Next Year in Jerusalem?

How the Passover seder reveals the American Jewish divide over Israel.

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AIPAC conference, March 3, 2013.
AIPAC conference, March 3, 2013.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

If you want to understand the generational split among American Jews over Israel, just start where the seder ends, with the lines: “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

Of course, very few American Jews of any age take the phrase literally. Since American Zionism began, American Zionists have insisted—often to the annoyance of Zionists in Israel—that their Zionism does not require aliyah. Today, the most religious American Jews think of “Next Year in Jerusalem” as a plea for messianic redemption. Most other American Jews don’t think much about the phrase at all.

Still, there’s an important generational divide. Middle aged and elderly American Jews may never have yearned to live in Jerusalem themselves, but they can remember a time when many Diaspora Jews did. The American Jewish Zionist consensus began when American Jews realized, to their horror, that millions of their European brethren needed a country of refuge, and that United States would not be it. Over the ensuing decades, American Zionists spent much of their time trying to ensure that those Jews who did earnestly say “Next Year in Jerusalem”—whether in displaced persons camps in Germany and Italy, or later in places like Yemen, Ethiopia or the former USSR—could fulfill their wish.

Since the 1940s, in other words, the American Zionist consensus has rested on the idea of Israel as refuge—not a refuge for us, perhaps, but for our less fortunate Diaspora cousins. It’s an idea that links American Jews alive during the Holocaust to early middle agers like me. We may not remember the SS St. Louis or the ships of Aliyah Bet, but we remember Anatoly Sharansky arriving at Ben Gurion airport and the specially outfitted Israeli planes that rescued Ethiopia’s Jews. If you’re a politically aware American Jew between the ages of 40 and 90, you’ve watched significant numbers of persecuted Jews flee to Israel. You’ve witnessed Zionism as refuge.

Younger American Jews have not. Sure, anti-Semitism may have sparked a small recent uptick in aliyah from France. But in the two decades since the cold war’s end, no large Jewish community has come to Israel fleeing state-sponsored anti-Semitic persecution. Indeed, the vast majority of Diaspora Jews now live in liberal democracies where Jewish equality is taken for granted.

As a result, Zionism as refuge—the core idea upon which the American Zionist consensus was built—is less compelling. That doesn’t mean most young American Jews are anti-Zionists. Israel, after all, is an actually existing country. It’s one thing to feel less connected to the justification for its birth, quite another to want to overturn its existence.

But what it does mean is this: When young American Jews find Israeli behavior disturbing, they’re more willing than their parents and grandparents to question the very necessity of a Jewish state. During the war in Lebanon and the first intifada, prominent American Jews harshly criticized Israeli policies. At that time, however, even the bitterest critics could scarcely imagine challenging Israel’s existence—since for them, what justified Israel’s existence was not its policies, but its role as a sanctuary for Jews in distress.

Among left-leaning young American Jews, by contrast, the decline of the refuge rationale has produced a greater willingness to raise fundamental questions about why Israel must have a religious identity at all. The potential death of the two state solution—and the growing Palestinian demand for one “secular-binational” state—gives the questions greater urgency. When I speak on college campuses, I’m often struck by the willingness of young American Jews to casually challenge axioms that have undergirded American Jewish life for more than a half-century. For the most part, these challenges are motivated less by hostility than uncertainty. Viewed through the prism of a different generational experience, the old answers just don’t make as much sense.

This is what terrifies the American Jewish establishment. It’s what spawns Hillel’s efforts to bar heretical speakers. It’s the realization that at the very moment the global left is aggressively “delegitimizing” Israel, many young American Jews are questioning Israel’s legitimacy themselves.

But trying to squelch the questions will only widen the generational divide. The better answer is to realize that for young American Jews, more than for their parents and grandparents, Israel is what Israel does. The struggle for Israel’s national legitimacy is more closely tied to the struggle for Israel’s democratic character. Which makes it all the more tragic that Israel’s democratic character is something American Jewish leaders endlessly praise but rarely fight for.

“Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem,” say some Haggadas, referring to the rebuilding of the Temple. But for many young American Jews, a different rebujilding would be more compelling. We should ask them to help rebuild a Jerusalem that lives the words of Israel’s declaration of independence, a place that offers “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of race, religion or sex.” In so doing, we might rebuild their Zionism as well. 

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