I’m confused. I keep reading that “Millennials” are abandoning Israel, and that this broader American Jewish distancing from Israel is, of course, all Israel’s fault. Yet busloads of young Jews keep touring Israel despite parents who never bothered visiting – often returning rapturous. How could young Jews be abandoning Israel if they embrace it so ardently that comedians mock their enthusiasm? Are young American Jews Millennial traitors or Birthright patriots? Beware, the loudest voices today are not necessarily the most representative. The media megaphone amplifies critics’ voices, especially those who bash politically incorrect targets like “Bibi’s Israel.”
While there are ideological tensions between Americanism and Zionism and some loud elite Millennials are abandoning Israel, Birthright is a mass movement.
It reflects and reinforces vigorous, popular, mainstream Jewish support for Israel. The Chinese teach: “The crying baby gets the milk.” We can say: “The snotty, self-righteous Israel-bashing, Millennial commands the attention – not the crowds.”
Scholar/statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan advised that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. Intellectuals often masquerade as sociologists, pretending their opinions enjoy mass support. In 2010, had Peter Beinart just said, “I’m fed up with Israel,” his essay wouldn’t have ignited a firestorm. By claiming he represented the young American Jewish masses souring on Israel, forced to choose between liberalism and Zionism, his article terrified the American Jewish establishment. Some conservative Zionists also claim American Jews are abandoning Israel, but they blame American Jewish superficiality – because the more identified you are with Judaism, the more identified you are with Israel.
Let’s remember, Zionism historically was a marginal movement, especially before 1948. The movement’s validity came from being right – not popular.
The Eastern European masses moved to America.
Today, according to the Pew Study, 69 percent of American Jews remain attached to Israel, including 60% between the ages of 18 and 29. (Only 49% of those with no denomination feel attached to Israel, proving that Israel affiliation reflects the depth of your Jewish identity more than your age or politics).
Moreover, thanks to Taglit-Birthright Israel – whose International Education Committee I chair voluntarily – more 20 to 30 year-olds than 30 to 40 years olds are pro-Israel. This phenomenon reverses the historic tendency whereby the older Jews get, the more pro-Israel they become. The opportunity so many young Jews have enjoyed to visit Israel on a non-partisan program, connecting with Israel, Judaism, and Zionism as part of their heritage not as a political problem, has been revolutionary. The result has renewed appreciation for Israel and for Zionism as a Jewish identity-building process.
Birthright has liberated hundreds of thousands of young Jews from seeing Israel only through the prism of the news or of Yasir Arafat’s conceit to make every conversation about Israel be about him and his people. Professor Theodore Sasson’s research has shown that it has freed conservative and liberal Jews to have opinions about Israel, even criticize Israel, but, as with their relationship with America, not abandon the country when they disagree with its politics or leaders.
Positive Israel experiences cannot resolve all the ideological tensions between Jewish Americanism and Zionism. Both America and Israel remain dueling “promised lands.” Americans and Israelis each view history as naturally flowing toward their respective homes. American assimiliationism and cosmopolitanism, along with the mainstreaming of intermarriage, root young American Jews in non-Zionist worldviews and experiences – precisely when young Israelis are steeped in the intensely nationalist experience of army service. Clashing attitudes about the Palestinian problem mix with questions of tribalism, loyalty, patriotism, and tradition.
A small, loud minority of American Jews, motivated by support for Palestinian rights, has used these ideological tensions to repudiate Israel and exaggerate the wedge between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. These critics enjoy disproportionate strength among non-Orthodox rabbinic students, graduate students, and undergraduates in elite educational institutions. As a result, whereas once rabbis were usually more conservative religiously and politically than their flock, tomorrow’s rabbis and communal leaders risking being more radical in general – and less loyal to Israel.
Ultimately, the numbers indicate that Jewish support for Israel, and pro-Israel activism on campus, are growing. The “alienated Millennials” who generate headlines are more warning sign than tombstone.
Ideologically, we must continue building Israel connections based on a search for meaning rooted in heritage and homeland, not through politics, guilt or fear. And we should sharpen the Zionist critique of American Jewry, showing how Israel’s more collectivist, three-dimensional Jewish identity can enrich American Jewish identity.
We must stop distorting the conversation about Israel by making it all about the Palestinians. In 1981, the liberal feminist writer Anne Roiphe wrote Generation without Memory, articulating her Jewish identity worries. She sought a richer, more muscular, American Judaism, a more Israeli Judaism.
Acknowledging that “All Jewish rivers run toward Israel,” she wrote: “A Judaism that does not involve new commitments, work for others, will melt away in the heat of the barbecue on the patio, the light of the TV, the warmth of the variety of comforts now available….
If one modernizes Judaism too far, it becomes like a TV game show, as compared to a fine Shakespeare performance… Indifferently, the next generation is tempted to drift away, to turn it off.”
By visiting Israel, hundreds of thousands of young Jews have experienced this deeper 3-D, 24/7 Judaism and Zionism. Israel, our homeland, can inspire Jews, wherever they stand on the Palestinian issue, because they care about their own identities, and seek more depth, commitment, meaning, in their lives. Identity Zionism, not partisan or guilt-based Zionism, provides the depth many moderns seek.
So look beyond the headlines and beyond the shrill critics. See the ongoing support for Israel among Jews, to fulfill themselves, not just help Israel.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. He is Professor of History