Diaspora Affairs: Millennials on a mission

Israel Policy Forum’s Atid offers young American Jews the opportunity to see more than the sunny side of Israel.

FROM RIGHT: Israel Policy Forum Atid delegate Doron Hindin of New Jersey translates a briefing by Rafi Babayan, head of security for Sdot Negev Regional Council, at the Gaza-Israel border, as Mary Ann Weiss of Washington, Lauren Post of Los Angeles and other delegates listen. (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICY FORUM)
FROM RIGHT: Israel Policy Forum Atid delegate Doron Hindin of New Jersey translates a briefing by Rafi Babayan, head of security for Sdot Negev Regional Council, at the Gaza-Israel border, as Mary Ann Weiss of Washington, Lauren Post of Los Angeles and other delegates listen.
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICY FORUM)
When you put the search terms “young Jews Israel” into Google, the results are more than 25 million articles on the subject. Most of the top 10 read like this: “Why young US Jews are drifting away from Israel.”
“My friends are becoming politically engaged on a number of subjects, but people have a difficult time engaging with Israel," according to Alexandra Stabler, a senior global marketing manager at William Morris Endeavor in Los Angeles.
Stabler was in Israel recently on the inaugural Israel Policy Forum (IPF) Atid mission to Israel with a group of 14 other Generation Y Jewish professionals who are committed to advancing a pragmatic conversation about Israel – something they say is hard to find in 2019 in the United States.
Stabler grew up in a family involved with the AIPAC lobbying group. But she said that in college at the University of California, Berkeley, she felt increasingly uncomfortable navigating the Israel conversation. For her, AIPAC felt unyielding in its approach to the Jewish state. At the same time, the topic of Israel was increasingly polarizing among her friends and colleagues - intersectional feminists, as she described them.
“It is easier to be apathetic in an environment that is hyperpolarized in a way that encourages people to disengage," she said. "I felt that people were angry at me [for caring about Israel]. Through IPF Atid, I am finding a community and creating a space for transparent dialogue and exploration with as much information as possible.”
Stabler now serves as chairwoman of her local IPF Atid steering committee.
The Hebrew word “atid” means future in English.
According to Adena Philips, an IPF board member and the national chairwoman of IPF Atid, the group's vision is that “15 years out, the people we are touching are going to lead organizations in the American Jewish community, and then it is going to look different than today. The Jewish organizations of the future will have leaders who are more equipped to dig in, speak across divides, speak with each other.”
That’s why this first trip for IPF Atid mission participants looked different from Birthright or even most Jewish Federations of North America missions. 
The group spent a week, from July 14 to 21, in Israel and the West Bank, meeting with Israeli, Palestinian and Israeli-Arab security and political figures, human rights and political activists, entrepreneurs, journalists, artists and their millennial counterparts. 
The visit included tours of - and discussions in - Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Rawabi, settlements, refugee camps, Palestinian villages, border crossings and checkpoints, the Gaza periphery, eastern and western Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“Everyone says young Jews are disengaging from the conversation,” said Philips. “But I think that is because they are told you can engage [with Israel] but only this far and not further.
“Millennials want to swim in the river, not float in the river. If you want us to engage, let us engage deeply or do not ask us to engage.”
WELCOME TO the Royal Court Hotel in Ramallah, with its vintage café, red leather chairs and track lighting. Early on a Friday, five days into their journey and the morning after they went drinking with Palestinian millennials at a local bar, participants were eager to share their favorite experiences.
For participant Julien Lederman, the highlight was at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, where the group met a border policeman and learned how Israeli security officials monitor the entry of Gazans into Israel.
“The officer showed us the CCTV screens and how they screen for terror and weapons smuggling,” Lederman explained. “But then he sees this Palestinian driver.”
Lederman said that the officer spoke to the man warmly and, when he passed, he shared with the group about his friendship with the Gazan – “a true friendship.” According to IPF Atid national director Adam Basciano, This dichotomy is what most Americans don’t get.
