Israel at 75: The vantage point of a student leader - opinion

May Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora connect over their common ambitions and threats, while leaving their quarrels and misunderstandings behind.

 THE DELEGATION of Hillel International’s Israel Leadership Network meets with President Isaac Herzog as part of its weeklong mission. (photo credit: HILLEL INTERNATIONAL)
THE DELEGATION of Hillel International’s Israel Leadership Network meets with President Isaac Herzog as part of its weeklong mission.

On April 19, eight Jewish campus leaders, including myself, touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport, after putting our classes and assignments on pause to spend an impactful week in Israel. This was not your average student trip, nor a vacation on the beaches of Tel Aviv.

Hillel International partnered with the Jewish Agency and Israel Experience to build an itinerary of private meetings with government officials, members of the Knesset, journalists, and civilian leaders. In a moment where Israel is in the headlines, getting to hear directly from key decision-makers was an invaluable opportunity, and a unique one for a group of American students.

We shared our stories and offered an assessment of American campus life for Jewish and pro-Israel students  – and found each leader we met deeply receptive.

Among those we met were President Isaac Herzog; Maj.-Gen. Doron Almog, chairman of the Jewish Agency; Natan Sharansky, Soviet dissident and former chairman of the Jewish Agency; Amira Aharonovich, CEO and director-general of the Jewish Agency; Rina Ayalin-Gorelik, executive director of the Association for Ethiopian Jews; Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli; and Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States. All this, and so much more, in just one week.

On our return flight to the US, a key question from the week hit me: how do we address the disconnect between Israel and Jews in the Diaspora? The Diaspora knows this remains a serious challenge, and most Israelis do too. Most Israelis have military experience and were raised with the threats of terror and bordering enemies looming in the back of their minds.

Mount Herzl on Israel's Remembrance Day.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Mount Herzl on Israel's Remembrance Day. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The week we were in Israel coincided with Israel’s Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. It was a deeply solemn day, and the sadness was palpable both in the air and in the streets. Every Israeli seems to be, at most, either one or two degrees removed from a fallen soldier or victim of terrorism.

Memorial Day in the United States typically takes on a very different tone, with its parades and barbecues. Fewer and fewer Americans know a fallen soldier, or even someone else who knows a fallen soldier.

Diaspora Jews, primarily in the US, live with a certain comfort that most Israelis do not know. The political views of many Israelis, often derived from these ongoing threats, do not align with the predominantly liberal composition of American Jews.

Leaving Israel with more hope

THE PICTURE may appear bleak, but I left Israel more hopeful than when I arrived. Bridging the divide starts with recognition, and organizations such as Hillel International and the Jewish Agency are leading the way. To paraphrase a leader from the Jewish Agency, we need to set fire to people’s hearts to promote unity among the Jewish people.

By sharing stories with each other, we can revel in our shared ambitions and common threats. The lives of Diaspora Jews are better and more secure because of Israel’s existence.

The emergence of the modern state of Israel provided American Jews with greater opportunity in the 1950s to integrate into higher education and professional life. Israelis should similarly recognize that support from Diaspora Jewry has strengthened their state and will continue to do so.

Antisemitism has risen tremendously on college campuses, which I can personally attest to. Speakers on campuses call for the destruction of the Jewish state, emulating the violent forms of antisemitism that have cost lives. The hate that unfolds on campus certainly does not stop there, as attacks on synagogues and the defacing of Jewish graves continue.

Israelis must recognize that antisemitism and anti-Zionism pose a real threat to Jews in the diaspora, and should not dismiss these concerns because they appear small compared to terrorism. Diaspora Jews should empathize with Israelis on this point, and understand that Israel remains the truest safe haven for Jews, should antisemitism develop to an extreme. Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust – the Holocaust happened because Israel did not exist.

And to Diaspora Jews: Think twice before inserting oneself in Israeli politics. Attending the General Assembly for the Jewish Federations of North America made me realize how deeply many Diaspora Jews care about the future of Israel – an unusual sight for a college student living among a generation that cares less than its predecessors about the Jewish state. Despite correctly identifying the connection between Jews and Israel, they fail to see that understanding Israeli politics requires more than being Jewish.

We should understand that ignorance of Israeli politics does not reflect upon our Jewishness; rather, it reflects the fact that we do not live in Israel, we do not experience everyday Israeli culture, and we do not possess the same historical memory.

Jews in the Diaspora remain frustrated, and rightly so, when someone discovers we are Jewish and immediately asks for our thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So why do we pounce on the opportunity to speak about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli judicial system, or military service for haredi Jews?

Multiple guests discussed the divisions and dynamics that stress Israeli society. Secular versus religious, Ashkenazi versus Sephardic or Mizrahi, old versus young, Jewish versus Arab, and military versus non-military.

In the US, people often think of the court reforms as a straightforward battle between religion and democracy, but neglect to see, for example, that some in Israel view the supreme court as the last remaining bastion of Ashkenazi power. Though it may be a cliché, Israeli society is truly more complex than outsiders will likely understand, and its fault lines should be something to bridge together, not brushed over.

In one of our meetings, a former official described Israel as a “thrashing adolescent.” Israel is not an old democracy, but neither is it young. Most other democracies as old as, or older than Israel have experienced some other type of government in their lifetime.

As many celebrate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish state, may they be reminded that this is only the beginning. Peaceful demonstrators waving the Israeli flag while holding their children’s hands, and members of the Knesset debating judicial reforms passionately, yet civilly, showed me that democracy in Israel remains far from over.

May Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora connect over their common ambitions and threats, while leaving their quarrels and misunderstandings behind. Let us remember that despite our challenges, Jews live in an age that is perhaps one of the best to be a Jew. Let not that comfort render us so complacent that we tear the Jewish people apart from within.

The writer is a rising senior at Yale University, where he studies political science and history.