Yaron Deckel

Redefining Support: Israel’s Challenge to Engage Diaspora Youth

Young Jews in North America are facing significant challenges. The astonishing testimony of three university presidents in the US Congress, who declined to condemn antisemitism and hatred within their prestigious institutions, marked a critical turning point in a well-recognized trend.

Across campuses in the US and Canada, a troubling phenomenon has taken root, fostering an environment rife with anti-Israel sentiment and explicit antisemitism. A November survey conducted in the Canadian general public revealed that individuals aged 18-30, particularly those who consume news extensively on social media, are less likely to identify antisemitism and exhibit support for Israel compared to other demographics. This sets the backdrop for the experiences of young Jews navigating these complex circumstances.

In the immediate aftermath of the horrific October 7th attack, a substantial pro-Israel sentiment swept across North America, resonating with both Jewish and non-Jewish communities alike. Then, a prominent Jewish leader in Toronto observed that young Jews aged 18-25 became more connected to their Jewish identity than ever before, expressing confidence that they were on solid ground.

However, as the weeks unfolded, the challenges facing this young community intensified. Social media became a battleground for routine anti-Israel and antisemitic attacks. Many students, unexpectedly thrust into the front lines, had initially pursued college and university education for independence, without anticipating the need to actively support Israel. Some stood resolute in their conviction, passionately fighting for Israel. Others faced an uneasy choice: to prioritize supporting Israel or excelling in their studies.

Engaging with professors and fellow students on sensitive topics risked academic repercussions, making it difficult to challenge antisemitic comments in the classroom. Participation in pro-Israel events might draw unwanted attention, and being vocal on social media, while raising awareness, could be counterproductive to academic success. These day-to-day dilemmas are emotionally taxing, tearing at the fabric of every young person navigating these complex challenges.

During that period, it was notably easier to rally behind the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement or advocate for LGBTQ rights. Marching in a gay pride parade aligned with the prevailing trend, and supporting these causes meant aligning with the majority. Conversely, wearing an Israeli flag pin on one’s lapel has proven to be more polarizing. Currently, expressing support for Israel on campuses implies affiliating with a minority perspective. Those familiar with the struggles of advocating for minority rights in the past understand the difficulty of swimming against the mainstream current, trying to uphold one’s values without succumbing to the overwhelming tide.

The brutal and unimaginable terrorist attack on October 7th followed 9 months of pre-existing doubts and concerns within the young Jewish community in North America regarding their stance on Israel. The government’s judicial plan had sparked questions among young adults about their personal connection to the Jewish State.

Several Israeli-born Canadians and other staunch Israeli supporters expressed that advocating for Israel had become more challenging. They conveyed a sense that Israel was diverging from liberal values, particularly in terms of equal rights and support for minorities. In a meeting with the Israeli Tourism Attaché in Canada, Gal Hana, some admitted feeling a departure from their once-strong love for Israel as the country underwent changes they no longer loved and appreciated. A significant number among them declared they wouldn’t be visiting Israel anytime soon, a departure from their past practice.

The seismic impact of the October 7th terrorist attack reshaped the mindset and emotions of every Jew in America. The escalating pro-Palestinian sentiment, evident through massive rallies across American streets, coupled with the relentless anti-Israel and antisemitic discourse on social media, prompted individuals to reassess their sentiments toward the heart of the Jewish People, now under relentless attack by inhuman terrorists.

The pivotal question arises: What steps can Israel take to maintain the support of young Jews in the diaspora? Israel must shift its focus to the post-war period, contemplating the kind of society that will emerge. Will it face division and rifts? Will hatred prevail?

It is imperative for Israel to offer compelling reasons for the young Jewish community in North America and worldwide to take pride in the Jewish State. This involves creating an environment where they feel proud to travel with their children, send them to programs in Israel, and confidently voice their unwavering support for Zionism within their communities. Recognizing that the support of young Jews is not guaranteed and cannot solely rely on victimhood, Israel must actively foster a sense of pride and engagement among this demographic. Israel must adopt a global perspective and actively consider the values held by the future Jewish generation.

Embracing principles of equal rights, liberalism, and ‘live and let live,’ including strong respect and support for minorities, including the LGBTQ community, is crucial. In an intriguing ‘Unholy’ podcast led by Yonit Levy and Jonathan Freedland, Tom Friedman from The New York Times depicted the present Jewish generation, which no longer regards Israel as its primary religious identity, distinguishing it from its parents’ generation. According to Friedman, the new religion of young Jews centers around civil rights and equal opportunities.

It’s evident that Israel, post the attack and the war against Hamas, will undergo significant changes. While it’s premature to predict the exact nature of societal and political shifts, one crucial aspect to consider is how to engage young Jews in North America. Past research consistently indicates a direct correlation between a robust Jewish identity and the level of support for Israel. It’s not too early to commence thoughtful consideration on this matter.

Ultimately, today’s young adults, the students in North American universities and colleges, represent the future Jewish leaders of the community. It is crucial to nurture and invest in this emerging leadership before it becomes too late. The pertinent question remains: Does the leadership in Israel comprehend this imperative?

About the Author
Yaron Deckel is the director for Canada of the Jewish Agency. Prior to that he served as a Senior Israeli TV and radio journalist.
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