I spent part of the afternoon of Yom Kippur with a group of teenagers in my community here in Oxford, leading a session about Zionism. My mandate was to talk about what Israel means to 14 to 18 years olds — and it as it turns out, it really doesn’t mean much at all. My conclusion? “Ashamnu.” We must atone, for we have failed an entire generation.
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A group of “too cool for shul” teenagers shuffled into a seminar room — the majority children of the stalwarts of this proudly Zionist community which ranges from Reform to Orthodox, although most would describe themselves as traditional. Most attend excellent state (public) schools in Oxford (or elite private academies in London) as, unlike in London, there are no Jewish faith schools in Oxford, although they are active in the interdenominational “cheder” and other extra-curricular Jewish youth activities.
Few spoke Hebrew well, although they’re conversant in the rituals, festivals, and traditions of Judaism. All had visited Israel at least once (over 80% of British teens have done so) and many had relatives there.
All in all, it would be fair to characterize them as a Jewishly engaged, and well-educated in both secular and religious knowledge, not least compared to their American Jewish peers — and with far more tangible in-country exposure to Israel as well.
Zionism as ancient history
We first spoke of Israel as an idea — the prayers uttered on holy days, the longings of generations of a people in exile, as the site of the future ingathering of the Diaspora. They were very active participants, vying to show off their knowledge of Jewish liturgy and history. Yet, when talk to turned to the State of Israel today, this group of British high-schoolers quickly schooled me that the hope of 2000 years is ancient history.
It was easy to understand why the “Israel as refuge” argument was no longer compelling to teenagers in a quaint college town —and they turned the argument on its head, speaking of Israel as the locus of terrorism and constant conflict reported on the news, claiming to feel far safer in tranquil Oxford than in a war-zone thousands of miles away. Despite acknowledging the latest anti-Semitism scandals in Britain, most were quick to quip that “it isn’t France,” and they don’t feel physically threatened in the UK. To them, a State of Israel was no longer necessary or able to save the Jews from strife. (Fair enough, they wouldn't be the first of their generations to make this point.)
Yet as the discussion developed, it became clear that not a single one would self-identify as a Zionist. A 'State of the Jews' was “so old school” and they were consciously willing to dismiss all the reasons for Jewish self-determination that Zionists have suggested for 100 years as well.
The social cost of supporting a Jewish state
To them, Jewish sovereignty and power is no longer emotive or defensible in the age of multiculturalism, where going to “Israel/Palestine” is likely to make them unpopular with their peers (the experiences they relayed sounded troublingly like bullying, to my mind, although the group brushed these concerns aside.)
Despite the recent Brexit vote, these English teenagers were convinced that the national state system was going out of business anyway — plus, it just wasn’t PC to have your own sovereign entity anymore, especially if motivated by the symbols and values of Jewish particularism, which all just seemed too parochial to their sophisticated pluralistic palates. “Who wants to be like Saudi Arabia?” they asked me, although when I noted the number of (at least nominally) Muslim and Christian states (including the one in which they live and don’t feel troubled by) compared to the one State of the Jews, my comments were met with stony silence.
Yet, despite what Peter Beinart and others have contended for years, the group did not cite the occupation or the settlements as responsible for their distancing — for them, it went far deeper, to the very premise of a self-defining State of the Jews, back to 1948.
They didn’t sense the urgency of a Jewish haven after the Holocaust nor the singularity of self-determination after thousands of years. They didn’t grasp the importance (as well as the responsibility) of Jewish power, nor that Zionism was intended as a movement of national liberation. And they certainly didn’t see the ingathering of the Jewish people in an ancestral homeland as a historic event. Zion was only a much-too-promised land, and to them, the State of the Jews was synonymous only with xenophobia, colonialism, displacement, chauvinism, fundamentalism, and illiberalism.
However, what emerged most emphatically was the lack of any emotional ties — despite recent visits over the summer and relatives abroad. As one precocious young woman informed me, “Israel is just another foreign country that I can fly to on EasyJet — it’s a nice place to visit, kind of like Canada, but I don’t feel anything there.”
Moreover, when I asked them pointedly if it would alter their Jewish identity if the State of Israel was wiped off the map tomorrow, I was met with shrugged shoulders and then more adamant statements that Israel was not relevant to their understanding or expression of Judaism. While I was impressed that they do not idolize Israel (or the Holocaust) and that aloof teenagers would willingly admit to finding rich meaning in Jewish textual study, prayer, celebrating the holidays, performing rituals, and taking part in Tikkun Olam - all acts and values at the core of our tradition - it was certainly food for thought during the fast that Israel no longer has any place at all in these teenagers’ minds or hearts.
It's not the settlements, or the occupation. It's the idea itself
The day of reckoning is here, Liberal Zionists: we have been judged and we have been found wanting by the next generation. While we may pray that the policies of the Israeli government will change, that the Palestinians will put violence aside, that a peace accord is on the horizon, it will not change whether the contemporary generation cares about Israel.
We have to find new ways to verbalize what Israel means to the next generation, to repair our inability to have an open, honest, and real conversation about the ideas and value of the State of Israel that resonates with teenagers who have grown up in a multicultural world without borders, who take the safety of the Jews in the Diaspora as an article of faith, who have seen only the cycle of violence in Israel/Palestine, and who don’t feel that there is anything special or desirable about the world's one State for the Jews.
The teenagers I spoke to can't be blamed for expressing the post-modernist relativism they've grown up within, nor for lacking a broader historical perspective than the moment they're in. But we can provide that, and relate to where they are now: That the twentieth century saw deadly conflicts between liberalism and nationalism, religion and state, the individual and the collective. That the fortunes of the nation-state and supranational institutions have also waxed and waned over the past fifty-odd years. That the policies of both the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority are often harmful, that both sides resort to illegitimate violence, and that a peace treaty is not on the horizon.
A new narrative about Israel
We can’t deny or delegitimize these trends — they have to be part and parcel of demonstrating why Israel can and should exist today. We must explain why a State of the Jews is not incompatible with the age of multiculturalism — that Israel is and can be a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual democracy for all its citizens and aspire to offering a model for other states. We have to talk more creatively about how Palestinians and Israelis can co-exist, by ending the occupation and seeking new political configurations — including confederation.
We need to reinterpret Zionism as national liberation, while teaching what our tradition offers about moral and political responsibility. We can’t evangelize with talking points or myths and facts. We need to engage the next generation in constructing a new, nuanced narrative.
Moreover, we can’t only make negative or defensive argument — we need to offer ideas that are positive, claims that are palatable, and examples that are plausible to the savvy cosmopolitans in high schools and universities and can travel and resonate on social media. Above all, we can’t only catalogue the (many) shortcomings — we must constantly and convincingly express what still makes us proud — in spite of it all — in the State of Israel today. If we can’t do that in a selfie, a tweet, a Facebook post, an op-ed or a face-to-face discussion, we must take a hard look at how we have not only failed ourselves, but our future.
Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford. She is the author of the forthcoming City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967 (Harvard University Press). Follow her on Twitter: @SaraHirschhorn1.