The new American Jew on Israel

The Israeli gov't certainly has the right to choose who it talks to, as seen last month with the congressional trip organized by J Street.

birthright 311 (photo credit: Neta Shor)
birthright 311
(photo credit: Neta Shor)
Whether it was a major diplomatic slight or a minor one overblown by media coverage, what happened to Representative William Delahunt in a congressional trip to Israel last month was telling.
Because the trip was sponsored by J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization that has criticized the Israeli government, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his deputy, Danny Ayalon, refused to meet with the five congressmen as long as J Street and another pro-peace sponsor was present. The message was clear: Your traveling companions have criticized us, so we won’t sit with you unless you keep them away from the table.
Israel’s government certainly has the right to choose who it talks to. But its actions show it to be a step behind the changing composition and attitudes of American Jewry. At a time when many American Jews are feeling fewer compunctions about criticizing Israel, and are often less concerned with external threats posed by Iran and Israel’s other enemies than the demographic time bomb it faces as its Palestinian population expands, what it means to be “pro-Israel” is changing, particularly among younger Jews.
THERE ARE still plenty of young American Jews who take pride in wholeheartedly supporting the Israeli government. But this view isn’t nearly as dominant as it once was, and research by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College helps show why. Cohen found that younger Jewish professional and religious leaders tend to be less likely to see Israel as threatened by its neighbors, and therefore less worried about its security.
The idea that being an American Jew doesn’t necessitate lockstep support for Israel, and that it is strong enough to withstand criticism from the outside world, were on full display last week at Harvard’s Hillel House, which hosted a talk by J Street’s head, Jeremy Ben-Ami.
In an interview before the event, Ben-Ami talked about the changing experience of being an American Jew.
“If you’ve had personal experience – if not you [then] at least your parents – with the destruction of your people, you’re more likely to take it as a possibility that it could happen again,” he said. “If you have grown up here in complete comfort and safety and no one you know in an immediate sense has been through that, I do think [you’re] going to have a very fundamental[ly] different view, a different take, on how you view the Iran threat.”
This different, less fearful view of things came through clearly insome of the young members of the audience. For instance, when askedabout the prospect of Iran destroying Israel, Harvard Divinity Schoolstudent Kenan Jaffe, 26, said he thought it was “unlikely.” “I alsodon’t think it’s directly related to the Palestinian question,” hesaid, “and it is only to the extent that if Israel comes to a finalstatus solution with the Palestinians, Iran will have nothing to sayabout Israel and no reason to make threats against it.”
This is a far cry from the notion of a bloodthirsty, implacable Iranfueled only by hatred for Israel – a story we hear quite often fromgroups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. And whilemost members of the audience probably weren’t as sanguine about Iran asJaffe, fear of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wasn’t, for the most part, what hadbrought them to Cambridge on a rainy February evening.
Rather, they were worried about the grim prospects that face Israel ifit can’t make peace with the Palestinians. Given the region’sdemographic patterns, absent a two-state solution, Israel will soonhave to choose between being a Jewish state and a democratic one.
While J Street does strongly oppose the possibility of Iran gettingnuclear weapons, the demographic crisis, not an attack from Iran, isthe greatest threat facing Israel, said Ben-Ami.
He’s not alone in thinking so, if the popularity and early clout of hisorganization, which is just two years old, is any indication. Andregardless of one’s political affiliation, this shift is going to havehuge ramifications for the future of US-Israeli relations. If Israelwants to continue turning its back on those who criticize it, it maysoon find itself with little to say to an increasingly large, vocalsegment of American Jews.
The writer is a frequent contributor to The Boston Globe. His work has also appeared in Newsweek online, Politico, Washington Monthly, and The American Prospect online.
This article first appeared in The Boston Globe on March 4.