A Worldview at Odds With a Jewish State

Young Jews and Israel: Talking About Our Generation

By Max Strasser

Published June 09, 2010, issue of June 18, 2010.
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Liberal young American Jews are growing increasingly distant from Israel. That idea is at the core of the recent essay by Peter Beinart in The New York Review of Books. While Beinart set off a fierce public debate in Jewish circles, one voice has been mostly missing: that of young American Jews like myself.

I have a strong Jewish identity — much stronger than the Jewish identities of my friends from Hebrew school, many of whom no longer have much attachment, if any, to Judaism. I attend services (albeit sporadically), fast on Yom Kippur and keep kosher for Passover. I fully intend to raise my children Jewish. Yet, true to Beinart’s thesis, identification with the State of Israel is not an important part of my identity, and I feel comfortable criticizing Israel when I see its injustices.

Since graduating from Oberlin College last year, I have been living in Egypt and working as a journalist, so I am more engaged with the Middle East than are most of my peers. Nonetheless, my views on Israel are similar to those of many other young, progressive American Jews. And our perspectives are often very different from the views that predominate among our parents’ generation.

My father, for example, was born eight months after Israel declared independence. His generation witnessed the events leading up to the 1967 Six Day War, when it looked like Israel’s destruction was imminent. When he and others in his generation were growing up, anti-Semitism was still prevalent in America. Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for The Atlantic and a prominent pro-Israel commentator, has recounted how getting beat up in middle school for being a Jew influenced his decision to move to Israel and join its army.

These experiences are foreign to most members of my generation. As a result, many of us view Israel without the defensiveness that comes from years of persecution.

When we see the military occupation in the West Bank entering its 44th year and an assault on Gaza that looked grossly disproportionate, when we hear about home demolitions and discriminatory immigration laws, when we see Israeli naval commandos kill nine people who were part of a flotilla bringing aid to a territory under siege, we view the situation through pretty much the same prism as we view other international conflicts and issues.

Our commitment to human rights does not grant an exception to a country simply because three-quarters of its inhabitants share our ethno-religious background. I, and many other American Jews my age, desperately want a just solution to this decades-long conflict, a solution that provides equal rights and security for everyone involved. At the rate things are going, this does not seem to be on the horizon.

But there’s something else, and I’m afraid this is going to be a hard pill for the older generation to swallow: the idea of a state that is officially defined as “Jewish” is in conflict with the worldviews of many in my generation.

Americans my age are a globalized group. Cheap plane tickets have allowed us to travel more widely than any previous generation. Most college students I know spent at least a semester studying abroad. The Internet allows us to access to global perspectives and global relationships. Jews, part of a largely affluent and well-educated demographic, are especially mobile and cosmopolitan.

Then there’s our commitment to multiculturalism. The public schools I attended celebrated diversity. “All people are equal!” was drilled into our heads. We grew up, rightfully, extolling the American civil rights movement.

A state that is predicated on ethnic nationalism, a state that privileges one group of citizens over another because of ethnic identity, as Israel does through its policies on housing, immigration and a number of other issues, is not a state that will be wholeheartedly embraced by young American Jews like me.

A 2007 study by social scientists Ari Kelman and Steven M. Cohen found that among American Jews, each new generation is more alienated from Israel than the one before it. Among American Jews born after 1980, only 54% feel “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.” The reason, Cohen later explained, is an aversion to “hard group boundaries” and to the notion “that there is a distinction between Jews and everybody else.”

In his essay, Beinart makes an impassioned plea for a more tolerant brand of Zionism, one that can re-engage Jews like me with Israel. It’s a hope that is shared by many in the older generation. But from my vantage point, it looks like it will be a hard sell.

Max Strasser is a freelance journalist living in Cairo, Egypt.

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