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Young Jews are fleeing Jewish institutions: Here’s how to keep them

Jewish communal groups should welcome Jews regardless of their relationship to Israel

A Jewish professional confesses to me that her college-aged daughter considers herself an anti-Zionist. A rabbi sheepishly mentions that his own children have been leading pro-Palestine protests on their campus. A Jerusalem Post editorial declares that young people such as these “may still technically be Jewish,” but that “we can no longer consider them part of Klal Yisrael.”

A panic has developed within much of the Jewish community as more and more Jews — mostly, but not entirely young people — have declared themselves to be anti-Zionists or non-Zionists.

I understand the concern. It’s troubling that some Jews would divorce themselves from the place where almost half the Jewish population of the world lives. And some pro-Palestinian protests have gone beyond calling for an end to the war, including minimizing, denying or justifying the murder, kidnapping and rape of Israelis. There is no excuse for this type of antisemitic language and dehumanization. But the mainstream Jewish community can’t just cast the blame for this turn of events on the non-Jewish left.

Most young Jews have rarely encountered a progressive and well-resourced model of how to be a Zionist and also fight for the rights of Palestinians. This needs to change. Rather than decrying campus protests, the mainstream Jewish community should be ensuring that our communal spaces are open to those with a wide range of opinions on Israel, investing in initiatives that move toward a just solution for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Over the past few months, I’ve visited about a half dozen university campuses and talked with students, professors, and administrators at many more. I’ve heard stories of genuine antisemitism, but primarily I hear from Jewish students who are honestly struggling with their relationship to Israel.

They are horrified both by the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 and by the devastation in Gaza brought on by Israel’s retaliation. They are questioning the lessons they’ve been taught about Israel’s moral rectitude, and sense that asking such questions makes them unwelcome in the Jewish community.

At the same time, many of these students feel uncomfortable in the farther-left pockets of campus, where, among some of their peers, even mentioning concern about the hostages solicits accusations of supporting genocide. Some of these students have found Jewish community within the encampments, and some have even taken on the challenge of addressing antisemitism internally there. But it will be a communal failure if a generation of young people find themselves pushed out of Jewish institutions because of their positions on Israel.

For years, the mainstream community has marginalized and smeared Jewish organizations that advocate for self-determination for all people between the river and the sea, beginning with B’reira — a 1970s organization that advocated two states and negotiations with the PLO — and continuing through today with attacks on groups like J Street, T’ruah (of which I am CEO), New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now. Any Jewish organization that dares oppose occupation and settlement expansion, let alone non-Zionist and anti-Zionist groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, may find itself blackballed from communal spaces.

Even Israeli human rights organizations, long targeted by the Netanyahu government, find themselves unwelcome in major swaths of the organized Jewish community. I’ve organized clandestine meetings in hotel conference rooms, lest an American Jewish institutional figure be spotted talking with an Israeli who fights the occupation.

Is it any wonder, then, that when these young Jews first encounter the realities of occupation, or see the heartbreaking images of children killed and starving in Gaza, that they conclude that they must choose between Zionism and a commitment to human rights?

Are we really surprised at their choice?

During this current war, hasbara efforts have gone into overdrive. My inbox fills each morning with updates from the major legacy organizations justifying the ongoing war and calling out antisemitism with no mention of the deaths of Palestinian civilians, or of the Israelis protesting their own government and calling for a deal that would end the war and bring back the hostages.

Prominent elected officials, even including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who dare call attention to Palestinian deaths or to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza find themselves accused of being anti-Israel or even antisemitic. On social media, well-funded Jewish organizations call out random students for their anti-Israel beliefs without any concern for the desperate conditions in Gaza that might contribute to these students’ beliefs.

This is precisely the wrong response.

Imagine if instead, the millions or billions of American Jewish dollars that go toward promulgating hasbara had instead been spent on advocating for both Israelis and Palestinians to realize their national aspirations.

Imagine if, from the earliest days of this war, major Jewish leaders had modeled that one can simultaneously mourn the Israelis killed on Oct. 7, call for the release of hostages, and protest the overwhelming casualty rate and humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

If we had taken this path, perhaps young Jews would not feel the need to choose between caring for Israel and the people who live there, and standing up for human rights. Perhaps it would be a given on campuses and beyond that one can support both Israelis and Palestinians — and indeed that any solution to the crisis must protect all of them.

The major institutions and funders can continue down the path they have forged, labeling anyone who fails to toe the line as anti-Israel or antisemitic. This path will push away major swaths of young Jews, and delay any chance of a political resolution aimed at bringing about peace.

Or our community can change course.

This would mean redirecting communal resources toward investing in human rights in Israel, loudly calling for an end to this brutal war — including the return of hostages, a bilateral ceasefire and humanitarian relief for Gaza — and mustering all of our advocacy muscle toward pushing for real steps toward a two-state solution.

It would also mean making clear that Jewish communal institutions welcome Jews regardless of their relationship to Israel, and regardless of the questions and challenges they bring to the conversation. And it would mean offering children, teens, and young adults an honest and critical education about Israeli and Palestinian history.

It’s not too late to change course. But the decisions our community makes now could determine for generations whether young Jews want to be part of existing Jewish institutions, whether the next generation feels any responsibility or connection to Israel, and even whether there is a just, secure, and democratic future for Israelis and Palestinians.

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