As the divide deepens, build bridges

Through constructive engagement, we may all learn something.

January 8, 2017 20:49
3 minute read.
Zhangjiajie bridge

People visit a glass bridge at a gorge as it opens to the public in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, China. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The students you meet in Hillel centers on college campuses across the United States are the future generation of American Jewish leadership. Their connection to their Judaism is deep, but this generation distinguishes itself in that its connection to Israel is less clear. While they certainly vary, there are many young American Jews who have managed to sculpt an identity where Israel plays a small part, or perhaps no part at all.

A Jewish identity without Israel at its core may be difficult for some to swallow. Still, these young American Jews consider themselves no less Jewish than their Israeli peers. It may not shock anyone that there are differences between American and Israeli Jews, but we must be mindful of the increasing distance between these groups.

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The question is not how to counter this lack of connection with Israel. Birthright has already taken up this task. Instead, it’s important to understand that the existence of this disconnect between Americans and Israelis presents an opportunity to enrich Judaism, rather than an occasion for mutual derision.

College campuses are an important place to focus, because this is where we see the fault lines most visibly. Jewish students are often involved in the most progressive groups on campus, and this is not in defiance of their Jewish identity. They emphasize the tones of social justice that are found in various streams of American Judaism.

Some of these students associate Israel negatively with critical depictions of the occupation or of Israel’s conflict with Hamas. As a student leader at Brown University describes it, these students would only engage with Israel through a Jewish identity that is critical of Israel, “questioning not only the policies but also the ideology behind it.”

She describes her campus as having many non-Zionist Jews, for whom Hillel must also make space.

When the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement makes noise on college campuses, these Jewish students can respond in a couple of ways. One hopes they would respond directly to the claims against Israel, but it is likely that they may simply protest against BDS because they fear that it isolates Jews from the progressive tent. The easier alternative for Jewish students is to choose not to take part in countering BDS, since Israel is not a central part of their identity. Either response should cause us some concern.

Some may disagree with this characterization of young Jewish leaders in America, they could point to increased participation in AIPAC conferences and Birthright trips. They are not wrong, Israel will not simply fade from the American Jewish identity.

However, a report from Brandeis University finds that those Jewish students who are most connected to Israel are also most likely to consider antisemitism to be a big problem on their campus. In other words, Jewish students have conflicting definitions of antisemitism, depending on their connection to Israel. This suggests that being a proudly progressive Jew and feeling a strong Jewish connection to Israel may not even be part of the same conversation for many young American Jews.

Israeli Jews might dismiss progressive American Jews as assimilated. Israelis can also feel abandoned, or at least patronized, by criticism from those American Jews who do not share a strong connection with Israel. However, disengagement would be harmful. The Jewish state and its policies – at the Western Wall, for example – have an enormous impact on the Jewish People’s future.

Natan Sharansky expressed this concern recently in Yaakov Katz’s article for The Jerusalem Post; will Diaspora Jewry and Israel continue their journey as one people? Now, more than ever, there is a need for mutual understanding and mutual respect for the variety of Jewish expression.

Through constructive engagement, we may all learn something. Israelis may come to understand that the progressivism of young American Jews stems from core Jewish values, and that these young Jews march with their Judaism on their sleeve.

At the same time, more interaction will demonstrate for these future American Jewish leaders that young Israelis are active contributors in building a vibrant culture for a proudly Jewish state. It is no coincidence that when Birthright participants reflect on their trips, they often recount the memorable conversations that they had with Israeli soldiers or other college-aged Israelis. These encounters must be emulated in every Jewish organization, summer camp, or college campus in the United States.

The author is a senior at Georgetown University and co-founder of

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