Jewish Americans see generational split on Israel-Palestine

Establishment leadership refuses to change tactics despite younger generation's skepticism of Israel's peace commitment

A new generation of Jewish Americans feel attached to their Jewish identities, but don't equate this to a connection to Israel as strongly as older generations do, a Pew study found.
Katherine FreyThe Washington Post/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — In an eatery here, 28-year-old Israeli human rights activist Avner Gvaryahu described the first time he came face to face with a Palestinian.

He was 19 and serving in the Israel Defense Forces when his unit invaded the home of a Palestinian family in the dead of night. They were there to perform a “straw widow,” a raid during which soldiers forcibly seize control of a Palestinian civilian home.

“This is the reality of the occupation,” said Gvaryahu, now the Jewish diaspora coordinator for the Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence, which, using the testimony of veterans such as himself, educates the Israeli public about military tactics and abuses in the occupied territories.

“This is the story of my generation,” said Gvaryahu, who said only a small fraction of Israelis serve in combat units in the West Bank. “No one knows about it. They don’t really understand what we’re asked to do.”

He was on tour for Breaking the Silence’s book “Our Harsh Logic,” the timing of which coincided with the publication of the Pew Research Center’s major survey of Jewish American attitudes. The survey showed an increasing secularization of American Jews, and decreasing affiliation with synagogues and organized religion, a phenomenon that exists within American Christianity as well. It also tracked changes in Jewish American attitudes to Israel.

While 30 percent of respondents professed to be very attached to Israel and 39 percent said they felt “somewhat” attached, 31 percent answered that they felt not very or not at all attached to Israel. Asked whether caring about Israel was an "essential" part of being Jewish, 43 percent answered in the affirmative. And the Pew researchers noted a demographic shift: “Older Jews are more likely than younger Jews to see caring about Israel as an essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” the study noted, with more than half of respondents over 65 believing that caring about Israel was an essential part of their Jewish identity, whereas only 32 percent of respondents under 30 shared that belief.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only 38 percent of respondents believed the Israeli government was “making a sincere effort” to bring about a peace agreement, although a mere 12 percent believed the Palestinian leadership was doing so. But, again, there was a generational divide in the answers: Among 18- to 29-year-olds, only 26 percent said the current Israeli government was making a sincere effort; among those 65 and older, that number jumped to 45 percent.

Leaders of major American Jewish organizations told The Jewish Daily Forward that the results would not change their approach, and that the survey's respondents did not represent their constituency.

“You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Forward. “I’m not going to follow this.”

'King with no followers'?

Foxman's response prompted criticism within the Jewish community, with some questioning whether organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) represent a broad American Jewish consensus or a narrower base of funders and supporters.

Zachary Parker, a junior at the University of Illinois and a member of J Street U, the university arm of the liberal pro-Israel advocacy group J Street, said Foxman’s comment “reminds me of a parable I once heard about a king with no followers.”

Jacob Plitman, president of the J Street U national student board, said it is “troubling for us to see Abe Foxman say he’s not interested in what we think.”

Foxman was not immediately available for comment, according to Anti-Defamation League spokesman Todd Gutnick.

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute-North America, a prominent hub of Jewish research and education, said the “anxiety” exhibited by the leaders of the establishment organizations was telling. Kurtzer said the survey’s findings could signal a “significant change.”

If they hold over time, he said, “it would mean that the notion that AIPAC is a much stronger voice politically, for instance, than J Street could be a short-term phenomenon.”

Kurtzer said that if younger Jews “stay committed, but interested in a different political approach, I don’t know what that will look like for the major organizations that have spoken on behalf of the community for so long.”

These establishment groups, said Brent Sasley, a political scientist and expert on Jewish identity at the University of Texas at Arlington, are “accepted by the government and other organizations as the official interlocutor for the Jewish community. There is this institutional setup, but … it does not seem that these organizations represent the broader grassroots.”

Rabbi Alana Suskin, director of strategic communications for Americans for Peace Now, said the survey’s findings did not surprise her, as they were consistent with other polling over the years.

“The numbers are pretty clear that the American Jewish public is strongly opposed to settlements, that we are not in favor of ongoing conflict, that we believe a peace agreement can be reached,” she said.

The survey asked respondents whether they believed ongoing settlement building helps or hurts Israel’s security. While 44 percent said it hurts, that number increased to 50 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds.

Plitman described those numbers as “a pretty significant validation for us.”

Criticism vs. 'anti-Israel'

Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, also said the poll numbers were not surprising, based on conversations he said take place in the Boston Jewish community.

The survey is just “one data point,” said Burton, noting that it didn’t address other relevant questions, including the Palestinian right of return or self-determination, the status of Jerusalem or control of the Temple Mount.

“We could be having a much more interesting conversation about what those mean,” he said.

The survey also offered validation of the idea that criticizing Israel is acceptable for Jewish Americans; 89 percent of respondents answered that a person can be Jewish and be "strongly critical of Israel."

“To the extent that there is a lingering idea in the American Jewish community that criticism of specific governmental policies is the same thing as being anti-Israel,” said Mark Pelavin, senior adviser to the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the survey “gives empirical support (to the idea that) people hold both of those notions in their mind at once.”

When it comes to younger Jews, Pelavin said, making “support for Israel an all-or-nothing game” is a “losing proposition.”

Rachel Cohen, a senior at Johns Hopkins University who started the J Street U chapter on her campus two years ago, said leaders in the Jewish community “need to be much more open to pluralistic views of how people want to define Judaism and Jewish life and their relationship to Israel.”

To dismiss the survey results, she said, “is a real missed opportunity to think about why so many students are turning away from the Jewish community and getting involved in Israel advocacy.”

Plitman, the J Street U student board president, said his own Judaism “has been wrapped up in my commitment to Israel since I was about 11.”

Now a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Plitman said that as a freshman he had been involved in AIPAC but that it “didn’t allow me to address issues that concerned me,” particularly the settlements.

“We have to see our attachment to Israel reflect our larger values,” he said.

Gvaryahu, the Israeli human rights activist, observed that the Pew survey also showed that some American Jews “are building a Jewish identity separate to Israel.”

As that connection weakens, he said, there will be a decreasing reason “to connect to a place where parts of it are very racist and (in) parts of it inequality is extremely clear.” But, he added, “that’s where I say — for my sake, not for your sake as Americans, but for my sake — we need your help.”

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