Commentary Magazine


Young American Jews and Israel

Few Jewish issues have seen as much ink spilled over them in recent years as the question of the strength of the attachment of young American Jews
to Israel. Yet none has likely been discussed with as little honesty.

The latest notable example of this genre was published during the Rosh Hashana holiday in Time. Written by Dana Goldstein, a fellow at both The Nation Institute and the New America Foundation, it is not notable for any of its content, which is no more than a recitation of the usual “young Jews are so moved by the Palestinian plight that they can’t be the diehard Zionists their parents are” narrative, with practically no information that is not at least a year old. (Even the Jewish Brown undergrad distraught over what she saw on Birthright shtick is not original.)

It’s notable solely because it was published in Time which, if that publication means much of anything any more, is one more indication of the mainstreaming of the meme from inside the Jewish press and into the general culture.

If Goldstein is interesting, it is for the way in her writing on Israel she so perfectly reflects the current thinking of certain American Jewish leftists. In another article for The American Prospect in 2009, she repeated another trope thought to be a devastating argument: that the true nature of Judaism is “questioning.” The centrality of the Land of Israel and modern Jewish state based on it are therefore a deviation from a more authentic Jewish tradition of diasporism. As far as young American Jews go, well, it is now beyond proven that the source of whatever Israel angst they may have is Israel’s supposedly brutal treatment of the Palestinians.

There are more than a few problems with this thinking.

As far as the numbers go, more than 260,000 young Jews (most from the United States), have now been to Israel via Birthright trips in a little over a
decade. The most recent registration session was closed after only seven days with over 22,000 applicants for spots available for only half of them. Goldstein’s repetition of the findings of the oft-cited 2007 “Beyond Distancing” study, while notable, don’t reference the feelings of Orthodox Jews, who, as the only growing sector in American Jewry, represent an ever larger percentage of the Jewish population. And the only significant study carried out on Birthright participants post-trip found that a feeling of attachment to the state of Israel increased among Birthright participants in comparison to their peers.

All of this is largely to the side, though. Because the truth of the matter, as Gary Rosenblatt noted well nearly a year ago, is that most young American Jews are woefully ignorant of even the basics of Israel. The non-Orthodox drop-off is there precisely because of the lack of Jewish literacy, Israel included, among those Jews, who also live largely in urban environments where supporting Israel or identifying as a Zionist comes increasingly with a
social cost
. Is it really any wonder why a person taught little to nothing about Israel would choose to distance himself from it if that’s what all his friends are doing?

So, no, whatever distance there is between young American Jews and Israelis is not the result of any Israeli policies. Bridging the gulf, therefore, will take a generational educational effort beyond even that undertaken by Birthright.

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