The American Jewish community must decide: Does it want to connect young Jews to Israel, or does it intend to drive them away?
By supporting Birthright Israel, the community was wise enough to see that even our most disengaged young people have a yearning for connection to the Jewish state. Birthright is one of our proudest achievements.
Still, Birthright alone cannot create Zionists or committed Jews. What it can do is ignite a spark of Jewish interest that we must carefully tend so that it grows into a roaring fire of devotion to Israel and to Jewish life.
Yet we are faltering in tending that spark. Our most committed young-adult Jews are living Jewish lives in which Israel plays, at best, a peripheral part.
I am referring here not to the alienated and uninvolved, who are distanced from all things Jewish, but to Jewish activists who create havurot, join minyanim or find a place in established synagogues or Jewish community centers. These future Jewish leaders are not hostile to Israel, and many have positive memories from Birthright or youth-movement trips, but Israel today is a marginal part of their Jewish consciousness.
There is no single explanation for their disaffection, but surely one important reason is the increasingly right-wing and even reactionary tone that some elements of the organized community have adopted in their pronouncements on Israel. American Jews have always been moderate in their views on Israel, and this is especially true for the young.
Of course, the fact that some national and umbrella bodies express hard-line sentiments that do not reflect majority opinion is not new. What is new and deeply disturbing is that local communal bodies are now following their lead. Proof of this trend, as reported in these pages earlier this month, is the willingness of some local Jewish federations to support and endorse events sponsored by Pastor John Hagee and his lobbying group, Christians United for Israel.
In March, when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee departed from past policy and gave Hagee a prime slot at its national convention in Washington, his new status in the Jewish community was confirmed. I am an admirer and supporter of Aipac, but this decision was a mistake for two reasons.
The first is the way that Hagee’s appearance would be perceived on Capitol Hill. The central principle of Israel advocacy for half a century has been that support of Israel must be broad and bipartisan, and this means appealing to the Republican and Democratic mainstream and avoiding identification with controversial minorities in either party.
Second, and even more worrisome, was the question of how Hagee’s Aipac speech would be interpreted by the Jewish community. My fear was that it would confer legitimacy on him and that local communities would be tempted to embrace him as Aipac had, in the process alienating many Jews, including most young Jews — and this is precisely what has happened.
We know a great deal about Jewish young adults. We have learned from extensive research that these young people are often more socially liberal than their baby-boomer parents. They are pluralistic in their thinking, and they are tolerant of difference, especially differences in gender and sexual orientation.
They respond negatively to those who disparage other religious traditions and who make exclusivist religious claims. They are insistently centrist in their political views on the Middle East. And they are suspicious of a Jewish establishment that they see as too focused on money and insufficiently focused on values.
And so whom do we offer to these young people as a spokesman for Israel? John Hagee, who is contemptuous of Muslims, dismissive of gays, possesses a triumphalist theology and opposes a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. If our intention was to distance our young adults from the Jewish state, we could not have made a better choice.
Even worse, a primary motive here seems to be that we see Hagee and his Christians United for Israel as a source of dollars for federation coffers. The pattern has been that in return for federation sponsorship of dinners hosted by the lobbying group, contributions are made by Christians United for Israel to our federation fundraising campaigns. The conclusion that our young people are most likely to draw from this arrangement is that we are simply selling our souls.
Let me be clear: I favor dialogue and extending a hand of friendship to Hagee and to all Evangelical Christians. Let’s learn about each other and discuss areas of agreement and disagreement. I traveled to Liberty University last year to meet with the late Reverend Jerry Falwell for precisely this purpose. But there is a vast difference between respectful dialogue and an endorsement that makes John Hagee our community’s champion of Israel.
Our federations are community organizations that operate on the principle of consensus. I urge our federations to conduct broad-based discussions to determine if a consensus really exists on endorsing Christians United for Israel events. Let’s weigh if we are trading short-term advantage for long-term disaster. Let’s ask if we are creating connections with Birthright that we are then tearing asunder with Hagee.
Let’s consider if in return for temporary financial benefit, we are alienating those who will be our leaders and donors tomorrow. And while we make these decisions, let’s remember that Israel is the most precious possession of the Jewish people and it belongs to us all.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.