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American Jewish Identity Is Now Expressed Through Opposing Israel – And Vice Versa

I recently met with a young liberal Jewish activist — let’s call him Josh — at a hip Brooklyn coffee shop, where over $5 cups of cold brew filled mostly with ice, we discussed the revival of the Jewish left and the arc of Josh’s own Jewish identity. Now in his late twenties, Josh grew up going to Jewish summer camp, and after high school, with dreams of one day joining the Israeli army, he set off for a year-long MASA program in Israel.

One weekend, Josh went to Bethlehem where he discovered a complicated picture of Israel made up of checkpoints and walls. With neither context nor outlet to process his first confrontation with the West Bank, Josh’s engagement with Israel since that trip has moved farther and farther away from reflecting his original vision of Zion.

Josh is not alone. Many young American Jews’ connection to Israel is now expressed through opposition to Israeli policy — or Israel itself — within a largely American political framework. Look no further than J Street’s new initiative pushing Democratic candidates to take a harder stance against Israel’s presence in the West Bank. These activities don’t just define this generation’s political activism, but rather encompass their Jewish identity and relationship with the Jewish people.

For Josh and his generation, the core of their very-much alive Jewish identity is expressed through negation of the State of Israel.

A counter-narrative of Jewish identity plays out in Israel. A recent study of Jewish-Israeli identity conducted by Shmuel Rosner and Dr. Camil Fuchs of the Jerusalem People Policy Institute found that the majority of Israelis express their Judaism through a nationalistic, Zionist identity, which is to a large extent founded on a negation of the Jewish diaspora.

For example, Israelis often identify their mandatory service in the army as an expression of their Judaism. For a good number of Israeli soldiers and reservists today, this service involves missions in Hebron and long hours at checkpoints — representations of the exact challenge that mainstream liberal American Jewish identity is shaped around fighting.

Herein emerges the major tension: If American Jews express their Jewish identity through advocating against Israeli policy in the halls of Congress, and Israelis express their Jewish identity by upholding these policies in Israel, each side’s Jewishness largely blocks the other, inhibiting any kind of shared conversation, let alone shared sense of Jewish peoplehood, between the two major centers of the Jewish world.

It wasn’t always this way. A few months ago I was catching up with another lefty, my friend Harvey Burg, now a retired civil rights attorney, lifelong Zionist and AIPAC activist. Over coffee and croissants in a Jerusalem cafe, Harvey reminisced over an earlier trip to Israel only days after the Six Day War ended. Tales of his early adventures on kibbutzim and traveling through the country’s newly acquired terrain seamlessly transitioned to memories from the civil rights movement, looking up at Martin Luther King and Rabbi Joachim Prinz stand together against prejudice at the March on Washington and Harvey’s own experience creating the first integrated law firm in Birmingham, Alabama. Harvey’s progressive, Zionist and Jewish identity so effortlessly melded.

In those days, there was more space for global Jewish conversations to transpire. It was like an old city square, both in our hearts and minds and in reality. The original exchange of letters between AJC President Jacob Blaustein and Prime Minister Ben-Gurion upon the creation of the State of Israel to Harvey’s life long friendships with his Israeli brethren all happened within that city square. In that setting, disagreements and questions could be more easily brokered because there was always an address to write to or phone number to call.

If the way in which today’s young Israelis and American Jews are expressing their Jewish identity excludes a joint meeting place, we will never be able to do the real work required to create a future for the Jewish people that either side yearns for — whether it be securing Israel’s Jewish and democratic future or ensuring Jewish resilience and continuity for the next generation.

As what’s left of the Jewish people’s current city square fades, we must create a new place for rich Jewish conversation. American Jews who express their Jewish identity by standing up to policies in Israel should have a platform within the Jewish world to direct their activism outside of an American political-domestic framework. American Jews should understand that making the major changes they want to see in Israel requires understanding Israeli people and working with them to make change.

On the other side of things, Israelis must start seeing themselves within the context of a larger Jewish people rather than exclusively inside the narrow Zionist project. They must open their ears and hearts to concerns facing the greater Jewish world — be it anti-Semitism or anger over the Israeli government’s decisions regarding Jewish holy sites and religious practice that directly impact Jews everywhere.

As someone who lives in Israel, I see the framework for the Israeli side of the conversation slowly taking form as more Israeli institutions and actors take responsibility for the growing gap between Israel and American Jewry. They are building the new square by implementing and building “Jewish peoplehood” activities.

An increasing number of Israeli schools and training programs are initiating curriculums around Jewish peoplehood. “Reverse-Birthright” trips, for example, bring Israelis to the US to learn about American Jewish communities. It’s no coincidence that the Jewish Agency for Israel, after 90 years in existence, chose this moment to reveal a new strategic plan committing itself to strengthening and elevating Jewish communities around the world. These are promising starting points within Israel that require similar efforts from our American Jewish counterparts.

The time is now to reconceptualize a new city square, where Jewish identity elevates rather than erodes Jewish peoplehood, and recognizes that only together, can our communities take on the great challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish people today and in generations to come.

Tracy Frydberg is an analyst at the Reut Group. She is currently pursuing a masters in Jewish Peoplehood at the University of Haifa.

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