Comment: Against the tide

American youth lose interest in Israel... What can be done?

Nefesh olim (photo credit: Gal Beckerman [file])
Nefesh olim
(photo credit: Gal Beckerman [file])
Steven M. Cohen's and Ari Y. Kelman's finding of lessened identification with Israel among the broad mass of American Jewish youth seems plausible, if for no other reason than that the same trend seems to be at work among significant sectors of Israeli Jewish youth, as well. The regular public dustups over declining military recruitment and the country's academic brain drain are among the more visible manifestations of a sense that this country is somehow slipping away from Jewish youth, and thus from the future. Beyond the inevitable aging of the groups who lived through the Holocaust, 1948 and even the wars of 1967 and 1973, two large trends seem to be at work here: Israel is in many ways a less attractive society than it once was, thanks to its public and private moral failings, corruption, degraded public culture, foolish policy-making and above all the sense of hopelessness it so often projects. To be sure, Israel is increasingly criticized in well-heeled elite opinion circles, sometimes in good faith and sometimes not. But there can be no doubt that many of its policies, and above all the settlement of the territories, has done it grave and at times justifiable damage in world opinion. But the specifics of Israel aside, contemporary sociocultural and economic trends as a whole work to lessen ethnic and national ties among the well-educated, achievement-oriented, and literally and figuratively, mobile groups in which Jews are so well represented. Human capital is increasingly mobile and Jews, wherever they are, are on the move. As the historian Yuri Slezkine writes in his stunning book The Jewish Century: "Modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible... in other words, [it] is about everyone becoming Jewish." In a world where everyone is Jewish, at least this kind of exilic and disembodied Jew, the Israeli and Zionist commitment to one very specific place and to an abiding - indeed physical - kinship to other Jews, is swimming against powerful tides. As place and kinship grow more diffuse in the globalized ether, the life-worlds of Jewish life in Israel and America grow increasingly apart. As ever, the Orthodox are the exception here, so much so that Cohen and Kelman chose not to count them. This is not only a function of Orthodox religious commitments as such; rather, Israel is a part of their life-worlds, their integrated structures of thought, belief, social interaction and daily activities. At the other end of the identification spectrum, continued acculturation, out-marriages and related phenomena inevitably change the place of Jewishness in people's lives. The Jewish community as a whole must formulate its own educational priorities and direct its resources accordingly. One of the study's findings is that programs such as birthright do produce powerful results. Of course, the duration of those effects, especially in the face of the trends outlined above, remains to be seen. Why does this matter? Continued identification with Israel is vital to the future of Israel as a political entity, and to the related, but distinct, Zionist conviction that continued Jewish life requires a renewed Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. Israel and Zionism can endure to the extent that young people come to see them as precious and valuable things in their own lives, not only politically, but culturally and spiritually, as well. In other words, Israel will have to earn young people's faithfulness. There is room for hope. Cohen and Kelman have also co-authored an intriguing study, "The Continuity of Discontinuity," which explores at length some of the new and unconventional ways in which young, creative and vibrant Jews are forging new forms of engagement and community outside the formal structures and fixities of organized Jewish life. Had they written their study a century ago they might well have talked about Zionists. That spark cannot be mechanically reproduced but rather renewed. Can we do it? Rabbi Dr. Yehudah Mirsky is a fellow of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and a former US State Department official. The opinions expressed here are his own.