This week great minds from around the world are convening again in Israel to think about the future, at the invitation of President Shimon Peres. Conspicuously underrepresented from this gathering and similar forums, however, is perhaps the most knowledgeable segment of our community, at least when it comes to understanding and navigating current and future trends affecting us as a people.
Many have written disparagingly about this segment of our community – this generation of Jewish university students and young adults – raising concerns about their relationship to Israel and the Jewish people. These bleak conclusions are almost never based on objective local assessments or data and simply miss the mark.
First, young Jewish adults are not alienated from Israel, or the global Jewish people.
On the contrary, according to results from a Hillel-commissioned survey this past March, by the well-regarded public opinion polling firm of Penn Schoen Berland (PSB), of college-aged Jews in the US, 78 percent define support of Israel as important or very important. What’s more, 79 percent of Jewish students report a sense of responsibility for the Jewish people.
While the hostility to Israel in many academic classes and colloquia continues unabated, it appears the students may be wiser than their professors in many respects. It may be true that this generation does not demonstrate the same visceral loyalty that their grandparents did when Israel was conceived. This is hardly surprising given that Israel itself has changed substantially since those older Jews first formed their attachments to the Jewish state and support for the enterprise of Zionism.
No, young Jewish adults don’t have a jaundiced view of Israel, as their parents and grandparents might conclude. Their love and emotional attachment to the Jewish State is probably as intense as that of their elders, but it is different in kind. They are not looking for a fairytale depiction of Israel. Rather, they appreciate it is as a real place with real entrepreneurs, scientists and free journalists and women soldiers – all the normal and healthy features to which most modern nations aspire.
This generation is not planting trees or watching movies about the heroic chapters of early Israeli history as their elders did. But it is engaged and capable of understanding complexity as well as ideological bullying and polarization whether it comes from someone on or off the campus.
Second, young adults do not engage Israel exclusively via ideology.
One need only see the record number of students this summer exploring Israel through the Birthright Israel program and similar initiatives. Indeed, their demand for experiences like these in Israel has been outstripping the supply for the last several years. They may look the same as college-age explorers of Israel of the past, but they are not. They hail from Ivy League schools and commuter campuses. They are deaf students at Gallaudet and outdoor enthusiasts from the West Coast. They define themselves in record numbers as “just Jewish” without qualifying a denomination or political leaning, though some say have already decided to vote for Republicans and others Democrats in the fall elections. Certainly, this is different than prior generations.
What is it they have in common? They trusted a friend’s recommendation that engaging with Israel personally is valuable and meaningful to any and every Jew. In fact, in the PSB survey, 80 percent of the students associated support for Israel with their being Jewish.
Third, their support for Israel does not present a conflict between American liberalism and tribal Judaism.
Young Americans may in fact reject pure tribalism, but, frankly, shouldn’t we all? What Judaism asks is for something subtler: particularism. It is not as debasing to ourselves or others as tribalism or parochialism. It doesn’t just set us apart; it navigates the balance between what makes us the same and what makes us different.
Today, students returning from Israel experiences – as diverse as yeshiva gap years, university study abroad programs and short-terms trips – return to campus proudly wearing their Hebrew t-shirts, sharing their Israel stories with friends via social media, and often taking the lead to organize public celebrations and learning programs about Israel. They seem to have no hesitation displaying pride in their particularism for family and friends, Jewish and non-Jewish.
Young people we meet on campus today grasp this even better, according to my experience, than their counterparts of previous generations. It may be true that this generation gets its mythology from Harry Potter and its current events from Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart. The good news is that for many they derive their authenticity, meaning and adventure from Israel. Our job as adults getting increasingly further from our own college experiences is to help them navigate their personal journeys, not just call them out and demand they choose from binary options. In short, a generation that may know less about Jewishness in general and Israel in particular is showing signs that it is interested in engaging in new ways.
This may not be a new dynamic for Diaspora Jews to confront, but the tools and the horizons for these borderless students and journeymen is creating new realities in the Israel-Diaspora relationship and for the better. Forums of big thinkers at universities, organizations and larger communal gatherings would serve our longer interests well by not merely providing today’s generation of Jewish college students a seat at the table to lecture them but also by listening to their questions as an opportunity for engagement and learning.
Wayne L. Firestone is President and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.