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For the first time ever, the largest Jewish umbrella organization in North America, the United Jewish Communities, is holding its annual young leadership conference in Tel Aviv. Welcome to Israel, delegates, we're glad you are here.
About 1,200 people identified as young leaders are participating in Tel Aviv One, as the conference is called - a thousand of them from North America. Previous conferences have been held in Washington, DC, where the draw was the opportunity to meet members of Congress. This year, the attraction is Israel, the opportunity to meet young Israeli leaders and see the country - not just Tel Aviv.
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Tel Aviv One is clearly part of a trend in which both Israel and the American Jewish establishment are beginning to understand that the two largest concentrations of world Jewry need each other more than ever. American Jewry has taken note that the younger generation experienced neither the 1967 or 1973 wars as adults, and therefore never shared the exultation and pride engendered by Israel's lightening victory, nor the sense of existential threat from just before the 1967 war and during the 1973 war when it was not known whether Israel would succeed in repelling a concerted Arab surprise attack.
Currently, many young American Jews do not identify strongly with Israel, or have no idea how, or inclination, to defend Israel in the court of world opinion. Even if the number of Jewish students and other young people who join pro-Palestinian organizations is few, there are much larger numbers who are alienated from Israel's struggle, and are far from convinced that justice and legitimacy are on Israel's side.
There is an increasing realization that this situation is dangerous not just for Israel, but for American Jewish identity, giving and survival. The combination of a strong Jewish identity coupled with ignorance or antipathy toward Israel, while theoretically possible, is difficult to imagine on a large, sustainable scale.
The reality is that support for Israel, while it neither can nor should play the dominant role that it once did for Diaspora Jewish identity, must remain a significant component. More than that, Israel is increasingly and correctly seen as a catalyst for Jewish identity among Diaspora Jews who do not know where to begin to connect with Jewish history, peoplehood and meaning.
While much attention is paid toward the need to boost Jewish education, with good reason, this emphasis tends to ignore young Jews who are already beyond the reach of the educational system, and yet are marrying or starting families. This is a mobile, highly educated group, many of whom could identify with modern Israeli society if they could be encouraged to visit, or if they came into contact with Israelis who have been sent temporarily to assist Diaspora communities.
The age group just before those termed to be "young leadership" - Jewish university students - also deserves more attention from Israel. Though groups such as Hillel, AIPAC and others have been doing a tremendous job increasing Jewish student affiliation and combating anti-Israel activity, many Jewish students have absorbed common campus (and European) attitudes, namely that the Palestinians are David to Israel's Goliath.
Perhaps the most effective spokespeople to explain Israel's position are ironically those who might seem to embody the "militarism" that repels some young Americans - Israeli soldiers. These young people - imbued with responsibility and life-and-death choices that are striking to college students their own age - are often in a better position to explain the dilemmas that a liberal democracy like Israel faces than those perceived as professional spokespeople and debaters.
It would not hurt, as well, for more Israelis to be exposed at a young age to the Diaspora: both its struggles and its different models of Jewish practice. Secular Israelis, too often, see their own religion in (sometimes literally) black-and-white terms, as if the only Jewish choices are between complete non-observance - including Jewish ignorance - and an Orthodox way of life.
Diaspora Jewry provides examples of both vibrancy and assimilation of which more Israelis should be aware. Accordingly, Israel should be sending more citizen-representatives to the Diaspora, and giving more support to efforts like birthright israel and Masa, which bring Diaspora Jews to Israel.
Though aimed at a different age group, Tel Aviv One is an important effort along these lines. We hope it becomes an annual event.
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