On Independence Day, the Difficulties of Loving Israel and Each Other

Every Year, It Gets Harder To Join the Parade

Pride: Love of Israel is no longer such an uncomplicated affair.
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Pride: Love of Israel is no longer such an uncomplicated affair.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published May 05, 2014, issue of May 09, 2014.
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So why does it feel as though the magic is going out of it for so many of us? Where did our love go?

The social scientists tell us it’s mostly a matter of generational drift. Those who witnessed Israel’s birth retain an indelible sense of its drama and importance. Some of that feeling persists among baby boomers who experienced the fear of disaster in the weeks before the Six-Day War in 1967 and the elation that followed.

The generations since then, however, have experienced none of that. For them Israel is simply a fact of life. In fact, some scholars say, those who grew up after 1967 have only known Israel as a military power, an occupier, a focus of controversy and, to the extent they think about it, a source of discomfort. The common emotional response is what the sociologists call “distancing.”

The biggest exception to the pattern is the traditionally religious community, including most Orthodox and small minorities of other denominations. In these circles Israel is a living, daily reality, its soil a sacred thing, its past and future central to daily prayers and the religious calendar.

Public controversy over the Palestinians and the occupation isn’t usually a source of discomfort in this community. On the other hand, the discomfort those issues arouse in other Jews is a source of alarm — and, increasingly, anger.

Thus does Israel, once a unifying force among American Jews, become a cause of division.

There’s one more exception to the distancing pattern, little noticed but critical to the mix these days: the liberal Zionist youth experience. It’s estimated that upwards of 40,000 American Jews have gone through the summer camps and after-school programs of labor Zionist youth movements, Habonim Dror and the smaller Hashomer Hatzair. About 2,000 youngsters are involved in any given year.

A recent survey of Habonim Dror alumni, the first ever, found them to be intensely attached to Israel, involved in Israel-related community activities and overwhelmingly liberal. (Full disclosure: I’m a Habonim alum.) An outsize proportion have gone on to become rabbis and communal workers. Separately, an informal survey of federation executives not long ago found that the vast majority had attended Jewish summer camps as kids, and of those, the largest single group attended Habonim camps.

The two sides aren’t evenly matched. Active Labor Zionists are far outnumbered by activist Orthodox. There’s a broad middle that leans sort of leftish, but it’s not mobilized and isn’t likely to be.

On the other hand, the left has gotten some reinforcements in recent years from Birthright alumni. Survey evidence suggests they come home strongly fired up by Israel — so much so that there appears to be a “Birthright bump,” lifting the Israel engagement of an entire generation of under-35s above that of their elders — but skeptical of Israeli government policy. My impression from my own travels is that they’re providing foot soldiers on campuses where J Street chapters are often led by Zionist youth.

The debate has been heating up wildly around the country over the past few years, escalating from shouting to name-calling and efforts — mostly by the right — to have opponents excluded from community forums, parades, JCCs, Hillels and more. It’s not going to get better any time soon.

So if it feels like it’s getting harder to love Israel lately, look again. It’s not so much Israel that we’re having trouble loving, but each other.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com

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