Every year, we end the Passover seder saying, "Next year in Jerusalem," in the hope that we all, as a Jewish people, should end up in Israel. For most Diaspora Jews, this is merely a rhetorical statement. But that does not mean they are lesser members of the tribe.
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This year, in Jerusalem, hundreds of young North American Jewish students currently living in Israel – from gap-year and study-abroad programs, yeshivas and rabbinical schools, and Jewish organizations from across the political spectrum – gathered at the third annual Avi Schaefer Symposium to discuss the challenges of maintaining the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel.
A.B. Yehoshua, Anat Hoffman, Dr. Yoram Hazony and Rabbi Shai Held, among other speakers, confronted complex questions about Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and Israel’s state monopoly of religion, in an event held in honor of the memory of Avi Schaefer, an Israel Defense Forces veteran and Brown University student killed by a drunk driver in Providence, Rhode Island in 2010.
While these questions may be familiar to Israelis, they are increasingly difficult for North American Jews to digest. They demand serious engagement and rigorous intellectual debate in the open marketplace of ideas.
Ignoring these important issues, or trying to massage them away with one-dimensional hasbara (public diplomacy) or the honeymoon experience of a 10-day Birthright trip, are no longer sufficient to help young Jews from the Diaspora wrestle with the difficult and multifaceted reality in Israel today.
No amount of reciting facts about Israel's high-tech success or gay-rights record will inspire Jewish students who are concerned about Israeli policy to support a state that some feel is becoming morally indefensible. Nor will it prepare them to participate in the difficult and heated debates over Israel taking place on many college campuses today, which, in recent years, have become hotbeds of anti-Israel scholarship and organizing.
Indeed, this new generation is distancing itself from Israel. Its disengagement is real and significant, while the reasons for why it’s happening are complex and multifaceted.
Many young American Jews have become disillusioned and alienated by the continuing occupation, the stalemate in peace talks with the Palestinians and Israel's internal political swing to the right. For them, the current reality inIsrael presents a significant challenge to the image of Israel they grew up with and to the relationship they will maintain with Israel when they return to North America as university students and Jewish professionals.
Securing the support of this new generation—their continued political advocacy, donations, human capital and enthusiasm—is critical. Make no mistake: The future of the North American Jewish community and of the State of Israel are contingent upon securing the involvement and support of young Jews who can engage in critical conversations about Israel with confidence and conviction. As Anat Hoffman put it, “Israel is too important to leave to the Israelis.”
A state will only endure, it will only remain relevant—to both Israelis and to Jews around the world—if it can be defended not only militarily but also morally, not just by our parents’ generation but by our generation as well.
This new generation of socially and politically progressive North American Jews demands a new paradigm for relating to Israel. For them, being committed to Israel compels them to speak out against policies that they see as morally indefensible (i.e. settlements and occupation) and that only serve to undermine Israel’s own strategic goals. Supporting Israel for them means working to make Israel a country that truly embodies its founding values and ideals.
The Jewish community, both in Israel and in North America, must actively work to engage this growing demographic. By promoting a more nuanced and open conversation about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Jewish community will encourage them to build a sophisticated and authentic relationship with Israel that embraces not only Israel’s accomplishments but its faults as well.
We must empower this younger generation, one that is trying to make sense of their Jewish identity in the face of the complex reality in Israel today, and not to push them away. Israel education and advocacy must move beyond discussing only the establishment of the state and focus more on the development and betterment of the state.
To that end, we must fashion a new vision of Zionism with which these young Jews can identity— not one defined solely by the Law of Return, as keynote speaker A.B. Yehoshua suggested, or by the size of the land, but by the characteristics of the people living in it and the values to which it holds itself accountable.
Zionism must now turn inward and become an inclusive movement to build a flourishing, vibrant state at peace with its neighbors.
This vision—of a Jewish national project driven by Jews around the world, that sees world Jewry as equal partners in a symbiotic relationship of mutual-respect; of a state that upholds the values of religious pluralism and tolerance; of a state that is more imaginative in its attempts to foster a Jewish spiritual and cultural renaissance; and of a state that actively pursues peace—is the only way to ensure the continued relevance of Zionism and the State of Israel to a new generation of Diaspora Jews.
Many who attended the Avi Schaefer Symposium will celebrate Passover this year in Jerusalem but next year in the Diaspora. As a community, we need to ensure they remain just as active and invested and that their contributions are equally valued. The future of Israel depends on it.
Yoav Schaefer is the co-founder of the Avi Schaefer Fund and a student at Harvard University. Brian Schaefer is a writer for Haaretz English and a student at Bar Ilan University.