Even as Israel endures daily “lone wolf” attacks from young Palestinians prepared to die for the cause of spilling Jewish blood, American Jewish leaders confide that generating support for the Jewish state is becoming increasingly difficult these days — even within the Jewish community, and especially among younger people.
In contrast to the widespread emotional identification shown for Parisians and others around the world who have been attacked by Islamic militants, it is hard to find much empathy out there for Israelis seeking to go on with their lives amidst the prospect of violence they face each day.
In a series of private conversations in recent days with a variety of professionals who make their living advocating for Israel and Jewish causes, I was struck by a consistent theme I heard: deep concern about Israel’s future and its relationship with diaspora Jewry. There was a feeling that the political and diplomatic situation is getting worse as Israel is increasingly isolated on the international scene — even spied on by the U.S., we learned last week.
Closer to home, efforts by the last Knesset to liberalize positions on personal religious status — on such issues as conversion, marriage, divorce and women’s prayer at the Kotel — have been reversed by the current coalition in Jerusalem. That is one more signal to the great majority of American Jews, who are not Orthodox, that they are seen as second-class Jews in the eyes of the State of Israel they are urged to support.
I share these worries about a weakening of our identification with Israel. The hard fact is that Israel’s leadership is moving in a direction at odds with the next generation of Americans, including many Jews, who want to see greater efforts to resolve the Palestinian conflict and who put the onus for the impasse on Jerusalem. It is not only President Obama who feels that way. The fastest growing segments of American society — women, young people, blacks and Latinos — are less supportive of Israel than the previous generation, according to polls.
A young professional with extensive experience in countering the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel at colleges tells me, “It’s just not cool to be Jewish on campus today,” especially if that means identifying with Israel at a time when the Mideast’s only democratic state is cast as a pariah, accused of apartheid. Liberal students quick to respond to discrimination against blacks and other minorities somehow fail to identify with the only Mideast society that proudly supports rather than punishes gays and lesbians. That leaves little room for progressive Jewish students who back Israel’s right to exist. While some of their elders scorn them for criticizing Israel’s policies regarding Palestinians and the occupation of the West Bank, their classmates shun them for identifying with Israel at all.
Federation executives worry privately that when the generation of major funders who vividly remember Israel’s struggle for statehood and the anguish of the 1967 and 1973 wars passes from the scene, raising substantial dollars for the Jewish state will be that much harder.
“It’s very complicated” making Israel’s case, the execs say, and they’re right. In part that’s because Israelis are no longer seen as our poor cousins, asking for a handout. Indeed, their economy is booming, even though the huge gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is worrisome, especially given the ongoing and rapid growth of the Israeli Arab and charedi communities, lowest on the income scale.
In part it’s because Israel’s Chief Rabbinate seeks to set religious standards ever higher rather than show compassion for the hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Israeli citizens who would seek conversion. The situation is creating a substantial threat to Israeli cohesiveness and damages the longstanding image of Israel as a compassionate society that mirrors our own Western values and Jewish ideals.
Of course these perceptions of Israel today are not the full picture. They do not credit a vibrant Israeli democracy functioning in a region that has become increasingly chaotic, lawless, violent and threatening since the woefully misnamed Arab Spring. These critical views do not account for: courageous young men and women who serve their remarkable IDF with skill and commitment; a society whose Arab and Israeli citizens, overall, coexist day to day with civility and respect; and a nation whose accomplishments in the areas of technology, medicine, science and water are the envy of the rest of the world.
But while many of us take pride in Israel as a Start-Up Nation, we cannot ignore that it is also known at home for its Lock-Up Leadership — soon to have a former prime minister joining a former president behind bars as a result of differing forms of corruption at the highest levels of government.
Israel is not a perfect society, and those of us who seek to make its case err when we try to portray the Arab-Israeli conflict in black-and-white terms. The more we recognize and acknowledge the complexity of the clash, and the fact that Israelis themselves are divided on how to resolve it, the more credibility we will have in putting forth Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.
Whether or not it is fair, the strong perception today is that the Israeli government is moving further right, and intransigent, at a time when the rest of the world is fed up with the Israel-Palestinian impasse, seeing no hope for a resolution in the foreseeable future. (And bear in mind that there are no term limits in Israel, and no political figure left of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen as capable of besting him at the polls.)
Jewish leaders here are expressing deep, if so far private, frustration over the lack of action on Jerusalem’s part to improve its image, if not its strategic position.
One national leader told me he’d like to fly to Israel, with a group of his top colleagues, to try to convince Netanyahu in dramatic fashion of the need for “a plan, any plan” to break the impasse.
But that is not likely to happen, and, of course, the views of American Jewish leaders have long been known to the prime minister. Netanyahu and his government will continue to make decisions based on their own narrow and immediate political interests, and we can only hope they will coincide with national interests as well.
Our job remains to show support for Israel, if not all its policies, and to emphasize its remarkable achievements and importance in a chaotic, hostile region. But our job is getting harder with each passing day.