Israel and young American Jews I

We have to allow them to grapple with Israel as it is and figure out what needs to change.

American Jewish students participate in a study program in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
American Jewish students participate in a study program in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
ADINA BRIN is a senior at Bates College in Maine, majoring in religious studies and a member of the board of the campus Hillel.
She also heads the college chapter of J Street U, the student arm of the fastest-growing Jewish student organization in America right now.
Brin grew up in southern California and attended a Jewish day school in Irvine. But when she left high school, she felt somewhat disconnected, even alienated from things Jewish. “I wanted to see what else was out there for me after 10 years in a Jewish school,” she says.
It was belonging to J Street U, which provided a place where she could thoughtfully examine her connection to Judaism as well as Israel that brought her back into the fold. “It made me realize I am connected to the Jewish community and I feel responsible for shaping it in the future more the way I think it should be,” she says. “My involvement in J Street U brought me back to my Jewish identity.”
Brin isn’t sure how many Jews attend Bates, a small liberal arts school with a total enrollment of around 1,800. She estimates perhaps one or two hundred. Of these, between 20 and 40 show up for regular Friday nights or other Hillel activities. J Street U has a committed core of 10 to 15 but can draw as many as 60 students to its programs. Some are regular Hillel attendees; many are not.
Adina spent a semester in Israel last year at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and now wants to become a Jewish educator after she graduates. Surely, she represents part of the hopeful future of American Jewry. And although her case is individual and special, I hear many similar stories on my J Street travels around the US and in interactions with students and young people.
Not surprisingly, the most active students I meet, the most passionate and the most committed, are often graduates of Jewish day schools. They have been raised to care about the world and about their fellow humans. They are intelligent and idealistic, and have been taught to question everything by their parents, teachers and mentors.
Yet when it comes to Israel, our community raises a drawbridge and imposes a code of virtual silence. Israel is not up for discussion, we tell our young people. Our job is to support Israel unconditionally and to love it with all our hearts, with all our souls and with all our might.
For my generation, whose parents fought in World War II and survived the Holocaust, and for whom memories of the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars remain fresh, this approach might have worked.
It will not work for our children.
This is a generation that feels empathy for the oppressed and the dispossessed of the world, that worries about global warming and the extinction of species, that campaigns for the rights of minorities and that takes seriously the Jewish ethical admonitions of tikkun olam (perfecting the world) and tzedek tzedek tirdof (the uncompromising pursuit of justice). Should we expect them not to apply those same standards to Israel, our own Jewish homeland? They want and need to explore the complexity and reality of Israel in all its aspects. That includes the many wonderful things about Israel but also the troubling features of the occupation and the settler movement. Many young Jews have told me how shocked and surprised they were to hear for the first time that there exists another narrative about the far away country they had been taught from childhood to love without question.
They had simply never been prepared for the Palestinian narrative – and when they encountered it, it was as if a conspiracy of silence had been breached. They were shocked and confused.
Many of our schools and synagogues now display maps of Israel in which the Green Line has been erased – as if it had never existed. But an entire people cannot be erased and by attempting to airbrush away history, we are also airbrushing away the very ties that will link our next generation to Israel. We have to allow them to grapple with Israel as it is and figure out what to love, what needs to change if Israel is to survive as a democracy and as a Jewish homeland, and what role they as committed individuals can play.
That kind of intelligent engagement is the best way to assure our collective Jewish future. 
Alan Elsner is Vice President of Communications for J Street