Is it true, as Peter Beinart suggested in his widely read New York Review of Books essay in June, that young American Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel because of its allegedly declining commitment to democratic ideals?

Agree with him or not, the former New Republic editor hit a raw nerve among many Jews when he wrote “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” setting off a discussion that continues to stir debate six months later.

In his lengthy essay and in frequent public talks since then, like the one I attended the other night at the 92nd Street Y, Beinart asserts with passion that the organized Jewish community has failed our next generation by refusing to promote what he calls an “uncomfortable Zionism,” one that acknowledges and responds to the pervasive policies of the Jerusalem government he deems troublesome.

“One reason” [for the decline in support for Israel among young American Jews, Beinart wrote], “is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster — indeed, have actively opposed — a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

The hard numbers about support level are a matter of debate. At the 92nd Street Y event the other night, another panelist, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, said Beinart’s premise is flat-out wrong, and he cited a recent Brandeis University study that found American Jews in their 20s and 30s to be as supportive of Israel as their parents, whose backing is solid.

Beinart said that the Brandeis study is not representative, and that it lumped together Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. If you removed from the equation Orthodox Jews (who tend to be conservative politically and Israel’s biggest advocates), you would find a considerable drop-off in support among the young, he maintained.

There’s a part of me that wishes his primary thesis was right — namely, the belief that large numbers of young American Jews are deeply troubled, for example, by the thuggish, if not racist, policies of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose views seem to be driving the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his former ally and current rival, to the right.

Or that so many of our youth are turned off by the Shas party’s views of Arabs, or women, to the point that they cannot support Jerusalem.

But Beinart’s argument implies a deep understanding of Israeli life on the part of young American Jews. Would that they were so aware of and caring about such details of Israeli social and political trends.

I’m convinced that the majority of young American Jews have never heard of Avigdor Lieberman — or Natan Sharansky, for that matter — and don’t know Shas from Meretz, its ideological and political opposite.

Teaching Modern Israel

I agree with Beinart that a disturbing number of young Jews are distanced from Israel, but I think the primary cause is a falling away from Judaism in general, and apathy, caused by lack of education about modern Israel — its history and ideology, representing the most stirring and successful liberation movement of the 20th century.

Israel’s enemies have succeeded in making “Zionism” a dirty word. But the quest for a national homeland for the Jewish people to provide security, self-determination and freedom is a story we should be telling with pride.

How ironic that our children are well-versed in the tales of the Maccabees’ triumphs so long ago, while we have neglected, in our schools and homes, to transmit the narrative of a modern-day triumph no less miraculous, the revival of the centuries-old dream of a safe haven and state for the long-powerless and persecuted Jewish people.

We tend to take the miracle of the Jewish state for granted, along with the modern-day parallel to the words of the “Al Hanisim” prayer we recite on Chanukah, recounting the “miracles, the redemption the mighty deeds and the victories in battle” of the Maccabees. But not only was Israel’s military victory in 1948 remarkable — a small, ragtag army without sophisticated equipment prevailing over the military might of the Arab world —but the subsequent growth of the Jewish state in terms of its immigrant absorption, economy, education, science, medicine and entrepreneurship is unique.

Certainly Israel has not achieved an ideal state of equal freedom for every citizen, as Beinart points out. But what country has? Not to mention that the Jewish state is still young and has not known a day of peace in its 62 years.

Beinart insists a truly democratic Israeli society can survive only if we speak out against and correct its flaws, and that otherwise diaspora support for Israel will continue to weaken.

His critics on the right maintain that Israel can survive only if it is strong, and prepared to resist the ongoing attempts of the Arabs, and others, to negate its legitimacy and defeat it through territorial and other concessions.

But these arguments are not mutually exclusive; both sides have merit.

To be true to itself, Israeli society must seek to embody the ancient teachings of Jewish morality, giving full equality to each citizen and treating every person with dignity. But first it must fulfill its primary mission — protecting the lives of its people and insisting on the highest levels of security.

The tension between those two ideals is not confined to the pages of a philosophical treatise or debates among diaspora Jews; it’s where Israelis live, every day.

Hopeful Trends

Whatever the precise percentage is of young Jews backing away from support for Israel, it is too high for us to accept. We must redouble our efforts to provide education in a way that gives them the knowledge and moral confidence to be proud advocates, not reluctant defenders, of the Jewish state. (That is the basis for Write On For Israel, the advocacy program of The Jewish Week for high school students, now in its ninth year. www.writeonforisrael.org.)

I was invited to speak to a group of pro-Israel activists at Columbia University this weekend, and their passion and commitment were inspiring. But they are frustrated in encountering campus liberals who refuse to champion the only state in the Mideast that is democratic, treating women, gays and government critics with equality rather than punishment.

A chief goal of advocates on campus, and elsewhere, is to point out Jerusalem’s acceptance of a two-state solution and continued willingness to suggest and carry out compromises for a true peace, in contrast to the refusal of its neighbors to do either.

I share Peter Beinart’s concerns about the support, or lack of it, from young American Jews going forward. But there are positive signs he ignores. His essay makes no mention of the longstanding consistent backing for Israel among all Americans — including our youth — which continues, based on a recognition that Israelis are more like them in terms of culture, democracy and morality than are those in the Arab world.

Beinart also makes no mention of the widespread and significant impact of Birthright Israel on its young participants, most of whom come home identifying more strongly with the Jewish state. With the real possibility that in the next few years the majority of diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 will have experienced Israel first-hand on these 10-day visits, a tipping point will be reached, and with it the prospects of dramatically increasing support for Israel among our youth.

The impact of young Jews experiencing Israel’s triumphs and challenges in a personal way could be transformative, for them and for American Jewry.

For now, we can’t ignore the trends that find Israelis more wary of their neighbors and of a peace deal. But we need to understand that the wariness, and weariness, comes in the face of years of Palestinian violence, demonization and the refusal even to acknowledge the Jews’ historical ties to the land.

Chanukah reminds us of the possibility of miracles, but in the meantime Israelis are dealing with their harsh reality with resilience and restraint.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org