I spent almost 10 hours at the American Jewish Committee headquarters yesterday, most of that time engaged in discussions on whether young American Jews are distancing from Israel.
The answer — first heard at a six-hour colloquium with about 45 Jewish leaders and thinkers and later at a panel discussion for young AJC lay leaders — was yes, younger Jews feel less connected to Israel. But that was the easy part.
The deeper exploration was into why that was the case, with responses attributing the problem to: the failure of the American Jewish establishment to provide adequate Modern Israel education; a parallel (and connected) lack of interest among the young in Judaism itself; and the policies of Israeli governments on dealing with Arab citizens, relations with Palestinians, women, liberal Jewish denominations, etc., all of which were said to clash with the liberal values of young American Jews.
Peter Beinart’s name was invoked too many times to count, with the former New Republic editor’s article, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” published in the New York Review of Books last May, the central reference point throughout the day, referred to and picked over like a page of Talmud.
The lengthy essay asserted that young American Jews are in conflict over their Western values clashing with Israel’s alleged less than democratic policies, and as a result, they are distancing themselves from Israel.
Participants took exception to degrees of emphasis Beinart made in the article and his lack of emphasis on the very real threats Israel faces. But they agreed on the key thesis, and focused on what, if anything, can be done about it, particularly by an establishment organization like the AJC.
No easy answers there, and some of the generational tensions discussed in the colloquium played out in the room.
Steven Bayme, the AJC’s national director of contemporary Jewish life, noted the effort to have younger people represented in the discussion; more than one-third of the participants were in their 20s and 30s. But several of the younger people noted that the “gray haired” participants gave the main presentations, and wondered if the younger attendees had been invited as “window dressing.”
Some of the observations that resonated with me, include:
* “Israel education has been hijacked by Israel advocacy programs”;
* “We as a community have made the Holocaust the central narrative while Israel has nowhere near that status”;
* “The problem of indifference to Israel is much more troubling than hostility among younger people, which at least shows passion”;
* “Our community has been a total failure in teaching Modern Israel, and we are paying the price”;
* “If you invite young people to the table, you have to give them a say in the decision making, too – and that’s a risk”;
* “A way to engage young people on Israel is to focus on social justice issues rather than the political conflict.”
* “The topic of this program should have been ‘How Young American Jews Are Distancing Themselves From Idiocy’ because we don’t even have the language for talking about Israel.”
The evening program, sponsored by Access, an AJC program for younger Jews, echoed and reinforced much of what had been talked about earlier in the day. More than 50 participants focused on who should be allowed in the big tent of pro-Israel support and who left out. The consensus was to make that tent as wide as possible, even talking to enemies of Israel for the purpose of civil discussion.
As with many of these day-long conference and discussions, the level of discourse was high and the comments made were thoughtful and often provocative.
But the proof will be in whether there is follow-up, and if so, what comes of it. Stay tuned.