The representative of a grassroots peace-building movement told the mission how a political rally was called for the main square in Ramallah on the same day that Kentucky Fried Chicken was opening up its local branch there.
“Three hundred people came to the march and 15,000 went to KFC,” the representative said, according to Basciano. “He said, ‘People want to live here.' I love that story.”
They met with Yishai Fleisher, the spokesman for Jewish Hebron, and with a representative from the left-wing NGO Breaking the Silence.
“The conflict becomes very dehumanizing very quickly, and it is important to bring it back and say there are real human people on any angle,” said participant Lauren Post.
“It’s amazing how many people engaged in this work have never met a Palestinian,” added Philips. “And I think it makes a huge difference to meet not only their first Palestinian, but several Palestinians who feel differently from each other – that strengthens people’s ability to engage on this issue.”
There was also a recognition that millennials cannot approach the Israel conversation from the same starting place as Gen X or baby boomer Jews, or use the same modes of communication.
Basciano said that his peers know only a conflict that is post-Oslo, after the Second Intifada and the security barrier. As such, they are not trying to get back to some utopian handshake on the White House lawn, but looking to create some kind of disruption that could change the contemporary trajectory.
They are also doing it on social media, with videos and pictures.
When one of their activities on the Gaza border was canceled, participants took to Facebook Messenger to arrange alternative plans that ultimately involved video chatting with contemporaries in Gaza City.
Ethan Felder, an in-house counsel for the Service Employees International Union, worked on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. He said he was snapping photos in the field and sending them back to the campaign team.
“Pictures speak volumes,” he said.
Post and Basciano used Instagram.
“We have to find new methods of engaging people on new platforms,” said Post. “Instagram Stories – that is where people are. You can tell a lot of interesting stories and do good educational work on Instagram and Snapchat. The strategies that work for older folks are not going to work anymore.”
THE MISSION, however, is not the end but the means, Basciano said. The ultimate goal is to create effective Israel activism back home in the US, centered on IPF’s vision of mobilizing support among Jewish leaders and US policy-makers for the realization of a viable two-state solution.
Already, Atid has taken action on that front. In March, ahead of the AIPAC Policy Conference, the millennials delivered a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling on him to change his policies or risk seriously eroding support for Israel among the next generation of US Jews.
The letter, signed by members of Atid and more than 400 other young Jews between the ages of 20 and 40 who are affiliated with a broad swath of American Jewish organizations, provided the prime minister with a list of Israeli policies that make it “increasingly challenging” for them to advocate for Israel.
“Some of your government’s policies both strain our connection to the Jewish state and hamper our ability to advocate for Israel’s well-being,” the millennials wrote.
These issues included:
• legislative initiatives that threaten Israel’s democracy
• the lack of progress on issues of religious pluralism
• the dangerous rise of Jewish extremism
• policies that diminish the possibility of a two-state solution, and
• growing calls for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank
“Articulate your vision for achieving a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the two-state solution,” the letter urged, or risk “seriously erod[ing] support for Israel among our generation of US Jews, thereby threatening the sustainability of a strong US-Israel relationship.”
In addition, the group was instrumental in the introduction of the Partnership Fund for Peace Act of 2019 (HR 3104): legislation which establishes a peace fund in order to improve economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges, furthering shared community building, peaceful coexistence, dialogue and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians - with the aim of preserving the possibility of a two-state solution.
According to the group, by supporting and investing in people-to-people programs and economic cooperation on such a significant scale – within the context of preserving the two-state solution – and making every effort to seek additional contributions for the fund from Middle Eastern countries, Europe and the rest of the international community, the US and its partners will ensure that these efforts impact the lives of millions of Israelis and Palestinians.
Basciano said that this legislation could help create the necessary conditions on the ground to support an eventual two-state solution.
IPF’s core values are intellectual integrity, forthrightness, partnership, Zionism and perseverance.
“That’s the difference,” said Lederman. “This is a pragmatic approach.”
He said that until he became involved with Atid, he felt that conversations around Israel tended to be oversimplified.
“We are aware of our role as Americans,” he continued. “But we want to see how we can be supportive partners.”