A key feature of American Jewish identity is their connection to Israel. It seems evident that the future of the Jewish people depends, in large measure, on that bond. Although the American diasporic community has sometimes wrestled with its relationship to Zionism, the overwhelming majority of American Jews still believe Israel is an important part of their Jewish identity. Israel’s new far-right government presents a new challenge to that critical connection. There has been quite a lot of hand wringing among liberal American Jews as Bibi Netanyahu begins his sixth term as Prime Minister, but much of it is misplaced if not hopelessly hyperbolic.
Let’s face it, how many American Jews are actually conversant in the vagaries of American, let alone Israeli politics? According to the most recent Pew Research study on American political engagement, 55% of those between 18-49 discuss politics and government either a ‘few times’ a month, or ‘not often’ at all. In a separate Pew study, researchers asked Americans twelve basic foreign policy related questions (e.g., in 2018, the U.S. embassy in Israel moved, where is it currently located?), those between 18-49 answered roughly half of the questions correctly. Even if we assume, taking into account the higher levels of education enjoyed by Jews, that the American Jewish population between 18-49 would score slightly higher, the adjusted statistic is not terribly reassuring. As a thought experiment what if we took these same surveys and focused only on American Jews, tailoring the questions to include only matters pertaining to Israeli politics? How do we think those between 18-49 would fair? My unscientific hunch, is that the results would be abysmal. Most of these folks do not regularly discuss Israeli politics, they do not read Israeli newspapers, and probably don’t even read American print journalism.
The story is undoubtedly different for those over the age of 50 who have vivid memories of the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Entebbe hijacking and rescue, and the first Intifada. Those within this age bracket are more engaged politically and have a slightly better grasp on foreign policy. In addition, Americans over 50 are less likely to dramatically shift their political perspectives (e.g., these folks won’t be discarding their Zionist beliefs at any point before dying).
Like many pro-democracy democrats who have followed Israeli politics over the past two decades, I’m fairly outraged right about now. But let’s be honest about the scope of American Jewish influence on Israeli leaders and the Israeli public. The truth is, we are impotent. When it comes to having an impact on legislation regarding West Bank policy, or Israeli policing tactics, or LGBTQ+ rights we’re as effective as a guy at a ballgame drinking a beer in the bleachers. Another uncomfortable truth is that the Israeli government, especially under Netanyahu’s leadership, couldn’t care less how we feel.
So, here’s a suggestion: If those over 50 are as outraged as they say, they should make Aliyah, gain Israeli citizenship (before it’s too late) and vote in the next election (you don’t need to live in Israel for the rest of your life to gain Israeli citizenship). Additionally, those above 50 should attempt an honest reckoning with their children and grandchildren and start educating them about the complex history of the Jewish State. They should make their kids feel comfortable criticizing Israeli policy with the same confidence they have critiquing American political culture. To be against Trump does not mean one doesn’t believe in the sovereign right of the United States to exist.
My basic assumption is that those between 18-49 know very little about Israeli politics. Most of these folks get their dose of Israeli politics via social media, and the very limited coverage Israel receives in mainstream media. When I think about how little young American Jews know about Israel, I’m reminded of Ahad Ha’am’s recurring prophecy: “We can’t ignore the fact that ahead of us is a great war and this war is going to need significant preparation.” Dark times are ahead of us. With social media, when it comes to ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the general population in relation to Israel, the odds are against us. What young Jews can do now is get educated! Start subscribing to a (any!) Israeli news publication (e.g., Haaretz), brush up on
Israeli history through educational courses like those provided by the iCenter, and gear up for an inevitable social media/information battle that at some point soon, will be far worse than what took place during May 2021.
To this end, the American Jewish community should prioritize social media message testing and deployment, to mitigate inevitable anti-racist messaging regarding Israel that will soon flood online platforms. American Jews may find themselves in a place where it is difficult to articulate why a Jewish state should exist at all if narratives and real-world harm from Israeli ‘oppressors’ do more harm than good in the future. Middle and high school students still receive watered down versions of Israel education in their classrooms and after school programs. When thinking about those 17 and below, American Jews must take an honest look at the curricular resources they leverage in the classroom and adapt them to the times. It is okay, and not unique, that parts of the founding story of the Jewish state, as well as contemporary Israeli politics, is puzzling, problematic, and unpleasant. However, those truths can exist side by side with Zionist ideology and a love for the Jewish state.