US Zionists: The next generation

Zionist community long faced worldwide criticism, now harshest words often come from within.

ZIONIST CARTOON521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
I was raised in a strong Zionist household, so it’s hard for me to accept that there could be a significant number of young American Jews who are ambivalent about or critical of Zionism. Yet it does seem at times that the most ardent Zionist circles in the US are no longer Jewish, but rather Evangelical Christian. Why the apparent erosion of Zionist sentiment and what can be done about it? Of course, the Zionist movement has had to withstand worldwide criticism – or worse, vilification – for decades. Now, however, some of the sharpest criticism is coming from within the Jewish community, most notably from those on the Left who equate Zionism with the policies of the current right-wing Israeli government.
Thus, disapproval of Israeli settlement construction, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians or other alleged moral shortcomings serves as an indictment of the entire Zionist enterprise.
The most prominent voice for this moralistic kind of thinking is Peter Beinart, a senior political writer for “The Daily Beast” website.
In his new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” and new blog, “Zion Square,” Beinart informs us that Zionism has become a “dirty word” among young American Jews and that “the Zionist consensus that once undergirded Diaspora Jewish life is collapsing.”
To be sure, many liberal American Jews recoil at certain policies of the current Israeli government (as do many Israelis). Beinart is also correct that Israel must eventually relinquish most of the West Bank, if it’s to remain both Jewish and democratic.
But Beinart’s dire prediction of a next generation of American Jews at odds with Zionism is far from inevitable – even in the face of disconcerting political developments in Israel. Contrary to his assertion about an overwhelming number of disaffected young Jews, a poll conducted last November by Washington-based Public Opinion Strategies indicates that two-thirds of Jewish undergrads feel “close” to Israel. Not surprisingly, those respondents who had been to Israel on high school, gap year or Taglit-Birthright programs were more likely to express positive feelings about the country.
Since 1999, tens of thousands of American Jewish young adults – the vast majority non-Orthodox – have gone on Birthright trips. According to an October 2009 Brandeis University study of Birthright participants five to eight years after their trips, 58 percent reported feeling “very much” connected to Israel, regardless of their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Conversely, only 12 percent reported feeling little or no connection.
Could it be that these young Jews, after experiencing Israel firsthand, understand that the Jewish state – and Zionism by extension – isn’t defined solely, or even predominantly, by the conflict or the settlements? And what exactly do they learn about Zionism when they see Israel with their own eyes?
They learn that Israel is a vigorous democracy despite its having come into existence under conditions extremely adverse to liberal democracy. They discover that Israeli Arabs enjoy rights that Egyptian, Saudi and Syrian citizens can only dream about. They find out that Tel Aviv embraces an open and vibrant LG BT culture. Put differently, they learn that Zionism and progressive values are still very much compatible.
These young Jews also have the opportunity to encounter inspirational humanitarian organizations, such as IsraAID , which operates emergency relief programs from Japan to Haiti, and Save a Child’s Heart, which provides medical care for children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease. In other words, they learn that tikkun olam, helping to create a better world, remains an essential component of Zionism.
This is just part of the big picture Beinart disregards. And while the prospect of future alienation due to dissonance between American Jewish liberalism and right-wing Israeli policies cannot be dismissed, sustained Jewish community investment in meaningful programs in Israel will greatly increase the odds of future generations continuing proudly to embrace the Zionist enterprise.