“If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” That longstanding public relations mantra has become only more germane in the epoch of the digital sound byte. At this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference held last month in Washington DC and attended by 18,000 activists, there was a lot of explaining on a key front.
In addition to shaping legislation, it’s clear that pro-Israel advocates are committed to stemming the rise of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on American campuses. They’ve launched countless trendy initiatives in recent years to counter their adversaries’ claims, to show young people the Jewish state is about freedom, not “occupation.” That makes sense. Israel’s security significantly depends upon succeeding generations of Americans continuing to believe in the country’s mission.
Many, if not most, of the campus initiatives seek to persuade Jews as well as non-Jews. But shouldn’t it already be apparent to Jews that, for a variety of reasons, Israel is important? Shouldn’t it be evident to them that it deserves to exist? Shouldn’t they be eager to stand up for their historic homeland? Yes, yes, and yes. But there’s a Zionism gap among Jewish millennials.
That, pro-Israel advocates plainly recognize. Pew’s major 2013 survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” asked participants: “What’s essential to being Jewish?” “Caring about Israel” trailed “leading ethical/moral life,” “working for justice/equality,” and “being intellectually curious.” (It barely eked out “having a good sense of humor.”) Regarding support for Israel, the poll noted: “Among Jews 65 and older, about half (53%) say caring about Israel is essential to what being Jewish means to them. Among Jews under age 30, by contrast, 32% express this view.”
How did the Zionism gap come about? This is the question these influencers—who are of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations—do not ask, but must be asking if they wish to affect the future. Or if they are asking it, it’s not reflected in outreach efforts they designed, funded, and implemented.
A Casualty of Jews’ Success at Assimilation
Assimilation, broadly understood, is the obvious reason younger Jews aren’t as interested in Israel as their forebears. They weren’t around during the Holocaust and they didn’t witness the Jewish state’s security crises in 1967 and 1973. Further, they didn’t grow up in an age of synagogue bombings and college admissions quotas. Life for them has been just like life for other Americans their age: yoga class and organic protein shakes.
Yes, they’ve been treated well by America. Actually, they’ve been treated so well that Irving Kristol felt it necessary to note that intermarriage, not anti-Semitism, was “the greatest single threat” to their community. (That was in 1991 when intermarriage was approaching 40 percent. Since 2000, the rate has been well over 70 percent.)
To be sure, a multitude of complex factors produce assimilation. But one should be of principal concern to those striving to inculcate Zionism among young American Jews: liberalism—specifically, the radically egalitarian liberalism of the Continental Enlightenment, which prizes collective parity, as opposed to the classical liberalism of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment, which cherishes individual liberty.
This former type of liberalism, which ought to be termed “left-liberalism,” has ruled the commanding heights of culture since the 1960s. Its secularist faith in “justice,” “reason,” and “equality” has governed the ethical bearings and spiritual impulse of American Judaism for decades, and is now bearing its most matured fruit. That fruit is sentiment among Jewish youth toward Israel that ranges from apathy to antipathy.
Effects of the Left’s Hatred for Community
According to Mondoweiss.net, at least 20 percent of the Israel-pressuring Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) on campus is Jewish. Writing in The New York Times on March 29, Eric Alterman, a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, posited that pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace “is perhaps the fastest-growing Jewish organization on campuses nationwide.” (On March 24, Sen. Cory Booker, during an interview on the “Michael Medved Show,” called BDS “an anti-Jewish movement.”)
Could it have been any other way? Doubtful, for this range of troubling reactions to Israel represent left-liberalism fulfilled. Left-liberalism, because it hails an extreme interpretation of “tolerance,” requires its devotees to suppress their own interests—whether religious, ethnic, moral, cultural, or national—in order to respect, or really celebrate, the interests of all other communities. That is, of course, if they hope to remain “enlightened” citizens in good standing.
In point of fact, left-liberalism is innately repulsed by the very notion of “community” because community, purportedly, denotes some artificial form of barrier between “us” and “them.” That denotation begets separation, misperception, and—ultimately—persecution of “the Other.” (See, if you must, Michel Foucault and Edward Said.)
True, Jews have faced the tension between particularism and universalism since the fall of the ghetto wall. True, most of Israel’s founders were both secular and left-leaning while many Zionists since 1948 have been both secular and left-leaning. But according to not Democratic Party politics but rather the philosophy of left-liberalism—whose chief progenitors were René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx—they were hypocrites. That they struck a “balance” between particularism and universalism necessarily meant they were violating, to an extent, the sanctity of both poles.
The Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in 1913 in response to Eastern European pogroms, offers an unambiguous example of leftist Jewish confusion. The “non-partisan” organization disdains “actions that divide us along religious and ethnic lines” while it also “promotes the security and well-being of Jewish communities around the world.”
We Love Everyone Except Ourselves
American Jews, especially of the more progressive stripe, will likely learn, only once it’s too late, that they can’t have their granola cake and eat it too. For it’s impossible to champion worship at the altar of multiculturalism then expect individuals to leap to the defense of something so exclusive as a Jewish nation-state. “When it comes to campus discourse on Israel, one thing is conspicuous,” Andrew Silow-Carroll lamented in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on March 31. “There is no pro-Israel left.”
Truth be told, today’s young Jews who harbor less-than-positive attitudes toward Israel are not contradicting left-liberalism, they’re epitomizing it. They have simply managed to elude to a greater degree the contradictions that their parents and grandparents either could not or would not.
Jewish conservatives—synonymous these days with “neoconservatives”—have kvetched for half-a-century about Jews on the Left betraying their own “interests” through support of the Democratic Party. Allegedly, those interests involve, among other things, Israel. Frankly, the foreign policy approach of the Left toward Israel is one thing, but left-liberalism’s effect on the willingness to support Israel is quite another. It’s the latter, inexplicably, that Jewish conservatives have largely ignored.
From the pro-Israel perspective, what is needed is the rebuilding of Jewish identity, meaning a solid and multifaceted understanding of what’s unique about the Jewish experience. (Spoiler alert: What’s unique about the Jewish experience is not, as the majority of mainstream Jews myopically assert, persecution and “social justice.” Other peoples have suffered and done good deeds as well.) After all, if lacking a healthy Jewish identity, what practical reason in twenty-first-century America does a Jew have to proactively back Israel?
Time to Reconstruct the Jewish Identity
American Jews must not continue to presume that successive generations will be able to subsist eternally off the spiritual inspiration of their ancestors. It’s important here to keep in mind that a lot of Israel’s markedly secular progenitors ascended from very observant backgrounds. Yet a swath of American Jewry is convinced that Matisyhau, “Seinfeld,” chicken soup, lox, and Hanukkah presents will be enough to keep the flame alive. They’re mistaken. Not even Birthright will do the trick.
But how to reconstruct Jewish identity? The path forward centers on education. American Jews desperately require a knowledge of ritual, Hebrew, and history that is more robust than the one currently being passed to them by family members and rabbis. It’s not unusual to find pro-Israel Jews who, if questioned, will struggle to name the year of Israel’s founding. Similarly, it’s not uncommon to encounter mainstream Jews who can recite the Ashrei—one of Judaism’s central daily prayers—but be unable to translate a single line into English.
Admittedly, there’s a stark disparity between what should be done and what can be done. What should be done is an overhaul of Hebrew school curricula at temples and synagogues. Hebrew school remains the experience that still binds together mainstream American Jews. Alas, it’s usually dismal and, occasionally, traumatizing. To get a sense of the coming-of-age trial, check out Philip Roth’s, “The Conversion of the Jews,” featured in his classic collection of essays, “Goodbye, Columbus.”
All those connected to Hebrew school education, from parents to clergy, need to develop means to make teachable content more interesting, relevant, and challenging. Remarkably, actual Torah study is frequently limited to memorizing the singular part of the Five Books of Moses read aloud at bar and bat mitzvahs. Plus, few non-Orthodox Jews ever see a single page of Talmud, the codification of Jewish law that presents the basis of the (few) customs they observe.
All for None, None for All
What most Jewish kids do learn at Hebrew school (and from their parents) is that Judaism embraces universal human culture. Naturally, they proceed to ask themselves, “If Judaism embraces universal human culture, why do we need Judaism?”
None of this is to say that AIPAC—and other organizations that lobby on behalf of Israel—are ineffective in their legislative campaigns. It is to say, however, that they’re misspending resources aiming to sway young Jews. That’s because insufficient energy is being dedicated to figuring out what ails Jewish millennials.
In turn, no number of glossy booklets praising Israeli innovation—from microchips to cherry tomatoes—will win young minds. Likewise, no amount of slick films highlighting Israeli humanitarianism—from aiding Syrian refugees on Lesbos to assisting flood victims in Missouri—will win young hearts.
Until the pro-Israel crowd gets serious about the corrosion of Jewish identity, it will always find itself in a reactionary posture, and its endeavors to galvanize mainstream Jewish support for the Jewish state will increasingly prove in vain.