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Bridging the Jewish Generational Gap

The first step is to realize that the person on the other side is not stupid or evil but rather someone who has been exposed to different perspectives during a very different type of life than our own.
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May 10, 2021
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The natural impulse for old people, when confronted with young people who are wrong, is to correct them. The natural impulse for young people, when confronted with old people who are wrong, is to ignore them. But when the matters of disagreement relate to the future of a Jewish homeland, there is something to be gained by resisting those natural impulses.

Last week, I wrote about the alarming drop-off in support for Israel among younger Jewish Americans and promised to return this week with some thoughts on possible reasons for that shift. Polling by the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State-LA showed that among Jewish voters in Los Angeles County, the youngest generation was both the least enthusiastic in their support for Israel and the least invested in Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

More specifically, the poll showed that 31% of the 18-29 year old age group said that they were “generally not pro-Israel.” All other age groups ranked between 7% and 13% on that question. A similar generational imbalance emerged on whether Israel must remain a Jewish state. Thirty-eight percent of 18-29 year olds in the survey said that Israel’s existence as a Jewish state was not important to them, almost double the size of that response from all other age groups.

Before rushing into a predictable and mostly useless generational debate, let’s first consider some reasons that Millennial and Generation Z Jews have developed such dramatically different feelings about Israel than their parents and grandparents.

First and most importantly, young people are younger. There are still many members of our community whose formative memories of Israel are from 1948 and the country’s official rebirth. For many others, it was the existential threats of 1968 and 1973 that permanently seared Israel’s vulnerability into our collective consciousness. But by definition, no current 18-29 year old was alive for those seminal events. And their perceptions have been influenced by more recent events, in which Israel has been portrayed by many of their peers as an aggressor rather than a victim. Older Jews still think of Israel as David. Younger people are much more likely to see the nation as Goliath, with predictable attitudinal results.

Young people also tend to be less religious. The United States has become steadily more secular over the years, as young people of all faiths have turned away from organized religion in growing numbers. The Brown Institute poll showed that more observant Jews unsurprisingly tended to be more supportive of Israel and (even less surprisingly) committed to Israel as a Jewish state. So it stands to reason that a less religious younger generation would come to different conclusions.

Young people in the United States today also now represent the most left-leaning generation in the electorate. They voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in last year’s election by landslide proportions, after leaning heavily toward Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during the Democratic primary. The Brown Institute’s poll also showed that self-described conservatives were much stronger supporters of Israel. Small wonder that the most progressive generation feels otherwise.

Telling people with different life experiences, formative memories and political and religious beliefs how wrong they are is rarely a successful persuasive tactic. But for those of us — of all ages — who believe in the safety, security and future of Israel, ignoring those disagreements is just as an untenable. The challenge is how to engage in these conversations without sabotaging them before they begin.

But for those of us who believe in the safety, security and future of Israel, ignoring those disagreements is just as an untenable.

The first step is to realize that the person on the other side is not stupid or evil but rather someone who has been exposed to different perspectives during a very different type of life than our own. That realization can be followed by an effort to explain the origins of our own beliefs while resisting the temptation to demonize those who don’t share them. There is no guarantee that a mutually respectful conversation will lead to rapprochement, but it is certain that a mutually disdainful conversation will not.

These encounters are not going to be easy. It’s much more comfortable to remain in an ideological cul-de-sac in which those with opposing views are not permitted. But the most likely outcome of that more comfortable approach is further inter-generational acrimony and a gradual diminution of support for Israel as the years pass. Maybe it’s worth the effort to try something different — with a healthy dose of listening rather than simply lecturing.


Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

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