The deafening silence of young American Jews

The stakes of this deal are too high for you to disengage from this issue

I’ve always wondered why young American Jews get such a bad rap. Yes, it’s true that the percentage of us who believe in God is about the same percentage who believe in Harry Potter. It’s true that we love our pepperoni pizza, hate the taste of gefilte fish, and probably can’t find the mini-Torah that we received as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah gift. And yes, it’s true that only one out of four of us feels a strong connection to Israel.

But at the end of the day, I’ve always felt that as long as we live our lives in accordance with the universal values implicit in tikkun olam — freedom, equality, social justice — we fulfill our obligations as progressive Jews in the 21st century.

Recently I’ve changed my mind. The outcome of the current congressional debate about the Iran deal has profound implications for the security and safety of the US, Israel, and countries around the world. Too many young Jews in America, myself included, have remained content with their work at a local soup kitchen, their donations to tzedakah, or their contributions to a temple food drive at the very moment when their voices are urgently needed in Washington.

Young American Jews have many reasons to feel conflicted, ambivalent, or paralyzed by indecision about the deal. We’re the “Yes, We Can” generation, excited about the post-racial, post-partisan society we felt President Obama represented. Our commitment to Obama’s domestic initiatives around health care, immigration reform, climate change, and LGBT rights have caused us to gloss over America’s complicated struggles abroad.

We listen to Republicans whose hyperbolic rhetoric makes us unwilling to identify with their cause. When we hear Mike Huckabee claim that Obama is marching Israel “to the doors of the oven” or Senator Ted Cruz describe the president as “an apologist for radical Islamist terrorists,” we recoil with embarrassment. The ugly race baiting and social conservatism of Republicans make us feel like we couldn’t possibly have any common ground with the party.

And then there’s Netanyahu, a man we know is dedicated to Israel, loves Israel, and wants to protect Israel. But we can’t condone his hostility towards Palestinians. When we heard him assert that there would be no Palestinian state under his leadership, we were dismayed. We knew that our friends would use his words to argue that Israel is a racist, apartheid state. Netanyahu has strained our connection with Israel, and many of us feel betrayed by him.

Our sense of history is limited by our own life experiences. We read about the Holocaust in textbooks and can cite the number of Jews killed in concentration camps, but our safety and freedom in America make it difficult for us to comprehend pure evil. To many of us, anti-Semitism manifests itself mainly through tasteless jokes, not mass murder.

So our reticence to judge the Iran deal is understandable, some might even say justified. But the stakes of this deal are too high for young Jews to disengage. Political apathy is a privilege, a luxury afforded to only those who live in a country whose existence is not up for debate.

My own position on the deal? I’m skeptical. At this stage, the many frightening aspects of the agreement have been reiterated by journalists and politicians, but the warnings are worth repeating: under the deal, up to $150 billion dollars in frozen funds will be released almost immediately to the Iranian regime, who will no doubt use the money to fund terrorist organizations across the Middle East. And if Iran successfully convinces the West that they have complied with the agreement, a country with a supreme leader who proclaims that Israel “has no cure but to be annihilated” will acquire nuclear weapons in a little over a decade.

But my intention is not to convince readers that they must share my perspective on the deal. Supporters of the agreement make many compelling arguments. My goal is to implore the many who are currently sitting on the sidelines to become active participants in one of the most critical foreign policy debates of our era. It is our generation who will inherit the consequences of the deal — consequences that are by no means insignificant for the only Jewish state on the planet.

The history of the Jewish people is the story of a people who, despite two millennia of persecution, have refused to be silenced. We question, we doubt, we argue, we dissent. Next month Congress will vote on the agreement. The world is watching. It’s time for young American Jews to take a stand.

About the Author
Mike Kalin is a former Netivot Fellow in Jewish Leadership at Harvard College and a Pforzheimer Fellow in the School Leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is a contributor at Cognoscenti, the opinion page of Boston NPR's news station. Mike teaches History and English at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts.
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