Billionaire Jewish philanthropist Charles Bronfman is worried that Israel's conflict with the Palestinians is hurting the country's relationship with young Jews in the Diaspora. "We turned from David to Goliath in 1982, with the invasion into Lebanon, and the Arabs became David," he told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz last week. "Now everybody's worried about the Palestinians. Now we're occupiers, oppressors, who live by the sword. That's what you see in the media, and it festers and has effects on the general population and on Jews as well." Peace, he said, was crucial to maintaining the bond between Israel and the broader Jewish world.
Coming from Bronfman, this was a striking statement, because few have done more than he has to cement that bond. He's the co-founder of Birthright Israel, which offers free 10-day trips to the country for Jews between 18 and 26 years old; around 230,000 have participated in the program so far. He's also not alone in noticing that younger Jews are more ambivalent about their ostensible birthright than their parents are. Young Jews don't share past generations' automatic support for Israeli policies. In time, their alienation could profoundly transform the relationship between Israel and the United States.
Indeed, in the long run the pro-Israel lobby, often seen as an immutable part of American politics, may be headed toward obsolescence. Given how influential the lobby is, it's easy to forget that the airtight relationship between Israel and the United States, and between Zionism and American Jews, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Support for Israel, financial and political, is a crucial component of mainstream American Judaism. But that wasn’t always the case.
American Jewish donations to Israel actually fell throughout much of the 1960s. In 1961, when Commentary published a symposium of Jewish intellectuals contemplating Jewish identity, Israel often seemed like an afterthought, and many respondents professed a skepticism of Zionism that would be anathema to the magazine today. "The support of Israel by American Jews should … not be sentimental and uncritical support, but should be given only in a way that exerts a more liberal, internationalist, and humanitarian influence on Israeli politics," wrote one New York University philosophy professor. "I believe Israel can effectively represent the historic mission of the Jewish people only when it sacrifices its national interests for the sake of world peace and social justice."
Everything changed in 1967, when, in the run-up to the Six Day War, American Jews believed that Israel faced possible destruction. The bellicose rhetoric of Arab leaders seemed designed to awaken memories of the Holocaust. That made Israel's overwhelming victory all the more exhilarating. "The Six Day War -- and, even more, its anxious prelude and triumphal aftermath -- effected a permanent reorientation in the agenda of organized American Jewry," wrote the historian Peter Novick in The Holocaust and American Life. Novick quoted Oscar Cohen, an official with the Anti-Defamation League, who wrote that by the 1970s, organized American Jewry had become "an agency of the Israeli government … follow[ing] its directions from day to day."
For that generation, Israel represented Jewish redemption. It was David against the global anti-Semitic Goliath, its wars just, its feats of derring-do -- like the 1976 rescue of hostages on a hijacked plane in Entebbe, Uganda -- thrilling and legendary.
Israel presents a very different picture to people coming of age today. Its most recent wars have been aggressive, brutal, and inconclusive. Almost every week brings news of some new gratuitous cruelty, like the eviction of more than 50 Palestinians from their East Jerusalem homes this week -- homes that were quickly taken over by Jewish settlers. At the same time, distance from the Holocaust, and a dramatic lessening overt anti-Semitism in the United States, has reduced the sense that Israel is necessary for the Jews' ongoing survival.
"The emotional understanding that there's always got to be some place for the Jews to go was second nature for my parents and their parents," says Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J-Street, which was formed as an alternative to more hawkish pro-Israel lobbies like the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. "That formed the basis for all this in the early 20th century. It isn't as evident to an American Jewish young person in the early part of the 21st century."
Obviously, there are plenty militantly hawkish young Jews. (Max Blumenthal captured some of the most offensive of them in his notorious video earlier this summer, which featured drunk American college students in Jerusalem spewing racist invective against Obama. YouTube later censored it, though its sequel) is still available. Statistically, though, such ideology is on the decline. Younger Jews, says Steven M. Cohen, one of the leading sociologists of American Jewry, "are less engaged with Israel over all, and when they're engaged with Israel, it's not necessarily as much in the realm of political defense as it was maybe for their parents." Cohen was a co-author, with Ari Y. Kelman, of a 2007 study which found that, among non-Orthodox Jews under 35, only 54 percent are "comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state," compared to over 80 percent of those 65 and older. Younger Jews are significantly less likely to self-identity as either Zionist or pro-Israel. There are many reasons for this alienation, but part of it is that "the politics of Israel don't always sit so well with younger, especially left-of-center, Jews," Cohen says.
In Israel, Cohen says, analysts are trying to figure out how to contend with changing views in the United States. "Strategic analysts have long said that there has to be an adjustment in policies because American Jews can't be relied upon to support whatever policies that Israel advances," Cohen says.
This might be seen as good news for those who favor a more even-handed American approach to the Middle East. Yet Ben-Ami, who loves Israel even if he abhors many of its policies, mourns this growing estrangement, and fears that liberal young people might drift away from the Jewish community altogether. "One of the motivations of J-Street is a deep worry not only about Israel but really about the American Jewish community and the extent to which the Israel issue becomes a reason why younger American Jews disconnect from the community," he says. "The very same young Jews who don't have that gut understanding that my grandparents may have had about why there's a need for an Israel, they also can't relate to values they're being brought up with -- either the way the situation is playing out on the ground in Israel or advancing within the Jewish community."
Meanwhile, Orthodox Jews have grown progressively more hawkish on Israel over the years. Thus it's possible that, should other Jews fall away, they could come to dominate the major American Jewish organizations -- resulting in an even greater rift between the values most Jews hold and policies espoused by those who purport to speak for them. "I don't know that there's a clear generational happy ending to this story," Ben-Ami says.
In 1948, the year of Israel's birth, Hannah Arendt warned that a continuing conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine would result in a fundamental rift with the Diaspora. Under the pressure of constant conflict, Palestinian Jews would degenerate into a Spartan "warrior tribe," she wrote. "Their relations with world Jewry would become problematical, since their defense interests might clash at any moment with those of other countries where large numbers of Jews lived. Palestinian Jewry would eventually separate itself from the larger body of world Jewry and in its isolation develop into an entirely new people." This dire prediction hasn't quite come true yet. But Jews in the United States and those in Israel are evolving in a wholly different direction, and Arendt's analysis seems more relevant every day.