As we send our kids on Birthright, teach them the Hebrew songs and hope they remain attached to Israel, let’s make sure that they cherish Israel’s democracy as well as its existence.
With the media abuzz over whether or not Israel’s government is committed to a two-state solution, there is much concern, understandably, over the direction Israel is heading.
It is now almost a truism to admit that without embarking aggressively on negotiations leading to a two-state solution, Israel will face two choices: create a one-state framework, thereby foregoing the dream of a Jewish state, or entrench an apartheid system and risk intensified global pariah status or another — and likelier even more violent — Palestinian uprising.
Against the backdrop of the Israeli government’s protean intentions, my mind is turning to my fellow Diaspora Jews, and specifically the next generation. When it comes to the issue of Israel’s future, to what are young Diaspora Jews committed?
Consider the 2007 landmark study of attitudes toward Israel among Jews under 35, conducted by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman. To the statement “if Israel were destroyed, I would feel as if I had suffered one of the greatest personal tragedies of my life,” 64% either agreed or agreed strongly. Among respondents 65 and up, the response hovered near 80%.
While the “distancing hypothesis” has been vigorously debated ever since by social scientists and methodologists, the idea that young Jews are becoming even slightly more ho-hum about Israel’s existence has been alarming to many.
But with so much focus on whether Diaspora Jews feel attached to Israel, how much attention is being paid to the kind of Israel to which Diaspora Jews are being inculcated to feel attached? Would it be a personal tragedy for these young Jews if Israel ceased to be a democracy?
Young Diaspora Jews are right to feel confused about Israel, even more so in the six years since Cohen and Kelman’s study was conducted. With Stephen Hawking’s recent boycott of Israel, and Alice Walker taking Alicia Keys to task for not doing the same, tension over the everyday global citizen’s relationship to the Jewish state is cresting. Leading the charge on college campuses is the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement.
One way Jewish leaders seem to want young Jews to express their attachment for Israel is by becoming proficient in Israel advocacy. Fair enough. And there is one area where Israel’s supporters can point young Diaspora Jews in the direction of rebutting Israel’s harshest critics. But without those same young Jews reciprocating in kind, the rebuttal will remain morally hollow, and the next generation’s commitment to a democratic Israel will be at risk.
First, here is where the rebuttal can happen. When pushed about what their ultimate goals are for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many BDS advocates declare that they are agnostic about one state or two.
Jews who care about Israel are well within their right to call out BDS’ers on this. Being agnostic about one state or two is code for saying that one has no intrinsic respect for Israel’s self-described mission as enabling Jewish self-determination on the world stage. To many observers, this kind of BDS activism, while it may be motivated by a sense of social justice, appears one-sided. It appears two-dimensional. It’s missing an empathic strand for one party to the conflict. (Many BDS activists will no doubt bristle at my phrasing of it being a “conflict” between two “parties,” accusing me of ignoring a colonial aspect which for them looms largest.)
But if Diaspora Jews are frustrated by BDS activists denying Israel the right to uphold Jewish national sovereignty, then there is another thing they must do: they must boldly and steadfastly declare that when it comes to the question of Palestinian national freedom, they are not agnostic. They must speak out against a continuing status quo that denies Palestinians their basic rights just as it erodes Israeli democracy.
Yes, these Jewish youth have grown up hearing the tired mantras that instead of “land for peace” there should be “peace for peace,” and that there is no partner for peace among the Palestinians. But seriously enabling a Palestinian state does not have to be the zero-sum game that cynics have painted it. Our youth need to be taught this too.
Pushing Israel to return to the negotiating table with the aim of ending the occupation and allowing a contiguous Palestinian state to flourish is a win-win situation. It restores whatever shred of collective Palestinian dignity is left after 46 years of military rule. And it preserves Israel as a democratic homeland worth the Diaspora’s continued attachment.
As we send our kids on Birthright, teach them the Hebrew songs we once sang, and hope they remain attached to Israel, let’s make sure that Israel’s democracy — not only its brute existence — is something they cherish as much as a night spent with friends dancing across Dizengoff, waiting for the sun to rise over their imagined homeland.
Published with permission from the author.