Hearts and Minds

Coming of age in the 1990s, I remember the euphoria and hope of the Oslo era. But for people younger than me, it's all just bad news.

Libby Lenkinski
Libby Lenkinski
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A peace rally in Tel Aviv during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, July 27, 2014.
A peace rally in Tel Aviv during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, July 27, 2014.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Libby Lenkinski
Libby Lenkinski

It’s been 20 years and one month since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. I’m 37 years old – I was 17 and in high school in Philadelphia when he was killed.

As a teenage dual citizen in the 1990s, the American side of me felt like I was born in the wrong decade. I watched footage of the anti-Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement. I listened to the Grateful Dead and read Allen Ginsberg, but I largely missed the boat on that era in the United States. But the Israeli side of me, the side bred out of Zionist pioneers from Poland who were socialists and idealists, was living the peace movement dream: Oslo gained momentum and our leaders promised that peace was just around the corner.

The ’90s were the formative years of my political identity, and the emotional content of that time was about a connection to something paradigm-shifting and positive happening on the ground in Israel – to the peace movement, to a peace that was just around the corner, and to hope for a better future.

I might be the last generation to come of age politically in a time when one’s emotional relationship to Israel was defined by hope. I want to argue that this emotional backdrop is what allows me to see a new moment for Israel now, one I never would have seen if not for that emotional “muscle memory.” Today, perhaps the only authentic connection to Israel for young Diaspora Jews is to a new progressive movement for equality, an end to the occupation, and social justice.

American Jews younger than 30 don’t remember the ’90s. They became politically aware after Rabin’s assassination, after Oslo crumbled, as the second intifada was getting started. We can analyze those events – project what might have been, pontificate. But I want to highlight the emotional shift that took place after 1995. The Israeli peace movement was shell-shocked. It was not a hopeful, mobilizing picture. Its emotional content was heartbroken.

And things got worse. People who are now in their mid-twenties came of age politically in the early 2000s – when Israel was responding to the second intifada by placing Palestinians under curfew, administrative detention, checkpoints. The emotional content of that is about fear and guilt – people that age do not feel connected and hopeful about Israel. Nothing good is right around the corner. They feel the fear of bus bombings and feel implicated in what Israel is doing to stop them.

Then comes the West Bank separation barrier, the disengagement from Gaza. Rockets and bombs.

Liberal Jews who graduated from college in the last year or two have a relationship to Israel that developed during or after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 – where the conflict plays out on the world stage as Israel bombs the homes of civilian families and what’s being reported is 95 percent support from the Israeli public. These liberal Jewish onlookers feel ashamed and do not want to be associated with actions that seem so far away from the critical thinking and humanist values they were raised on. That is the emotional backdrop during their formative political years.

From my conversations with young Jews on college campuses, I can see that these Americans are critical of many of the actions of the United States in its War on Terror, and on racism toward black people and Muslims back home. They cannot, and they will not, apply a different system of values when they discuss Israel. I am not suggesting they should; I am suggesting a different emotional backdrop might be possible.

Love stronger than any romance

I moved to Israel 12 years ago. Despite the fact that I felt conflicted about some of what Israel was doing, I had within me the deep-rooted hope that defined my formative years. The reality had changed, but my emotional backdrop hadn’t. And I fell in love. It was a love stronger than any romance.

I met attorney Michael Sfard, who told me about his work defending Palestinians in Israeli courts as part of a group of human rights organizations that emerged after the second intifada. He convinced me to go on a tour of Hebron with former Israeli soldiers who had served in the occupied territories and tell the stories of their service publicly, breaking through long-standing myths about the Israeli military. I met Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence.

Right after Operation Cast Lead, I met an Israeli journalist, Noam Sheizaf, who wanted to internationalize the conversation about Israel by bringing together English-language bloggers to offer a true window into the progressive conversation on the ground – something that was so clearly missing.

In 2011, I saw 500,000 Israelis demanding social justice and then I met Lia Nirgad, who used that moment of social protest to capture the energy of fellow Israelis and the appetite for engagement in the political and civic process that was ignited that summer.

Again, we can analyze, we can project, we can pontificate about the merits, the missteps, the authenticity of these new leaders, these ideas and strategies. But most important to me is that we reclaim that emotional space – that story. I had it easy. On the one hand, I experienced the heartbreak of Rabin’s assassination and the aftermath. But on the other, I remember what the ’90s felt like. People younger than me don’t have that emotional muscle memory. For them, it’s all bad news.

As individuals outside of Israel, if we miss out on the stories of these fierce new change-makers, we miss out on the most authentic opportunity for connection. We have been missing out on those opportunities for too long. As institutions, supporting the progressive movement in Israel is the only way we will actually engage young liberals, by shifting the emotional backdrop of their formative experiences. This means using all of the tools we have to meet and know a growing community of progressive advocates, journalists and politicians that need our help and support, and whose work and vision we need, too – for our heads and our hearts.

The writer is the vice president for strategy of the New Israel Fund and cofounder of ZAZIM-Community Action. Conference Partner

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