A generational divide in British Jewry?

For some years now, the spectre of inter-generational conflict over Israel has been haunting the UK and other Diaspora Jewish communities. In the US, the ‘distancing hypothesis’ – that argues that young Jews are becoming alienated from an Israel that no longer reflects their values – has been widely debated. In the UK, phenomena such as ‘Kaddish for Gaza’ have been interpreted in some quarters as a sign that a swathe of Jewish youth no longer appreciates the importance of Israel and Zionism.
The latest development to be interpreted as a sign of generational change, is the letter from 500 young British Jews demanding that the Board of Deputies speak out against unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. While on social media some have been keen to point out that 500 is still a minority of Jewish youth, the most striking thing about the letter is how ‘mainstream’ its list of signatories is, ranging across most of the Zionist youth movements and including members of the Board and the Jewish Labour Movement. The signatories  cannot be dismissed as a  marginal group of young anti-Zionist radicals.
So far the stance of the majority – although by no means all – of Deputies, led by the President Marie van der Zyl, has been to reject this demand and insist that the possibility of Israeli annexation does not necessarily contradict its stated commitment to a two-state solution. The Board is by no means unified and some Deputies have supported the letter. Nevertheless, given the high age profile of the Deputies, it looks like there is a generational fissure in the making here; one that may fragment Jewish communal organisations.
The last major survey of British Jewish attitudes to Israel, in 2015, did not find that younger Jews were substantially more ‘dovish’ than older ones. However, there was an emerging divide over willingness to speak out publicly against Israeli actions, particularly on security matters; with younger Jews less prepared to keep their criticisms to themselves. So it is quite possible that those who sent the letter do not substantially differ in their views of what Israel should ideally be compared to older members of the Board.
This emerging generational divide in willingness to speak out on Israel should not be overstated. There is no evidence that the majority of Jewish young people are massively invested in this issue. Nor is the older generation unified in opposition; indeed, a similar letter to the Board has also attracted hundreds of signatures and the support of some Deputies.
Nonetheless, the fact that it was young people who have been at the forefront of this issue is still significant. Further, to focus on the representativeness or otherwise of those who wrote the letter is to miss the point. It is precisely the fact that some of the most involved and engaged students and members of youth movements are so passionate about this issue that they signed the letter that makes it so significant. Whatever the majority of Jewish young people believe, the future leaders emerging out of this cohort may well relate to Israel differently to their predecessors (although certainly not uniformly – there are and always will be young Jewish leaders who are strong supporters of the Israeli government).
However much older generations may worry about what is emerging from within Jewish youth, the irony is that in many ways they are actually doing what they were told to do: The centrality of Zionism and Israel engagement in the formal and informal education of young people British Jewish community is such that the dominant message that young people receive is that they should be passionate and idealistic about Israel. Indeed, the youth movements uphold particular visions of what Israel should be as something worth fighting for.  The signatories of the letter are simply demonstrating their passion for the Israel they have been brought up to fight for.
Why then, has the letter not attracted more support from those who also hold to similar liberal Zionist visions? The reason is that there was a second part of message inculcated in Zionist education in the UK: Be passionate about your vision for Israel, but the Diaspora is not the place to fight for it. While the blanket taboo on criticising Israel publicly has given way in recent years to more nuanced talk about ‘big tents’ and ‘hugging and wrestling’ with Israel rather than blindly supporting it, the Zionist youth movements do not prioritise the Diaspora as a place from which to fight for change in Israel from. Indeed, British charity law places limitations on how far the movements can act politically.
How did a significant section of today’s Jewish youth ‘misunderstand’ or selectively understand, this dual message when their predecessors understood it? I would argue that there are two developments that have made the contradictions between the two sides of the message impossible to resolve, for liberal Zionists at least.
First, we are now living in a world where speaking publicly about any number of issues is ubiquitous. Social media has collapsed distinctions between public and private. In the chaotic online world, all we have is our own voice and our own authenticity. To strategically suppress this voice is in incredibly difficult thing to ask of anyone these days, let alone ‘digital natives’.
Second, the strategic silence encouraged by Diaspora Zionism was predicated on the possibility that a diversity of Zionist visions would remain viable. To not speak out about the actions of a particular Israeli government might have been bearable if the hope remained that a future government might act to fulfil your own vision of what Israel should be. If Israel annexes sections of the occupied territories, then it is extremely hard to see how a two-state solution of the kind that many liberal Zionists hope for would still be viable.
Recent statements from Marie van der Zyl demonstrate the contortions that liberal Zionists who favour the old model of Diaspora Zionism are now having to go through: By insisting that annexation would not necessarily jeopardise a two state solution, she hopes to be able to reconcile the widespread desire for such a solution with a desire for the Board to be a unifying force in British Jewry. If the letter to the Board shows a generational divide, it is above all a refusal from some Jewish young people to have to engage in such desperate contortions.
Yet there is still one way in which the letter demonstrates a lingering reluctance to abandon the old model of Diaspora Zionism in its entirety. The letter is not addressed at Israel directly and the change that it seeks is a change in the stance of one British Jewish communal organisation. Similarly, liberal Zionist groups like Yachad concentrate much of their work on raising consciousness amongst British Jews, rather than tackling Israel head on. Perhaps this is a recognition that British Jewry, and the Diaspora more generally, has very limited agency in influencing Israel. In this sense, once Israel’s current direction cannot be altered, all there is left for Diaspora Zionists to do is to try and change the Diaspora.
About the Author
Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a writer and sociologist, based in London. He is the author of six books, most recently 'Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity' (Repeater 2019)
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