(By Sybil Ottenstein)When Theodor Herzl had a dream, he probably didn’t predict a generation of young Jews abandoning it a mere 150 years later. Today’s generation, much like generations before them, is educated, passionate, connected and aware. But, unlike generations before them, Jewish youth today desperately need a new vision of Zionism.
Today’s generation, ‘Generation Y,’ does not know what it’s like to truly fear for Israel’s survival as their parents and grandparents have known all too well. Yes, it can be argued that the Iranian threat represents an existential danger to Israel’s future. However, for ‘Generation Y,’ this threat is not tangible enough, or at the very least, it does not compare to the Holocaust or Israel’s numerous multi-front wars. The fact remains that young Jews today view Israel and Zionism in a completely different context than Jews of generations prior.
For those of today’s generation who do have an active relationship with Israel, many avoid labeling themselves as “Zionist.” While this is in part due to an overall generational aversion to labels and “isms,” there are obvious societal factors which play a role. This generation is constantly being bombarded with news about Israel that oftentimes goes from bad to worse. As such, they are frustrated, disillusioned and perhaps most definitively, increasingly losing interest (if not already utterly apathetic.)
It’s the apathy that is truly mind-boggling. Israel is undeniably one of the most remarkable success stories of all time. Jews of our grandparents and great-grandparents’ generation transformed their destiny from one of struggle and despair to one of triumph and glory. This accomplishment is nothing short of a miracle, and one to which we should remain forever connected. It is this connection that keeps much of the elder generations dedicated to Israel’s well-being, and it is this connection that is becoming increasingly rare among ‘Generation Y’ Jews.
Young Jews with strong ideals travel to all corners of the globe to help others and do acts of “tikkun olam.” But if you were to ask many of them why they didn’t dedicate their time and efforts to Israel, you would likely be met with blank stares. This is because Israel is not their cause; it was championed by others before their time. Instead, they prefer to identify themselves with causes that their generation hopes to influence – issues such as global poverty, a women’s right to choose or same-sex marriage.
These are noble and pertinent causes, but they do not negate or replace the nobility and pertinence of Zionism as a cause. The right of the Jewish people to live safely and securely in the Jewish homeland should stand side by side with the other myriad of rights ‘Generation Y’ passionately pursues. While it does not have to be every person’s cause célèbre, Zionism should still hold a prominent and permanent place in the hearts of every young Jewish person because Zionism is the cause of their people, generation after generation. Other important issues have a wide-array of advocates on their behalf. Zionism’s fan-base is much smaller, and if it is not securely anchored by the Jewish people at its base, it will soon expire.
Now is the time to return to the inspiring words of the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who implored, “You must hold fast to the things that have made us great: to liberality, tolerance, love of mankind. Only then is Zion truly Zion.” So, for those of today’s generation who are dissatisfied with the status quo, hold fast to the things that have made us great in the past, and think creatively and strategically for how they can again make us great in the future. Criticizing Israel is easy. What’s hard is working to see Israel reach its full potential.
Today’s Zionism should not be about maintaining the state envisioned and erected by those before us but about what we can do to perfect it. This is the cause that we can champion. This Zionism, the Zionism of today, is a natural extension of our idealism.
The skeptics among us may ask, “Why can’t I just be an idealist and not a Zionist?” The answer is simple. We have been obligated by our faith and people hood not only to establish a Jewish state but to make it a modern day utopia. While perfection seems daunting and abstract, the quest to achieve it is not. The quest towards making Israel an ideal state will serve as our generation’s great stimulus. It will provide both personal purpose as well as communal identification.
So, if your vision of “ideal” Israel is one more intertwined with the Diaspora, then get involved in organizations which do just that. Or if your “ideal” Israel is one which is more fairly represented in the media and on American campuses, then take a leadership role in your community or on your campus. And of course, if your “ideal” Israel has different political leanings and adopts different policies than Israel today, then take proactive steps towards making the changes you want to see. This is the Zionism of today.
Let’s not run away from Zionism, let’s run towards it, and fast. Zionism has always been about achieving the impossible, about idealism in its most ambitious form. Why then should the realization of Herzl’s dream in this generation be any different? Sybil Ottenstein is the Campus Coordinator for the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE)