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Millennials Ask about Israel: "Is There a Generation Gap When Talking About the Jewish State?”

Millennials Ask about Israel: "Is There a Generation Gap When Talking About the Jewish State?”

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Question: As a young person, I feel like there is often a gap between how I talk about Israel and how older Jews talk about Israel because of our differences in education. My mom, for example, is uncomfortable using the word “occupation” whereas I am not. My parents’ education focused a lot more on the promises of the Zionist dream whereas mine has also included some of the failures of modern Zionism and the injustices faced by ethnic and racial minorities, religious non-Orthodox Jews, women, and Palestinians. Do you think the ongoing adult education on Israel differs from the education for the young adult community?

Answer: Your question raises several issues, and I will do my best to respond to each of them.

First, you are right to use the word “occupation” in reference to Israel’s presence in the West Bank. Virtually the entire international community, including friends and allies of Israel, sees it as an occupation. Most experts in international law define it in these terms. And much of Israel’s leadership also refers to it in this way. The late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon talked of Israel’s occupation of the territories, and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak uses this language as well.

To say that Israel occupies the West Bank is not to say that she bears sole responsibility for that occupation. I believe that most of the responsibility rests with the Palestinians, although Israel is surely not blameless.

But talking sensibly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes impossible when we separate words from their commonly accepted meaning. Instead of thoughtful discussion, we end up with semantic game-playing. This happens, for example, when terror – the killing of innocent civilians for political purposes – is not defined as terror in cases in which the victims are Israelis or Jews. This is both contrary to standard language usage and an affront to basic morality.

But for Jews and friends of Israel to make this case, they too must speak plainly and use words as they are generally understood. And the simple fact is that by any reasonable definition, Israel’s presence in the West Bank is an occupation.

Second, you reflect on how your education about Israel might have been different from that of your parents. I am sure that it was. Israel is not quite 70 years old, and for the first half of that period, Israel education in the American Jewish community focused on the heroic and miraculous elements of her founding.

This reaction was not surprising. The creation of Israel was not assured. A combination of extraordinary effort by Israel’s founders and a moment of consensus among the Great Powers following World War II brought Israel into existence. American Jews, in their study of and support for Israel, were not interested in exploring the young country’s flaws. They wanted to celebrate the miracle of her existence.

But by the 1970s, generational and political changes created a new reality. Israel had moved from the period of state-creation to state-maintenance, complicated by an occupation forced upon her by threatened Arab attacks in 1967. How was the occupation to be managed and ultimately ended? What about the absence of religious pluralism in the young state? What about prejudice directed at Israel’s Arab citizens? Just as one could not study American history without examining slavery and racism, one could not study Israel without looking at the various forms of injustice and discrimination to be found there.

Some Jewish educational institutions resisted confronting such matters. But the American Jewish community is open, pluralistic, and contentious, and there was no way to hide from young Jews the realities, both positive and negative, of Israel’s vibrant democracy. Like it or not, in synagogues, Jewish publications, and university Jewish studies programs, young people studied the issues that many of their parents and grandparents had not been exposed to or had chosen to avoid.

Finally, you ask what will happen now with Israel education. The honest answer is that I don’t know.

I applaud your generation’s insistence on seeing Israel as she really is. As I have said many times, Israel is not Disneyland or summer camp. We must be free to study her problems and criticize her government. Otherwise, it will be impossible to take her seriously and encourage appreciation of her extraordinary achievements. The real Israel is politically chaotic but a guaranteed refuge for Jews in distress; a young, stumbling democracy but a place where Jewishness can be found in the street and in the soul; a source of Jewish conflict but an address for Jewish renaissance.

But our problem in the American Jewish community is that too many of us have fallen into a trap that reflects the polarized culture in which we live. This trap is an intellectual box, characterized by inflexible thinking in which tweets are mistaken for serious debate and everyone must choose sides. On one side, Israel is (almost) always right, and on the other side, Israel is (almost) always wrong. But this is crazy. And in this atmosphere, real education is impossible, and young people will flee from the discussion – and from Israel – in disgust.

Our task – and yours – is to remedy this situation. It is to formulate an educational model that bridges the divide, rejoicing in the sovereign nation that is Israel while allowing a critical look at her policies and values. In this model, severing the bonds that tie you to Israel will not be acceptable, but disagreeing with Israel – sometimes passionately, and even vociferously – will not only be acceptable but expected. In fact, arguing with Israel’s leaders and protesting some of their policies will be a natural part of Jewish life and thought.

I hope that our generations can create this model together.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America that represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in 900 synagogues across the United States and Canada; he served as president from 1996 to 2012. He lectures and writes about Israel and the Middle East, interfaith relations, social justice, ethics, American Jewish life, and American religious life. Read his writings at ericyoffie.com.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie
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