After many debates, discussions, and disagreements this past week, I decided to heed the voice of self-doubt – had I been wrong about what young, Diaspora Jews think about Israel? To find out, I decided to do some field research.
I journeyed to the center of authentic interaction between the Diaspora and Zion, the commercial meeting point of Babylon and Jerusalem – Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market – to ask young, Diaspora Jews what they thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The answer: not much.
At around 12:00pm on Friday afternoon the market was flooded with young, scantily clad products of diaspora Jewry on the prowl for freshly squeezed juice, fried chick-pea balls, and overpriced t-shirts. I approached a young man who was fiddling with the plastic name-tag that hung around his neck. “Excuse me,” I asked. “Are you on Birthright?” He nodded yes, his flat-brimmed San Francisco Giants hat bobbing with him in assent. I then got straight to the question – “Have you been talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on your trip, and what do you think about it? He replied that he hadn’t spoke about it very much and that he didn’t want to talk about the Palestinians “until they get jobs and change their culture.”
Okay. That didn’t turn out so well, I said to myself. I’ll ask another person. Maybe that will turn out better.
I turned to a group of young women who were participating on a Birthright trip organized by their East Coast university and asked them the same question I asked the young man in the baseball cap. “We haven’t really spoken about it yet,” answered one of the white t-shirted, backpack-carrying students. “I think we’ll talk about it when we go to Masada.”
Wary of jumping to judge too quickly I caught myself in mid-thought. You never know, they might talk about the occupation on Masada. After all, most trips usually drive through the West Bank and at least a checkpoint or two to get there. Maybe she’s not that far off.
I attempted to question a third group of young Jews of the non-Levantine variety but was rebuffed mid-sentence by one young woman’s loud declaration that the whole day had gone by and she “hadn’t bought anything, and now she really needed to buy something fast.” All of this was totally understandable. When you are young, financially dependent on your parents, and touring a Middle Eastern country stimulating the local economy is always more important that examining the political consequences of your presence in that country.
I stood for several more hours in the harsh mid-day sun, my reddening neck and nose betraying my Lithuanian heritage, to ask more Birthright participants what they thought about the conflict. Admittedly, the sample size was small. But it didn’t seem like Diaspora Jews were thinking very much about the conflict or even about Israel. They seemed interested mostly in having a good time. And that was all the American Jewish establishment expected of them.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Orthodox Union all identify support for Israel as a tenet or value of their respective movements. The Jewish establishment expects Diaspora Jews to unequivocally support Israel. Many articulate this support as “engagement” or the building of a “relationship” with the state of Israel. But what is the content of that engagement? What is the substance of that relationship?
I want (and I think I can speak for other critically-minded young Diaspora Jews when I say this) a meaningful engagement with Israel – one in which I can recognize Israel’s beautiful sites but criticize its political faults. I want a mature relationship with Israel – one in which I can lovingly celebrate its culture but denounce (even harshly) its unjust policies. As a practicing Jew I cannot deny Israel without denying my tradition, my heritage, and my culture. But the Jewish establishment’s enforcement of a rigid party line of uncritical support for Israel makes it hard for me and other young Jews to feel comfortable in the community. I want something more than blind support for Israel. I am not satisfied with a connection to Israel that consists of nothing more than memories of exotic foods, good-looking people, and kitschy, prefabricated spiritual moments.
The Jewish establishment isn’t ready to let young Jews build their own nuanced ways of relating to their Jewish identities. Consequently, it risks losing out on playing any role in shaping the identities of young Jews – even the ones who go on Birthright trips. If there are strict limits on what can and cannot be said, then they will be less likely to “engage”. If they are expected to connect to Israel only on a superficial level, they will be less likely to commit to building a “relationship”.
Long before this year, I was asked countless times: why do you think you have the right to criticize a country you don’t live in? When other young, diaspora Jews are asked the same question, they won’t respond by deciding to move here for a year to live and learn about Israeli society. They will answer that question with another set of questions: Why should I support a country I don’t live in? Why should I relate to a country whose language I don’t speak? Why should I engage with a place I’ve only been to once or twice? And those questions threaten the continuity of the Zionist project far more than any protest or interruption of Naftali Bennett’s speech.