7 ways Gen-Z will have to grapple with Zionism – if they care at all

How can American Jewry combat the anti-Israel movement without educating toward an intellectually honest, democratic Zionism?
Pro-Israel demonstrators sing during a protest at Columbia University, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File)
Pro-Israel demonstrators sing during a protest at Columbia University, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File)

In many ways, American Jewish life since October 7th has frozen. This standstill has intensified in recent months as universities flared into anti-Israel hotbeds, streets filled with protestors carrying terror-fomenting posters, and politicians made tepid or inflammatory statements online and on camera.

Recent IDF operations recovered four hostages from civilian quarters in Gaza. American Jews breathed a sigh of relief – it was an affirmation that there were still live Jews in captivity at a time when propagandists claim all the hostages are dead. This rescue mission and the concurrent intensification of ceasefire negotiations have reminded me that this war will come to an end. And once it ends, we will need to recalibrate to a new lived reality.

What will a post-war America look like?

Like the Black Lives Matter protests that gripped America for much of 2020, I predict that the pro-Palestinian protests are this year’s in vogue cause. They will wane, and efforts to bring attention to the Palestinian plight will continue at the hands of only the most dedicated advocates. The dialogue of these protests won’t be retired; they will simply join a number of other slogans recycled in various moments of intersectional discourse.

For older American Jews, who have fiercely defended Israel and who remember a world more sympathetic to the democratic State of Israel and post-Holocaust realities of Jewish displacement, things won’t change much. Their certainty about Israel is rooted in an experience that is becoming historical, and their peer group is composed primarily of people who are in agreement – or at least apathetic.

It is younger millennials, Gen-Z, and the generations beyond that will face a reckoning – and who will need to find a new way of interacting with Zionism and Israel. While many of us received a basic education or hasbara (think cherry tomatoes, drip irrigation, world’s most ethical army, etc.), this was often not enough to inspire religious, moral, or ideological fervency. Perhaps the closest our generations can come to defending Israel with the force of previous ones is defending our loved ones who live there – and most young American Jews who have studied in day schools or Hebrew schools love someone who lives in Israel.

These are the generations that need to prepare for a postwar reality in which Israel and Zionism are attacked subtly and overtly, privately and publicly. As Dan Smokler expressed in his recent piece for the Forwardpro-Israel protestors were simply “outorganized.” How can we, in upcoming months, prepare to combat a behemoth anti-Zionist movement with seemingly bottomless resources?

As someone who straddles the millennial/Gen-Z gap, as a Jewish educator, and as a Jew who calls myself pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, I believe that we need to strengthen and solidify the education we are giving, and the conversations we are having, when it comes to a well-founded, intellectually honest, democratic Zionism. Here are some suggestions for ways we can reframe this discourse:

  1. We can grieve our hostages, lost soldiers, and those murdered in past months – and that doesn’t, and shouldn’t, take away from our grief for Palestinian civilians who have lost their lives. Some angry Jews argue that there are no Palestinian civilians. But the moral precedent set by the Jewish God in similar circumstances is grief – the grief of a father upon losing a child, which we emulate each year at the Pesach seder as we remove wine drops from our glasses to commemorate the suffering of the Egyptians. Being a moral Jew requires us to open our eyes to Palestinian suffering while simultaneously holding the pain of our Israeli and Jewish siblings.
  2. Zionism is more complex than simple nationalism, and it involves recognizing the indigeneity of the Jewish people to the land of Israel and the religious significance of that indigeneity. It is a non-starter for dialogue when pro-Palestinian organizers deny this relationship. The Jewish people are not native to Poland or Germany, even if they have developed genetic similarity to native populations of Europe over generations. It is essential that we recognize the justified Jewish claim to the land and its history. We must teach the history of invasion, expulsion, and exile that characterized the Jewish experience and ultimately displaced Jews from their homeland, resulting in an inclination the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai called “the mad search for emergency exits.” To ignore these facts is to engage in historical revisionism.
  3. Whether or not Palestinians were in the land of Israel “first,” many lived there for generations or even centuries before they were displaced. This displacement, called the nakba (literally, “catastrophe”) by Palestinians, created refugees, uprooted families from their homes and belongings, and resulted in collective trauma. As we recognize the story of Jewish trauma, we must refrain from challenging the story of Palestinian trauma, both of which have profoundly impacted the political and social reality of the region.
  4. The history of Arab and Jewish tension in the region is difficult and uncomfortable, but we need to acknowledge it with open eyes. We can’t sanction violence as retaliation, collective punishment, or resistance. Both prior to and following the establishment of the State of Israel, a number of overzealous Jews/Israelis and Arabs/Palestinians used terrorism and violence in an attempt to achieve their goals. We can neither deny nor justify the massacres, rock throwings, riots, bombings, and stabbings perpetrated by people of all backgrounds.
  5. The State of Israel currently controls a portion of the military borders of Gaza, and it must employ this status responsibly and with respect for human life. Likely, this will be the most controversial point I make, but the moral high ground is precarious, and we have learned how hard it is to balance there. There are serious ethical implications to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, especially in the wake of the October 7th massacre and subsequent IDF invasion. It is manifestly clear that Hamas is operating as a terrorist paramilitary organization rather than a democratically-functioning governmental body. It is difficult to argue there can be a clean “tit for tat” in retaliatory strikes or military action when the State of Israel is a recognized country with democratically-elected representatives. A democratic Zionism can seek to eradicate terrorist entities that commit grievous acts, but it must also take responsibility for the people who have no one to defend them.
  6. Lasting peace will come from a commitment to the future, not an entrenchment – or elimination – of roots. Many Palestinians and Israelis grew up on their grandparents’ stories of the other side razing their olive trees and vineyards. It will be hard to repair this damage and distrust. But in America, perhaps we can begin with dialogue – slowly, when this war ends, moving forward with eyes open to the region’s bright sunlight and innovation; the crisp, acidic foods; the pungent, loud souks and shuks. I am not naive enough to suggest we can solve this with hummus and tree-planting, but we must start to build spaces for moderate conversation rather than digging in our heels, especially as American Zionists who have the privilege of security.
  7. American Jews are allowed to have a complicated relationship with Israel, and at the same time other people can’t use Israel and Zionism as their social litmus test. Our identities as Democrats, Republicans, pro-Palestinians, Jews, Americans (insert other identifier here) are not threatened by our Zionism. We are permitted to have complex feelings about Israeli politicians or military operations or casualties. We are allowed to love our cousin fighting in the IDF, to worry about our uncle who made aliyah, to book a Birthright trip this summer. We are allowed to seek out spaces that feel safe for Zionists. We must not let anyone tell us any differently.

American Zionism may look different going forward.

But so will we.

About the Author
Ruthie creates innovative Jewish programming and supports the development of young Jewish leaders. She believes that storytelling and storysharing is the most powerful uniting force on this planet, and strives to operate spaces that embrace the diversity of the human experience. Currently, Ruthie lives on the Upper East Side with her husband Max (a semicha student at RIETS), a fluffy high-strung dog, and their very adventurous toddler.
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