US group seeks to get young Jewish activists involved in Israel

NY panelists: Efforts to 're-package' Israel as a way of attracting American youth are misguided.

pro israel rally in la 2 (photo credit: AP)
pro israel rally in la 2
(photo credit: AP)
NEW YORK - The largest annual gathering of Jewish leaders, the UJC's General Assembly, is meeting in Los Angeles this week, in large part, to discuss the relationship between American Jews and Israel. But some leaders who spoke at a recent panel in New York say the mainstream conversation about Israel in the US still falls short. Many Jews in America still approach the subject of Israel with trepidation, said Rabbi Andy Bachman, founder of Brooklyn Jews, an association of Jews who engage in social action as well as religious learning, at last week's panel, entitled "How Young Jewish Activists are Changing the World." In an attempt to attract young Jews - who are increasingly less engaged with Israel - to get more involved in Israel, New Generations, an offshoot of the progressive New Israel Fund (NIF), a Washington DC based organization focused on human rights in Israel, invited a group of young activists to speak. Panelists' involvement ranged from education and blogging, to setting up Muslim-Jewish dialogues around the world, and organizing Jewish trips to visit Palestinians in the West Bank. The progressive voice has already made its way into the Jewish establishment, Bachman acknowledged. The Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, which was represented at the GA meetings, is one good example. The task force, which includes representatives of various Jewish organizations, works to address coexistence between Israelis and Israeli Arabs. But while the Jewish establishment is more open today to voices "on the perimeter," a lot more can be done to expand the dialogue about Israel, Bachman said in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post. Some Jewish leaders at the New Generations event expressed concern that certain topics would remain taboo at the GA meetings, such as the controversial decision to include Avigdor Lieberman's party in the governing coalition. They noted that although American Jews feel free to voice opposition on domestic issues, criticism of Israel is more controlled. Looking over the schedule of events at this year's GA meeting, Bachman balked at a session on "Israel the Brand," which addressed the ways in which Israel is being presented in the media. "How are you going to brand your way out of a war?" Bachman said. "It's so absurd. There's no branding that can cover over a terrible situation." Panelists at the New York event explained that one of the causes for the increased withdrawal on the part of young American Jews with respect to Israel is the simplified and one-sided approach they have been fed since childhood. "The majority of young Jews are checking out in some cases because of initiatives like birthright," said Jamie Levin, director of Ameinu, an organization working for a progressive Israel and America. "Young people are being fed pap. For most people it reaches a breaking point and they disengage. Everyone sees it and neglects it." Miri Wexler, an educator who participated in the panel, said growing up in Jewish day schools, she was taught that Israel could do no harm. She describes the first time she heard her parents use the words "Palestinian" and "Intifada." "I had never heard about either and I was at a Jewish day school," Wexler said. Bringing together a love for Israel and a human rights leaning is not easy for this generation, Wexler said. "We should let the two inform each other, but unfortunately I don't think we were educated well." A study done in 2005 by pollster Frank Luntz describes a growing "impatience" with Israel and increasing emotional ties to the Palestinian cause among Jewish graduate students at top US universities. An earlier study, "Israel in the Age of Eminem," showed that young Jews felt more comfortable questioning the Israeli position. Ads that showed lists of Israel's supporters, or a "black and white" perspective on Israel "washed over" the audience, the study said. Efforts by the organized Jewish community to respond to apathy within the younger generation of American Jews have often focused on presenting the "other side" of Israel, highlighting Israel's accomplishments in science or leisure activities in Israel. These efforts to "re-package" Israel as a way of attracting American youth are misguided, according to Ariella Sidelsky, director of New Generations, who moved to Israel from South Africa when she was 10. "There is so much concern about the younger generation, but this shouldn't be about re-packaging Israel," Sideslky said, "Addressing the issues with open eyes and honesty - that is what will bring more connection in the future." Groups like the NIF say they are providing a middle ground in an arena that is largely dominated by extremes. "My hope is that people will be more honest about Israel, rather than feel the need to quell those voices because they are scared of airing out the dirty laundry in public," Sidelsky said. The NIF ran an opinion piece in Newsday, Monday, expressing dismay at the inclusion of Lieberman in the coalition. "Lieberman's call for transfer and denaturalization should have placed him beyond the pale for inclusion as a member of an Israeli cabinet, especially one that has committed itself to redressing the discrimination suffered by Israeli Arabs," wrote Peter Edelman and Larry Garber, president and CEO of the NIF. They argue that a similar position in the US would be met with horror by most Americans. While Jewish Agency chairman Ze'ev Bielski told GA participants that Jews have no future in America, encouraging Jews to make aliya, some American Jews are questioning the basics: How much of a role should Israel play in Jewish American identity? And what is the relationship between Judaism and Zionism. For panelist Ari Alexander, co-executive director of Children of Abraham, an organization dedicated to building an international community of Muslim and Jewish youth, part of what remains unanswered is how much of a role Israel should play in Jewish identity. "The Jewish establishment identity is most powerfully expressed in support for Israel," Alexander said, but he questioned whether this was really in the "Jewish self-interest."