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For Many Young American Jews, The Very Idea of a “Jewish” State Seems an Anachronism

Allan C. Brownfeld
Special Interest Report
August 2010

A study by social scientists Ari Kelman and Steven M. Cohen found that among American-Jews, each new generation is more alienated from Israel than the one before. Among American Jews born after 1980, only 54 percent feel “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.” The reason, Cohen explained, is an aversion to “hard group boundaries” and to the notion “that there is a distinction between Jews and everybody else.”  
For many younger American Jews, the very idea of a state calling itself “Jewish” is antithetical. Writing in The Forward (June 18, 2010), Max Strasser, a freelance journalist now living in Cairo, Egypt, notes that, “Liberal young American Jews are growing increasingly distant from Israel ... I have a strong Jewish identity ... I attend services (albeit sporadically), fast on Yom Kippur and keep kosher for Passover. I fully intend, to raise my children Jewish. Yet, identification with the State of Israel is not an important part of my identity, and I feel comfortable criticizing Israel when I see its injustices.”  
Strasser writes that, “When we see the military occupation of the West Bank entering its 44th year and an assault on Gaza that looked grossly disproportionate, when we hear about home demolitions and discriminatory immigration laws, when we see Israeli naval commandos kill nine people who were part of a flotilla bringing aid to a territory under siege, we view the situation through pretty much the same prism as we view other international conflicts and issues. Our commitment to human rights does not grant an exemption to a country simply because three quarters of its inhabitants share our ethno-religious background.”  
Beyond this, writes Strasser, “... there’s something else, and I’m afraid this is going to be a hard pill for the older generation to swallow: the idea of a state that is officially defined as ‘Jewish’ is in conflict with the worldviews of many in my generation. Americans my age are a globalized group ... most college students I know spent at least a semester studying abroad. The Internet allows us to access global perspectives ... The public schools I attended celebrated diversity. ‘All people are equal’ was drilled into our heads ... A state that is predicated on ethnic nationalism, a state that privileges one group of citizens over another because of ethnic identity, as Israel does through its policies on housing, immigration and a number of other issues, is not a state that will be whole-heartedly embraced by young American Jews like me.”  
Columnist Jay Michaelson, writing in The Forward (July 9, 2010) points out that, “There are hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of Jews who say that the State of Israel should not exist as a Jewish state in its current form. Does the Jewish community (as represented by its federations, funders, synagogues and other establishment institutions) want to include them? Or does the community want to say that their opinions are too far beyond the pale of where we are as a community? ... Of course this ... begs the question of who calls the shots — that is, who the ‘we’ is. Who determines what the ‘Jewish community’ stands for? We don’t actually take a vote of everyone who identifies as Jewish, right? In practice, we heavily weight the votes of those who affiliate more, organize more and, of course, write big checks ...”  
In Michaelson’s view, there is one other value in play, that of “continuity.” He writes: “Surely it should be clear that the increasing black-or-white, with-us-or-against-us nature of American Jewish life is going to be a loser for the Jewish people, even if it is a winner for Israel. If we present younger, less-affiliated college students with a black-or-white choice, either for us or against us, they’re going to choose against us ... Yes, some percentage will eat falafel and wave Israeli flags. But my bet is that more of those who find themselves on the fence, if we build that fence higher, will topple over to the other side.”  
Michaelson concludes that the “for us or against us” group “is harming Israel’s interests in the long run, too. Because while the Jewish community may be tighter, more unified and more supportive of Israel as a result of excluding those whose views are too treyf, one thing is for sure: It will definitely be smaller.” •

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.