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.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.