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Young American Jews and Israel

magneszionist18 October 2009: Jeremiah Haber writes on Jonathan Sarna on Why Young American Jews Distance Themselves from Israel

In a recent op-ed in the Forward, Prof. Jonathan Sarna, the foremost historian of American Jewry, attempts to explain why American Jews, especially the young and non-orthodox, continue to distance themselves from Israel. In a nutshell, his answer is that many American Jews are disappointed that Israel has not fulfilled the utopian dreams of its founders and their parents’ generation. Failing to understand that Israel’s actions are necessary in order to survive in a dangerous neighborhood, American Jews hold Israel to an unreasonable, higher standard than any other state, including America.

Amicus Johannis vero, but I find his explanation unconvincing – and, surprisingly, anti-Zionist.

Why anti-Zionist? Because a central tenet of statist Zionism was that the Jews in the Diaspora were powerless, and that only in a Jewish state, would Jews become – collectively — actors on the stage of history. The Zionist philosopher Emil Fackenheim called the establishment of the State of Israel, “the Jewish return to History”. No longer would Jews sit around passively and wait for things to happen to them; they would act, for better or for worse, and their actions would have consequences.

But for Prof. Sarna, Israel is not really responsible for its actions, nor should it bear the consequences of its decisions. It is compelled to act in the way it does, because of self-defense, because it is in a bad neighborhood, because of Arab terrorism, and the collective Arab failure to accept as just the dispossession, or the partition, of their homeland. So the establishment of the Jewish State in the way that it was established, hastily and unilaterally, and culminating in Israel’s refusal to let around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs return to their lands, which they later expropriated, along with the thousands of dunams of Arab citizens of the Jewish state, for the purpose of Jewish growth and settlement — none of this, it seems, has an effect on Palestinian Arabs’ attitudes towards Israeli Jews. The same can be said for the occupation and siege of the West Bank and Gaza — the longest occupation in modern history. Millions of Palestinians are governed without their consent while their lands are confiscated in the name of Israel’s security, or the settlement of Eretz Yisrael, or both.

Is it any surprise that Israeli and American Jews are starting to wonder whether the continued existence of the state set up in 1948 under these conditions is worth it? After all, no advocate for Zionism ever made the argument to the world that in order for there to be a secure, Jewish state, most of the Palestinian inhabitants would have to leave their homes, or that millions would have to be governed against their consent.

According to Prof. Sarna, Israel is acting the way any normal state would act under such difficult conditions. And so, idealistic young people with higher standards, are tired and upset with Israel.

Yet a closer look at his argument shows that Prof. Sarna is not describing the younger generation, but his own.

In place of the utopia that we had hoped Israel might become, young Jews today often view Israel through the eyes of contemporary media: They fixate upon its unloveliest warts.

Why should the younger generation, who did not have their consciousness seared by the movie Exodus, the Six Day War, and Jewish Federation “Missions,” who have seen only a tiny bit of what Israel does in the Occupied Territories on the mainstream American media (was the Goldstone report even mentioned in the liberal MSNBC evening lineup?)—why should it feel disillusionment or disappointment that the Zionist dream has not come true? That may indeed by the case for those who were exposed to that dream, and disillusionment may indeed characterize the boomer generation of 67.

But what the younger generation has seen is a never ending cycle of “peace-processes,” Jewish settlement, and suffering, both Israeli Jewish and Palestinian, but mostly Palestinian. And a gross imbalance and exercise of power which is as old as the State of Israel itself. Is it any wonder that, unlike thirty years ago, the young supporters of Israel today in the US are overwhelmingly Jewish orthodox or Christian fundamentalist, Republican, and neocon?

The same young progressive Jews who campaigned passionately for Obama, opposed the war in Iraq, and fight hard for civil liberty and equality, do not view Israel as a failed utopia. Rather, they view Israel as a failing state, one that offers to the Palestinians the shards of a state, a truncated, demilitarized, and powerless entity.

With Israel’s Zionist left in disarray, and with a rightwing chauvinistic national consensus that is bolstered by religious fundamentalists and ethnonationalists from the former Soviet Union, who has distanced itself from whom? American Jews from Israel, or Israel from American Jews?

Still, while Prof. Sarna’s explanation is not convincing, his call to action is:

The deepest and most meaningful of relationships, however, survive disappointments. By focusing upon all that they nevertheless share in common, and all that they might yet accomplish together in the future, American Jews and Israelis can move past this crisis in their relationship and settle in, as partners, for the long haul ahead.

Amen to that. The wrong thing for liberal Jews to do is to turn their back on Israel, to give up hope, to lose interest. On the contrary, liberal American Jews should apply at least the same energies to working for justice in Israel-Palestine, as they do in America. That means engaging with Israel, helping to transform the 1948 ethnocracy into a liberal democracy of all its citizens, fighting for justice for the Palestinian Israelis, the foreign workers, political refugees, and othe disadvantaged groups. Let there be a Birthright Human Rights, in which Jewish college kids join Israeli-Palestinian human rights groups like Ta’ayush, Yesh Din, B’tselem, and many others. There is so much that liberal American Jews can and should do. It is immaterial to me that they do it as Jews or simply as decent human beings, as yidden or as mentshen.

Who knows? Perhaps not only Zion, but also Zionism, can be redeemed through justice.

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