Terra Incognita: The graying of the pro-Israel crowd?

Unless the Jewish community that cares about Israel can come to grips with this issue, there will likely be a drastic decline in the pro-Israel crowd.

Hundreds rally in New York to support Israel (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hundreds rally in New York to support Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"Young American Jews are tuning out on Israel,” they are “disconnected,” they feel less connection to Judaism. BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions movement) is growing on campus. Jews are not “engaged” with Israel or Jewish communal life, and if they are they are critical of Zionism. Zionism itself is a “dirty word” and people won’t identify with it. It’s too controversial to attend Israel-related events. Students and young people opt out of dealing with Israel because they tire of the debates.
These are the stories we hear relating to the issues facing “young Jews” in the West and their relations with Israel. To stem that lack of engagement numerous organizations hold conferences and meeting. Many speeches are given. People nod and applaud. A friend of mine recently attended an event like this.
“It was full of old men,” he said. They were talking about young people being disconnected from Israel. But there were no young people attending.
Somewhere over at Open Hillel, Jewish Voice for Peace and other organizations, the young crowds were gathered.
That’s where the young Jewish voices go. That’s dynamic and cool. It’s about civil rights and human rights, women’s rights and people condemning white privilege. There are a much higher percentage of young women voices at those more critical events as well. There won’t be any “mansplaining.”
As much as it probably pains the crowd of people who have devoted their lives to working with Israel and the Diaspora Jewish community, the pro-Israel crowd is graying.
Recently it was announced that Michael Douglas would lead a “US campus tour.” There he would speak alongside Natan Sharansky about the “importance of the Jewish state.” Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut noted that they “will help students recognize that no matter where they came from, they are part of the Jewish community and have a role to play to ensure its future.”
That’s a worthy message, and it may reach some students.
But Michael Douglas was born in 1944. His best films include Wall Street (1987), Disclosure (1994), China Syndrome (1979), Basic Instinct (1992) and Fatal Attraction (1987). Pause for a moment and consider the fact that all these films predate the introduction of DVD players. The average age of a US college student is 24. That means most college students were born between 1990 and 1996. That means almost every single famous Michael Douglas film was made before they were born. Not when they were in their teens, so that they could conceivably have seen them in theaters. Before they were born.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that if you want to appeal to college students or young Jews, you have to give them more than people whose claim to fame predates their birth. The Soviet Jews and Sharansky were heroes to my parents’ generation; for me they were already elder statement, basically. And I’m not even in the young “disconnected” Jewish cohort. It’s like if Gregory Peck had shown up at the University of Arizona in 2000 to talk about Israel. Would that have mattered to people at Hillel? The problem stems from the fact that many of the leaders of Jewish organizations or those writing about Israel were born in the 1940s or before. This isn’t an exaggeration.
These people think that president Shimon Peres inspires US college students. Alan Dershowitz, who was born in 1938, is brought out as a leading defender of Israel, to debate people in their forties.
The elephant in the room is that this community of pro-Israel voices and defenders, the Jewish professionals, authors, elder statement, actors, musicians and others, are several generations removed from today’s students. Some of them began their pro-Israel activity in the 1980s. That’s before many of the “young” people were born. In some ways that gives them an institutional status. But as everyone knows with younger people, it also makes them seem out of touch, either because they are or simply because of ageism.
The question that the pro-Israel or Israel-interested community should be asking itself is, what’s next? Where is the next generation? If many leaders are in their 60s and 70s or even 80s and 90s, where are the people in their 30s? Why wasn’t a second generation trained and mentored? The institutional pro-Israel and Jewish communal structures have generally failed miserably to have frequent turnovers of power. Why did this happen? Partly it is due to the personal zeal of those interested in the US-Israel relationship. This has always been the case, going back to Nahum Goldmann, who presided over the World Jewish Congress from 1948 to 1977 or Jacob Blaustein who negotiated with David Ben-Gurion. It was the same with Abba Hillel Silver or Stephen Wise. Have you heard of those names? Maybe they can be brought back to do a speaking tour about American Zionism? The fact is that lack of turnover in organizations is highly problematic. Should magazines be edited by the same person for 35 years as Commentary once was? It’s problematic also if young people are not recruited and brought into the upper echelons of organizations. I heard a speech recently where two statesmen discussed meeting the young Senator Barack Obama. “Who is this Obama” each wondered. One even neglected to meet him, a year and a half before he became president. He was a nobody. And then he became somebody.
When young people don’t see a vigor and youthful energy in an organization or in a group they gravitate toward something else. When they don’t see young Jewish success stories such as Mark Zuckerberg connected to Israel or Jewish issues, this lack of youthful Jewish-connected success cannot be filled by Sheldon Adelson. It’s not just that being involved with Israel or Zionism may not be cool, might be controversial, but its also a problem if the meetings are staffed by “old white men.” Yes, it may be unfortunate that in the West these days being an “old white man” is not what it used to be. Perhaps it never was. The average age of the signers of the US Declaration of Independence was 44, but many were under 35. The age of many of the founders of Israel was in between 35 and 55.
So why is it whole countries could be founded by young men, but those advocating for the country today are maybe twice their age? It seems improbable that these people actually influence a generation or that they will leave a great legacy. The fact is that many of these people influence each other. Who is president of the World Zionist Organization? Who knows. Theodor Herzl was the first president of it, when it was called the World Zionist Congress.
He was 37 when he founded it.
There is no doubt that organizations like Birthright, which has brought some 500,000 Jews to Israel since 2000, have actually led a revolution in terms of the number of young Jewish people who know something about Israel.
But how to square that with the “disengagement” on campuses, or the theory that people are becoming anti-Israel? Those who diagnosed the trouble facing this disconnect have advocated a more critical approach, like the one found at Campus J Street. Here, try some “liberal Zionism,” maybe that’s cool. But the fact is that even “liberal Zionism” is an endangered club, torn between people who gravitate toward BDS and loathing Israel and those who try their best to maintain a straight face.
Unless the Jewish community that cares about Israel can come to grips with this issue, there will likely be a drastic decline in the pro-Israel crowd. Organizations like the Zionist Organization of America will simply cease to deal much with young people. Perhaps brand Israel simply doesn’t sell, despite the stories of high tech or concept of turning it into a nation-state of Tikkun Olam. Or perhaps what is needed is some “tough love” in the other direction, rather than always begging people to “like Israel.” Either way healthy turnover at Jewish organizations and training and mentoring of young people, and having more diverse voices, would be a good start.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman