October 22, 2018

New generation has a new take on Israel

Earlier this spring, David Weiner, a 32-year-old social studies curriculum publisher from Los Angeles, went on an unlikely pairing of back-to-back missions to Israel.

His first week in Israel, he and a mini-bus full of peers in their 20s and 30s visited grantees of the New Israel Fund, a progressive social justice organization. They met a man who had built a sustainable living home and toured Hebron with Breaking the Silence, a group of veteran soldiers who give frank and sometimes disturbing accounts of their military service. They dealt with the prickly issue of religious pluralism, visited Palestinians, Bedouins and Ethiopians, and, with the human rights organization B’Tselem, explored East Jerusalem and the wall separating the West Bank.

The next week, Weiner embarked on the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Board of Governors Mission, where he and about a dozen young members of the AJC’s Access young professionals group joined more than 100 machers on two large tour buses.

They met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other government officials. They visited the beleaguered town of Sderot, met with journalists and questioned various expert panels on political and social issues facing Israel. They explored the meaning of Zionism with Israeli nonprofit leaders and met with a rabbi who puts his kashrut stamp on restaurants that have disabled access.

Weiner says his involvement in each of these organizations — one progressive and alternative, the other mainstream and established — enriches his experience in the other.

“Both trips combined allowed me to get a much more thorough and nuanced understanding of some of the challenges that are currently facing Israel. Each organization has different strengths and different areas they might focus on, but I don’t feel like they contradict each other,” he said. Weiner also participates in NewGround, the Progressive Jewish Alliance’s Muslim-Jewish dialogue for young professionals.

Weiner’s high level of Israel involvement might not be typical of his generation, but what is typical is his approach to his relationship with Israel: He wants to sample from the buffet and eat standing up, not order a five-course sit-down dinner.

Many Gen Y-ers — people born between the mid-1970s and early 1990s — don’t buy into the mainstream demand that they wave the Israeli flag and pledge support to the Jewish state. Uncomfortable with terms like “Israel advocate” or “pro-Israel,” many of today’s future leaders are forging an arena where they can build a relationship with Israel that is nuanced and multifaceted, relying on cultural interactions or collaborative tikkun olam projects, sometimes in addition to, sometimes instead of, traditional political advocacy. To them, Israel is not a miracle to be held in respectful and infallible esteem, but a complex reality to be criticized and/or befriended, woven into or left out of many layers of their ongoing search for meaning.

It is a shift in attitude that the Jewish establishment is still trying to get its head around.

Weiner said that board members on his AJC trip were eager to hear about his New Israel Fund experiences. AJC has already taken strides by developing the Access program, and they are eager to find out what appeals to this generation of multitasking, wirelessly wired, socially and psychologically self-aware resume builders, who were raised on a diet of unconditional validation and self-esteem building.

Community leaders were rocked last year when a study by demographers Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman revealed that more than 40 percent of non-Orthodox Jews under 35 felt only a low sense of attachment to Israel, and nearly half would not view Israel’s destruction as a personal tragedy — slight but notable shifts from their Gen-X predecessors and more so from their Baby Boomer parents. Israel advocates were left wondering whether there will be enough dedicated Israel supporters to replace the retiring Baby Boomers and what the diminishing numbers might mean for fundraising and advocacy for U.S. support of Israel.

Much of this generation’s alienation from Israel can be attributed to general attrition of Jewish identity. Many of this generation have intermarried or are not averse to the possibility, or are disconnected from Jewish life altogether, which from the start makes them less likely to feel strong ties to Israel.

The question taunting community leaders now is whether even those who do identify Jewishly are losing their connection to Israel, as the Cohn-Kelman study and other more anecdotal evidence indicates, or whether the Gen-Yers are simply expressing a new kind of relationship to Israel in terms the mainstream doesn’t yet understand.

“The world they are in looks different in terms of opportunities, in terms of the relative place of things in community memory, in terms of the assumptions of what it means to be Jewish,” said Yoni Gordis, executive director of Center for Leadership Initiatives, an operating foundation funded by Tulsa-based philanthropist Lynn Schusterman.

“This generation lives in multiple communities simultaneously, and they don’t have as much guilt as the previous generation,” Gordis said. “That empowers them and gives them a huge number of opportunities, and it can also make it more challenging to figure out what their level of commitment is to specific jobs or opportunities. We have to understand their commitment to community in a different way, because they express it in a different way.”

What can sometimes appear to establishment leaders as waffling on Israel by the younger generation may instead reflect a disinclination to connect to Israel through the institutional models of the past few decades. To ask a Gen-Yer whether he or she is a supporter of Israel, or emotionally invested in Israel, might be irrelevant. What they want to talk about is how Israel is one of many components of a Jewish identity, and how Israel affiliation can be integrated among their other core values, such as social justice, the environment and artistic expression.

And they want to feel free to be critical of Israel.