Sending our youth the wrong signals

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Alarm bells should be ringing in response to the findings of the recent survey of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel compiled by Professors Stephen M. Cohen and Ari Kelman on behalf of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation. Based on a questionnaire of 1,700 American Jews of all ages, the report excludes the Orthodox (who are today more positively inclined toward Israel than ever) but does include intermarried couples who traditionally display little resonance toward the Jewish state.

The findings are highly disconcerting. Only 54% of the under-35 category was “comfortable” with the concept of a Jewish state, in contrast to 81% of those over 65. More disturbingly, over half of those under 35 would not even be inclined to regard the destruction of Israel as a “personal tragedy.” The findings demonstrate that non-Orthodox American Jews under the age of 35 are moving from indifference to outright alienation with respect to their attitude toward the Jewish state. The report challenges the viability of sustaining any meaningful long term Israel-Diaspora relationship.

In retrospect, some erosion was predictable. The memory of the Holocaust has receded from public consciousness and young Jews today simply lack any appreciation of the implications of the powerlessness which prevailed among Jews before the state was created.

Nor does the current generation share the emotional attachments to Israel of their parents who witnessed the Zionist struggle and battles for survival climaxing with the euphoria of the Six Day War and the trauma of the Yom Kippur War. In addition, the combination of media demonization and burgeoning anti-Semitism have influenced many youngsters to transfer their support for Israelis as noble underdogs, toward identifying with what is commonly referred to as the “anti Zionist chic.”

While we were aware that this was the prevailing atmosphere in Europe, we had hoped that America, home of the largest, most affluent and influential Diaspora community in Jewish history, would be different. Besides, in contrast to the intensification of hatred against Israel in Europe, over the past decade, American public support for Israel has reached a higher level than ever before. The report also suggests that in the absence of birthright israel visits, the situation would have been considerably worse.

And yet, beyond religious observance, a connection to Israel remains to this day the most important element in Jewish identity. Thus, unless negative attitudes toward Israel are reversed, a further snowballing impact on assimilation is inevitable.

How should we endeavor to reverse these negative trends? First, the government of Israel must become more directly involved. From the onset of the Oslo Accords, successive Israeli governments had distanced themselves from the Diaspora, on the false grounds that with an “irreversible peace process” a reality, mobilizing on behalf of Israel by Diaspora Jews was superfluous and even counterproductive.

Despite subsequent efforts to reverse the situation by Rabbi Melchior and Natan Sharansky respectively as ministers of Diaspora Affairs, by and large, government leaders have taken little interest in overseas Jewish communities beyond lauding potential donors.

In fact today, hardly any Israeli or Jew in the Diaspora would even be aware that Yitzhak Herzog retains a Diaspora Affairs portfolio because all his resources and energies are directed toward his Social Welfare Ministry.

Likewise the World Zionist Organization which should have filled the vacuum, until recently was more concerned to promote the excessive remuneration of its senior Israeli executives than supporting Zionist organizations in the Diaspora. As a consequence, Zionist federations in most Jewish communities simply faded from Jewish life.

Diaspora Jewish leaders themselves are also at fault. In recent years, many became increasingly passive in response to the activities of the Jewish defamers of Israel in their midst. Some, in the name of freedom of expression and pluralism, even provided communal platforms for Jews to delegitimize the Jewish state.

For example, in the United Kingdom, the organizers of the successful Limmud education program previously invited Jacqueline Rose, the Jewish author of a fiercely anti-Israeli tract, to present her viewpoint. This year their keynote speaker is former Knesset Speaker and former head of the Jewish Agency, Avrum Burg, who shocked even his left-wing associates by alleging that the Jewish state behaves like Nazi Germany and urging Israelis to obtain foreign passports.

Another example is the head of the principal think tank of Anglo Jewry, a Jew who unashamedly promotes a bi-national not a Jewish state.

In the United States, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the radical journal Tikkun, which publishes vehement anti-Israeli propaganda, continues to receive invitations to address Jewish audiences in temples and community centers.

The New Israel Fund which raises over $25 million from American Jews has the gall to describe itself as a “Zionist” organization which “loves Israel.” Yet the JTA reports that it recently hosted an Israeli Arab who stated publicly that the 60th anniversary of Israel represented a “Nakba” (disaster) and expressed regret that Israeli Arabs had “not fought the occupation seriously.”

The same organization also promoted Michael Karayanni, an Arab-Israeli Hebrew University law professor who urged American Jewish audiences to support replacing the Israeli flag and anthem imposed on Arab Israelis in 1948. Yet the New Israel Fund still continues to receive funding from Jewish Federations.

And then there is the Israel Policy Forum, regarded as a part of the American Jewish establishment and supported by some Israeli ministers (Deputy Premier Haim Ramon will be speaking to the group next month). Yet it shamelessly lobbies the White House to pressure our government to provide further unilateral concessions to the Palestinians and continually attacks AIPAC for promoting pro-Israel policies.

The extent of the degradation of Zionist values was exemplified in controversies which recently raged on American campuses over whether it was appropriate for Hillel and other Jewish bodies to provide platforms for Israeli draft-dodgers to address American students in order to justify defiance of IDF orders to serve in the territories.

Jews against Zion are hardly a new phenomenon in Jewish history. They follow in the tradition of Jewish apostates who turned against their own people in the Middle Ages, of self-hating Jews such as Karl Marx, and more recently Jewish communists who applauded Stalin’s crimes against the Jewish people and defended Soviet anti-Semitism. The difference is that in the past such people were marginalized from Jewish life and no reputable Jewish organization would conceivably have provided them with platforms in order to demonize their own people.

We must end this madness by launching global educational campaigns to endow our youngsters with an appreciation of what Jewish life was like before the rebirth of the Jewish state and provide them with an understanding of a genuine Israel narrative and the morality of our case.
Let there be no illusions. If the process of alienation from the Jewish state is not reversed, the Diaspora is doomed.

The writer is a former chairman of the Governing Board of the World Jewish Congress and a veteran international Jewish leader.

ileibler@netvision.net.il

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