Young American Jews are drifting away from Israel, but not necessarily for the reasons that we usually talk about.
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The problem is not the Israel-hating proponents of BDS; Jewish groups have done a good job in defeating BDS campaigns. The problem is not ignorance about Israel and Judaism; our young people are more sophisticated than we think. And the problem is not an idealized view of Palestinian national aspirations; young Jews turn out to be a reasonably hard-nosed group when evaluating Israel’s adversaries.
The problem is that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jews on campus are looking to Israel’s leaders for vision, inspiration, and a plan of action. They want an answer to the question: What exactly should Israel be doing now?
But tragically, this is not what Israeli and American Jewish leaders and commentators are telling them. Instead, they most often get a rehash of the various versions of “the world hates us” argument (“the Palestinians hate us,” “the Arabs hate us,” “the UN hates us,” “the BDS people hate us,” “the Europeans apply an outrageous double standard to us,” etc., etc.). The point is not that all of these things are entirely wrong; animosity against Israel and the Jews is real enough. But Israel’s government needs to understand that young Jews will not be satisfied only to hear how Israel’s enemies are the bad guys; these young people want Israeli leaders to make a case for how Israel sees the future.
I know this from my own recent experience. When I left Jewish organizational life in 2012, I began lecturing at colleges, unsure of what to expect. The research data on Jewish students is not consistent. The Pew Survey indicates low commitment to Israel among young Jews of college age, but a survey by Steven M. Cohen, done for the Workmen’s Circle, indicates the opposite.
In my meetings with Jewish students (and non-Jewish ones as well), I have found, to my surprise, a serious and thoughtful approach to Israel. Certain issues are always central in these conversations. The students want to know about Arab refugees and why Israel opposes a right of return. I want them to know about the true nature of BDS and how its program is hostile to the very idea of Israel’s existence. Intense ideological debate is rare in these contexts. My approach is to focus the conversation on Israel’s commitment to a Jewish and democratic Israel and a two-state solution, and on Palestinian resistance so far to embrace proposals that will end the conflict. When one does that, making Israel’s case is a relatively easy matter.
To be sure, students don’t want to hear sweeping generalizations about how everyone, everywhere is hostile to Israel and the Jews. Rabbi Daniel Gordis, speaking recently in Atlanta, told his audience that “the Palestinians hate Israel (and let’s be honest, the Jews, too) far more than they care about themselves.” American Jewish students are just not buying this; they are appropriately skeptical about Palestinian intentions, but are open-minded about the possibility of some kind of settlement. Their professors—and their parents—have taught them to avoid dismissive, categorical, uncritical thinking; and they know that Israel still has champions and friends, and that yes, moderation does exist, even in parts of the Arab world.
In short, our students are a sensible bunch. Why then do we have a problem with them? Because I have described only the first half of the discussion—the part where the basic arguments are made. But there is always a second part, during which the students prod and challenge. What about settlements, they want to know? If Israel is committed to two states, as I say it is, why the unending declarations from Israel’s government about more settlement construction? How is that consistent with a desire for a Jewish and democratic Israel? How are they to explain settlements to the anti-Israel activists on campus? How are they to explain settlements to themselves?
And even if I am right that Palestinian refusal to accept Israel is the heart of the problem, what, they ask, does Israel propose to do about it? How does it make sense for Israel’s government to do nothing other than build more settlements and wait for a restive, impoverished Palestinian population to explode?
Well, I admit, they are right. And I explain possible courses of action that Israel could take to ease the dangers of international isolation and strained relations with the United States: A unilateral withdrawal from some of the territories; a general settlement freeze; a decision by Israel to define its borders; an announcement that settlement will be confined to the major settlement blocs.
But, the students want to know, will Israel actually do any of these things? I hope so, I tell them, but I just don’t know.
Usually, these questions are not asked in a hostile or angry tone. They are asked by young Jews who care about Israel, and who understand that without Israel, we Jews are a truncated, incomplete people.
But in these difficult times, and especially now with the Kerry initiative on life-support, they desperately want an Israel that appeals to their values and their highest ideals. They need an Israel that, facing determined enemies, will do what it can do, even if it can’t bring peace. They want an Israel that will stand up to its own extremists and do what is necessary to win over its allies and cultivate its friends.
And they are entitled to such an Israel. An Israel that simply sits in silence, hands folded, risks losing these students—and losing many others in the process. And this is a risk that the leaders and supporters of Israel must not take.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.