The Latest Failure of the American Jewish Establishment

How the American Jewish leadership’s battle against the Iran deal is further alienating young Jews.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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A demonstrator holds a sign at a rally near the Israeli Consulate in New York March 3, 2015. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned against accepting a nuclear deal with Iran in a speech to Congess.
A demonstrator holds a sign at a rally near the Israeli Consulate in New York March 3, 2015. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned against accepting a nuclear deal with Iran in a speech to Congess.Credit: Reuters
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

What imprint will the fight over the Iran deal leave on organized American Jewish life? Much is still not clear. But this much is: If you thought young American Jews were alienated from their communal elders before, just wait.

Older American Jews are closely split on the Iran nuclear agreement. Younger American Jews are not; they support it overwhelmingly. According to a late July poll by the Jewish Journal (the only one I’ve seen that breaks down Jewish opinion by age), American Jews under 40 back the deal by 34 percentage points, almost twice the margin among American Jews as a whole.

But what’s most important isn’t merely the fact that younger American Jews back a deal that the most powerful American Jewish organizations oppose. It’s the reason why. The American Jewish establishment’s response to the Iran deal is a case study in the attitudes and behaviors that have been alienating young American Jews for years.

Think about the assumptions that underpin the American Jewish leadership’s antipathy to the deal. First, that an Iranian nuclear weapon, or even an Iranian nuclear weapons’ capability, poses an “existential” threat to Israel. Listening to establishment American Jewish leaders, you’d never know that Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, capable of being delivered by air, land and sea to ensure maximum deterrence. Instead, American Jewish leaders endlessly imply that Israel’s Jews are defenseless against a potential Holocaust. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Abe Foxman, the recently departed head of the Anti-Defamation League, have both compared today’s era to the 1930s.

Younger American Jews don’t believe that. (As it happens, neither does Israel’s security establishment). Because young American Jews have experienced less personal anti-Semitism than their parents and grandparents and because they’ve grown up seeing Israel as a regional superpower, they’re more skeptical of claims that Israel’s enemies are about to destroy it. In 2010, when the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jack Wertheimer compared attitudes among older, establishment American Jewish leaders to the views of those younger leaders who had created new Jewish organizations, he found that the latter were 36 points less likely to see combatting threats to Israeli security as central to their Jewish identity. A 2007 study of the new religious communities formed by young American Jews found that they dwelled less on memories of Jewish victimhood, like the Holocaust, than on memories of Jewish moral obligation, like civil rights and labor movements.

If the specter of another Holocaust is one narrative underlying the American Jewish establishment’s opposition to the Iran deal, uncritical support for the Israeli government is another. In the American Jewish establishment, it’s an article of that faith that when it comes to Israeli security, American Jews should not second-guess Israel’s leaders. And they should do their best to ensure that the United States government does not either.

Most younger American Jews reject that. It’s partly because they’re less tribal. A 2010 study of committed younger American Jews found that, “they see supporting the state of Israel as obligatory only insofar as the state acts in accordance with highest principles of democracy, tolerance, human rights, and Jewish ethical values as they understand them.” And most younger American Jews don’t think this Israeli government embodies those principles. According to the sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who conducted the study, the same Jewish Journal poll that found young American Jews overwhelmingly supportive of the Iran agreement also found that almost two-thirds don’t consider Netanyahu’s government serious about peace with the Palestinians. (That’s almost twice the rate of American Jews over 65).

Young American Jews are also more thoroughly American. When the pollster Frank Luntz surveyed younger American Jewish opinion about Israel in 2003, his number one lesson was that “most of our respondents reserve the right to question the Israeli position.” His lesson number two was that “young Jews tend to view themselves as Americans first and Jewish second.” For top American Jewish leaders, U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement that members of Congress should judge the Iran deal based on whether its serves “the national interests of the United States,” smacked of anti-Semitism. For many younger American Jews, it’s self-evident.

Finally, many young American Jews resent the way the organized American Jewish community limits free discussion about Israel. Two years ago, Jewish college students created “Open Hillel” to challenge the restrictions Hillel imposes on which speakers Jewish groups can bring to campus. But in their fight against the Iran deal, American Jewish organizations have exhibited the same secretive, anti-democratic tendencies that young American Jews find so alienating. In Los Angeles, according to the Jewish Journal, a handful of members of the executive committee determined that the Federation would oppose the Iran deal “without consulting the larger 45-person Federation board or, of course, the community at large.”

In declaring its opposition to the agreement, The Jewish Federation of Greater Miami declared that “this issue must remain above politics and reflect our collective determination to ensure moral clarity and absolute resolve in dealing with one of the world’s most dangerous regimes.” In other words, open debate inside the Jewish community about the Iran deal constitutes “politics,” which is a bad thing.

Just because young American Jews believe something, of course, doesn’t make it right. If American Jewish leaders sincerely oppose the Iran agreement, one can’t fault them for doing what they believe is right. But many of those same leaders have spent the last few years agonizing over the generational divide in American Jewish life. It’s almost certain now that the struggle those leaders have waged against the Iran deal will fail. But in their ongoing efforts to alienate their own children and grandchildren from the institutions they’ve built, they will have succeeded all too well.

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