Opinion

Why Do Young Jews Reject Israel? Blame Demography, Not Bibi

Jonathan S. Tobin

Can young American Jews support an Israel governed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and supported by President Donald Trump? The answer from not only many Jewish youth as well as some elder Jewish statesmen is an unequivocal “no.”

In the last few months, the idea that American Jews no longer recognize the country they are asked to support has been gaining ground. Disputes over the Israeli government’s lack of support for religious pluralism, the adoption of a nation-state law that reasserted its status as an avowedly Jewish state, the treatment of the country’s American critics as well as ongoing criticism about the failure to make peace with the Palestinians and related issues concerning settlements and the use of lethal force have all contributed to the notion that the reality of Israeli values is alien to liberal American Jewish values.

The result is that Jewish kids, especially those headed off to college campuses whose left-leaning bias has created a hostile environment for Jews and supporters of Zionism, are not only opting out of the struggle but also increasingly joining the ranks of those who want no part of the Jewish state.

Cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, who is also president of the World Jewish Congress, made the argument in a recent op-ed in The New York Times that what he called Netanyahu’s “summer of disharmony” is widening a “generational divide” that is threatening the future of the Jewish people. It was the second such piece in The Times by Lauder in the last few months. Lauder’s stand is considered significant because he used to be a supporter of Netanyahu even though he is currently echoing criticisms voiced by liberals like fellow Jewish mogul/philanthropist Charles Bronfman.

Lauder happens to be right that Netanyahu’s cavalier attitude toward the sensibilities of non-Orthodox Jewry is wrong and makes it harder to sell Israel to Americans. Yet Lauder knows enough about Israel to understand that this problem is not so much a matter of Netanyahu’s ill will as a function of the tiny number of Conservative and Reform Jews in Israel, the belief by even most secular Israelis that non-Orthodox denominations are diaspora creations alien to the Jewish state and of the political clout of the Orthodox that liberal Jews can’t match.

None of that consoles liberal Zionists who see Netanyahu’s policies as abhorrent as well as being angered by the pluralism issue. But if they are loyal to the ideals of Zionism, they must understand that part of that means respecting the choices of the majority of the Israeli people.

The notion that Israeli democracy is in danger or that the country is being hijacked by an extremist minority that is trashing Jewish values is a distortion of the truth. What really bothers U.S. liberals — including those that are devoted to the Jewish state — is that Israeli voters have consistently rejected the Israeli left. Nor should anyone should be surprised that they are more interested in Trump’s support for their country than in American liberal loathing for him.

An imperfect Israel may not be the embodiment of the dreams of those who still view it through the prism of romantic ideals rather than complex reality, but it has remained remarkably diverse and democratic despite never knowing a moment of complete peace in its history.

But the claim that the illiberal nature of contemporary Israel is why young Jews are turning away from it ignores some unpleasant truths about American Jewry. Disillusionment with Israel is primarily driven by the sense on the part of many in the diaspora that any country whose identity is primarily ethno-religious rather than strictly pluralistic is inherently racist or regressive.

You don’t need to be a billionaire big giver to know that an American Jewish community that defines itself primarily by liberal politics, food and humor — the factors that surveys of U.S. Jews say are the strongest aspects of Jewish identity these days —will have problems with even the most democratic strain of Jewish nationalism. The primary obstacle to greater support for Israel is a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood among the increasingly assimilated non-Orthodox Jewish majority in the United States, not Netanyahu. Realists understand that even the unlikely election of a left-wing Israeli government wouldn’t change any of this.

The familiar answers to this dilemma that consist of prioritizing education, camps and trips to Israel where young Jews can compare the truth to the distorted picture they get from the media deserve our support. But not even that formula is a match for demography. This is a problem rooted in American Jewish identity. It wasn’t created by Israel and changing Israeli policies can’t solve it. 

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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