The Myth of Alienation and Apathy

Young Jews and Israel: Talking About Our Generation

By Theodore Samets

Published June 09, 2010, issue of June 18, 2010.
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Over the past several weeks, a debate about the future of liberal Zionism has been raging in the Jewish community. In newspapers, magazines and the blogosphere, Jews have been talking about Peter Beinart’s essay in The New York Review of Books in which he argued that young, liberal, non-Orthodox Jews are growing estranged from Israel and that the “American Jewish establishment” bears much of the blame.

As a college student, I’ve looked on while a bunch of people, who are mostly considerably older than I am, argue about whether my generation is as committed to Israel as is our parents’ generation. One place I haven’t seen this conversation taking place, however, is on my friends’ Facebook pages or in my Twitter stream. What I’ve seen instead are pictures. Lots of them.

As the first of my many friends participating in Birthright Israel this summer return from their trips, they are posting pictures that show the great time they had in Israel. Beyond that, I’m getting texts and e-mails from friends, each more glowing than the last in their accounts of the trips.

My message for the “American Jewish Establishment” (whatever that is) that Beinart says is failing us is this: Thank you. Our community is doing what it needs to do to ensure that the next generation of Jews remains committed to the State of Israel.

I just finished my junior year at Vanderbilt University, where there are plenty of Jews, few of whom, if any, are strictly Orthodox. In Beinart’s telling, that should mean that most of the Jews I know likely don’t feel much of a connection to Israel, and those who might otherwise are probably turned off because the leaders of Israel and the American Jewish community are too right-wing for them to stomach.

But that’s simply not the case. This summer, at least 70 Vanderbilt students are traveling to Israel with Birthright, an increase over when I went last year. At this rate, more than a quarter of Vanderbilt’s Jews will have gone on Birthright before they graduate. These students are returning to campus and sharing their stories with friends. The resulting increase in students who turn to Hillel for Israel programming has been astounding; it has made Vanderbilt’s pro-Israel group one of the largest political organizations on campus.

Most of Vanderbilt’s pro-Israel Jewish students are socially liberal, concerned about the plight of the Palestinians and probably identify as Democrats. Yet they don’t shy away from defending Israel in class or pretend that they’re not Jewish when there’s falafel being handed out on the quad. A decent portion of my peers fit comfortably into the category of secular, liberal Zionists — a group that Beinart depicts as alienated and disappearing, a characterization that simply doesn’t fit with my experience.

Responding to Beinart in a recent essay for the online Jewish magazine Tablet, social scientists Theodore Sasson and Leonard Saxe confirmed that what I’ve seen at Vanderbilt holds true nationwide. Regarding young Jews who have traveled to Israel on Birthright and other programs, they explained, “Israel is a central part of their identities in a way that was simply untrue for the vast majority of their parents’ generation.” Studies of the broader Jewish population, according to Sasson and Saxe, “report no relationship between general political views and emotional attachment to Israel.” Moreover, they noted, “younger Jews have reported lower levels of attachment to Israel in most surveys going back as far as there are data to analyze.” This, they wrote, suggests that “the differences in age groups are likely related to lifecycle rather than generation.”

Still, Beinart is correct in noting that challenges to American Zionism exist. But he’s wrong to worry that young people will respond to these challenges by turning our backs on Israel. Instead, we will, like generations of Jews before us, discuss and debate the best way forward for Israel and for our partnership with the Jewish state.

Too often members of my generation are caricatured as apathetic and disconnected from Jewish life and Israel. As we grow older, we are not going to walk away from a country that we have grown to not only respect as part of our history but also to love as part of who we are today.

Theodore Samets is a senior at Vanderbilt University.

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