sufficiently supportive of Israel.
In an effort to quantify the emotionally charged issue, a survey was commissioned to compare the attitudes of Jewish Theological Seminary-ordained rabbis and current students. Conducted by sociologist Steven M. Cohen, the study found that connection and attachment to Israel among both groups is very high.
The real difference is in policy views, with “older” rabbis (ordained between 1980 and 1994) “leaning somewhat to the right, while younger rabbis and students lean to the left (the students even more so),” according to the report.
The issues that divide the two groups include concern about external threats to Israel, social justice, intentions of the Palestinians, and stances on territorial compromise and settlements.
In sum, Cohen found that the younger group shows “diminishing favorability toward AIPAC and an improving view of J Street.”
Day Of Discussion
For the most part, the discussion at AJC among the three dozen or so Jewish leaders, activists and intellectuals of varying ages underscored the generational divide in attitudes, with older participants focused on the vulnerability of Israel and Judaism itself, and younger people more optimistic, and confirming that their peers see Jewishness as but one of multiple identities.
There were notable exceptions, though.
Veteran writer Leonard Fein spoke passionately about the corrosive effect of the settlements on Israeli society, and its world image. He said many young people choose to identify Jewishly through social justice, in part as “an almost determined avoidance of Israel.”
Bari Weiss, a young journalist, described how she became a kind of reluctant defender of Jerusalem’s policy through her college experience at Columbia University, where she found liberals — professors as well as students — increasingly hostile toward Israel.
In the end, “I chose Zionism over campus liberalism,” she said, asserting that the divide is not the fault of American Jews but of a liberalism that tends to define Zionism as racist and colonialist.
Among the presenters, Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary asserted that Israel must do its share to strengthen the connection between diaspora and Israeli Jews, and encouraged young American Jews to engage in the struggle for a more perfect Israel rather than criticize from the sidelines.
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, co-founder of Encounter, a group dedicated to building civil, informed discourse on Israel, said many American Jews either steer clear of the topic of Israel or engage in “mutual vilification,” impugning the other side’s motives. A third group participates in what she calls “avoidance 2.0,” where advocates for Israel talk only to those with whom they agree.
Brandeis University Judaic studies professor Sylvia Fishman spoke of how young American Jews reflect the general culture so that for them, unlike their elders, ethnicity is not tribal, not “us” versus “them,” and not about fear.
Visits to Israel, she said, make young people feel more attached to the state and its citizens — but also more critical of disturbing cultural conditions like sex trafficking and the treatment of Bedouins. And, Fishman stressed, this generation has “no automatic feelings toward Israel.”
If love of Zion is not instilled in them through their homes or schools, they just won’t have it.
Daniel Gordis, a writer and educator living in Jerusalem, said there is a recognition among many Israelis that peace will not be achieved in our lifetimes. Managing the conflict is the best that can be expected, he said, while recognizing that young people balk at such dark conclusions.
He encouraged critics of Jerusalem’s policies to “speak in a way that makes Israelis feel supported and not attacked,” appreciating the complexities of life in a country at war, and where people “feel besieged because they live under siege.”
Gordis said the sad truth is that the only issue that ignites passion in American Jews is Israel, perhaps because they realize that “what’s at stake is not just the Jewish state but the Jewish people.”
He and other speakers observed that there is a great deal of fear in our community these days when it comes to Israel — about external threats and inner tensions, and about our frustration in expressing criticism without being seen as overly negative. And there was consensus that more Israel education is needed here, though young people must be allowed to draw their own conclusions.
It’s difficult to summarize the many thoughtful expressions of concern voiced around the table that day. Just as Chanukah still has multiple themes, centuries later — overcoming religious oppression, battling assimilationists, celebrating a miracle, etc. — the story of modern Israel, and our relationship to it, continues to play out on many levels.
That’s not a bad thing, it’s a sign of vitality and caring. The danger is in how relatively few American Jews are engaged in the struggle, lacking the will and even the vocabulary to discuss 21st-century Zionism.
I came away from the day-long AJC meeting grateful for the experience and inspired by the passion of the participants. Each approached the issues from a different perspective but pulsing with a shared concern about Israel, its future, and how and where we in the diaspora can be heard and make a difference.
Missing, though, were the voices of more Israelis, which leads one to wonder if they even care to sit down with us to talk about a Jewish future beyond settlements and checkpoints.
Leonard Fein suggested it was time for “shared sweat” — Americans and Israelis physically working together on projects of mutual concern — to replace the paradigm of discussion and debate.
No doubt both approaches are needed: talking and doing. But it’s time to hear from Israelis because the silence can be deafening and a one-way dialogue is a contradiction in terms.