‘Don’t you understand? If there were a war in America against the Jews, I’d fight for you. The people of Sderot — they are our people. We are one people.”
Those words came from Yotam, an Israeli soldier who silenced a room of 40 Birthright participants from Long Island. Following a visit to Sderot, many were ambivalent about having to spend time in a place that had faced rocket attacks just recently.
Yotam was one of an army contingent that had joined the group for several days. He managed to change their entire perspective, showing how his identity was inextricably tied to his responsibility for and connection to other Jews. An intellectual and emotional shift quickly became apparent as the participants began to see themselves as members of a collective people, and not merely individuals.
The need to create “peoplehood” encounters, including meaningful Israel engagement for the “Birthright” generation, was identified as crucial during “Interrogating Jewish Peoplehood,” part of a series of discussions held by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner and UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People this year. For younger people today, collective identity does not resonate the way it did for their grandparents and even parents, whose relationship to Israel was mostly seen as permanent and immutable.
In “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” published last spring in The New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart points to our communal shortcomings when it comes to Israel engagement in the tacit boundaries surrounding Israel. He writes, “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.”
Beinart should give us pause. We cannot assume that young Jews will automatically identify with Israel. The challenge of providing compelling Jewish peoplehood experiences and education is timely and critical. As Beinart indicates, we shouldn’t require young Jews to compartmentalize their political, social or moral sensitivities when engaging with Israel. And we shouldn’t require them to abandon intellectual rigor when learning about Israel.
In terms of Jewish peoplehood, we should consider experiences that speak directly to the priorities of young adults. One example is the work of UJA-Federation of New York in its development and support of Siach, a global network of Jewish environment and social justice professionals.
We should not convey, even unwittingly, that diverse views cannot be expressed outside of a local Jewish sphere, or shun conversations between those who locate tension between liberal values and those expressed by Israeli society. Similarly, if we ask young people to decide between universalism, with its corresponding moral sensibilities, and particularist Jewish concerns, we are not guaranteed they will stay within our pews.
Our greatest challenge lies with those who don’t care enough, don’t know enough or are too turned off to voice any opinion at all. Organizations that espouse “left-wing” positions do not, in themselves, constitute a problem of Jewish peoplehood. The real problem lies with those who reject the notion that the Jewish people or the State of Israel has any claim on them. Arguably, this precedes Beinart’s diagnosis of disgruntled liberals who cannot find a home with American Jewry: Jewish liberalism is a redundant exercise to those who have already removed themselves from the community.
There are other indicators that may inform us about disturbing trends in Israel engagement. Our education fails to effectively weave a discourse of Jewish peoplehood with the language of religious journey. In emphasizing Jewish personal fulfillment, peoplehood has been demoted to an optional extra, rather than an operating principle. A person’s sense of belonging to the Jewish people may or may not include a deep connection to Israel, and is not reliant on it. However, in Jewish terms at least, it is almost impossible that a person can grow Jewishly distinct from any communal engagement or connection to the Jewish people.
The contemporary challenges of Jewish peoplehood and Israel affiliation are too pressing for us to alienate those whose views are inconvenient, unorthodox or uncomfortable. Equally, the level of Jewish apathy is too palpable for us to be content with the lines on which we have constructed community engagement. Israel faces critical challenges that go beyond overseas delegitimization in their long-term impact and severity, including the status of personal and religious rights and the internal cohesion of Israel’s civil society.
It is vital that Israel education mirrors other forms of education in its sophistication and willingness to admit a range of approaches. It is crucial that we are able to distinguish between Israel education and advocacy, and understand that advocacy can never substitute for education. Making Israel’s case is important on the world stage; it cannot substitute for an understanding of its history, its social and political constitution and context, its challenges and its achievements.
As the American Jewish community, how can we invite affiliation with the Jewish people, and with Israel in ways that are complex and compelling? As we consider what values we hold most dear, let us similarly evaluate how we may invite engagement with Israel and the broader Jewish people, in a way that utilizes and celebrates those values, informs our relationship with Israel and our growth as a vibrant Jewish community.
Clare Hedwat is planning manager for UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People.