Mitchell Bard 
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© Mitchell Bard 2016

Idealist Zionism

Young Jews, we are told, are less committed to Israel, more critical of Israeli policies, and more likely to be apathetic than actively pro-Israel. Worse, self-identifying liberal, progressive Jews are often associated with groups that are anti-Israel. For these young people, the word Zionism is either a dirty word, meaningless or totally unfamiliar. What has happened to this generation?

If you listen to certain Jewish critics, Israel is to blame. It’s the settlements, the treatment of the Palestinians, religious coercion, the failure to achieve peace. In truth, the older kvetches simply project their views on young Jews. As the 2011 AICE/Israel Project survey of college students showed, the overwhelming majority of young are as supportive of Israel as their parents. Still, how might we explain the small minority that is not?

A few years ago I argued that a major source of the problem is simply the lack of life experience. Given that most people don’t become politically aware until at least their late teens, most Jews who have vivid memories of the 1973 war are already in their 50s. This was the last major conventional war in which Israel faced the threat of destruction.

Jews in their 40s are more likely to remember “Israel’s Vietnam,” the first Lebanon War and the intifadas. The Lebanon War is generally seen as the first war of choice fought by Israel and the Palestinian uprisings were more like insurgencies. In both cases, Israel’s behavior was more difficult to justify and the resulting death and destruction more disconcerting, in part because Israel now appeared to be Goliath rather than David. Civilian casualties may have been unavoidable; nonetheless, they made Israel look bad and Diaspora Jews uncomfortable.

Though Israel did not face an existential threat from the Palestinians, Jews of the last generation understood that terrorism was an ongoing danger that justified Israel’s opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state. Following Israel’s recognition of the PLO in 1993, and gradual acceptance of the two-state solution, security concerns—primarily related to terrorism—remained uppermost in the minds of American Jews. Thus, the danger posed by terrorists could be used to justify Israeli measures against the Palestinians in the territories (military operations, deportations, checkpoints, demolitions, etc.) and Israel’s position on withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza, compromising on Jerusalem and disposition toward settlements.

The life experience and consequent attitudes of those under 30 are quite different. I had this epiphany when my son entered college. He was born in 1991, which means he doesn’t remember the first Gulf War, let alone anything that came before. The situation is even more serious. He did not pay attention to international affairs until he was at least 16, that is, around 2005. From that point on, few terror attacks have occurred, so he and many young Jews do not see any threat to Israel’s security.

Yes, the Hamas rocket bombardment started afterward and there was an occasional terror incident, but these were very different in character from the terror war that was waged earlier. As severe as the rocket attacks were, they did not kill many Israelis, they were not publicized by the American media, and Israel did not see them as dangerous enough to merit a serious response until Operation Cast Lead.

Some might argue that Israel is facing an even greater existential threat than ever before from Iran, but the danger is still abstract. Iran doesn’t yet have the bomb and many young Jews do not seem to take the threats of Ahmadinejad seriously. They believe that Israel can deter Iran with its own nuclear capability or oppose any military action either out of principle or on the basis of what they see as mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The implication of this lack of awareness of Israel’s security dilemmas is that young “progressive” Jews tend to blame Israel for failure to make peace with the Palestinians. After all, if Israel’s in no danger, what’s the obstacle to peace? Why not talk to Fatah or Hamas? Why not compromise on territory and divide Jerusalem? If Israel is Goliath, shouldn’t we support the underdog Palestinians? Isn’t it up to the stronger party to take the initiative? If Israelis can’t do what’s best for the country, shouldn’t the United States force them to do the right thing?

If you take security out of the equation, then the principal concern becomes an image of fairness and propriety. The Palestinians have a legitimate claim to the land, so it’s only fair that Israel share the territory. The whole world says that settlements are illegal, so they should be removed. Why should Israel rule over Palestinians? They have a right to self-determination.

If you believe all of these ideas, then you certainly would be upset if Israeli actions harm Palestinians who pose no threat and deserve justice.

Some young Jews also have internalized the “yes, we can” optimism captured by Barack Obama’s campaign slogan. They believe peace is possible if Israel makes compromises. They might not know exactly which steps are necessary, but because they do have an affinity for Israel, and see Israel as the stronger party, they believe it is the Israelis rather than the Palestinians who should do what is right.

What I’ve described so far applies primarily to a small minority of young Jews who are often ill-informed, have little Jewish life experience and suffer from a youthful naiveté.

The problem with the broader population of young Jews is at least partly the fault of their parents and educators. By too often presenting Israel through rose-colored glasses, we have given young Jews a false image of Israel, one they have learned to recognize as, at best, incomplete. We have taught a form of heroic Zionism that portrays Israelis more as superhumans than humans. The problem is not that young Jews are not open to Zionism; it is that they do not recognize older forms of Zionism.

Older generations have focused on the security issue often to the exclusion of Israeli domestic affairs and, hence, overlooked Israel’s shortcomings. Young Jews’ idealism, however, extends beyond the peace process to domestic issues. This generation believes that if any nation should exemplify their ideals it is Israel and they are upset when the media, Israeli NGOs or Israel’s detractors alert them to Israel’s imperfections. By contrast, their elders tend to be angrier with the messengers than the message. Unlike the older generation, young Jews don’t want to sweep Israel’s flaws under the rug out of fear of giving Israel’s enemies ammunition; they want to discuss them, to demand that the problems be resolved and to be part of the solutions.

For example, many from this generation choose to spend their breaks from school working for social justice or engaging in public service projects all around the world. Rather than harness this energy to help Israelis who are poor, homeless, illiterate, abused or suffering in some way, Jewish organizations have mostly directed these students to every corner of the planet other than Israel. This is a wasted opportunity to connect these socially conscious students with Israel. I have proposed that more programs be created for students to do service projects in Israel or, as a second best alternative, to work in third countries beside Israelis (e.g., in cooperation with Israeli foreign aid workers sent to Asia, Africa and elsewhere). Some programs along these lines exist, and others are in development and should be encouraged.

Just as the failure to understand threats to Israel’s security leads to sometimes naive perceptions of the difficulties in achieving peace, the lack of knowledge about Israel’s domestic politics can result in young people feeling disenchanted with Israel and unaware of the broader context in which these problems exist. Those who are uninformed or misinformed tend to see only Israel’s blemishes whereas, with some education, young Jews can appreciate Israel warts and all.

Beyond the core belief that Jews are a nation entitled to self-determination in their homeland, which is Israel, Jews have always found different ways to express their Zionism. Young Jews are simply adding their own brand of Zionism to the religious, socialist, cultural, political, and other flavors of the past. As my colleague Sybil Ottenstein has written, her generation’s Zionism is rooted in idealism, the belief that now that Jews have achieved statehood, they must perfect that state. Rather than survival issues, Idealist Zionists are focused on human rights in Israel, especially those pertaining to women, Arabs and other minorities; wealth distribution and the plight of the poor; the environment and religious pluralism. Just as past forms of Zionism often clashed with each other, it is not surprising that Idealist Zionists are also at odds with older streams.

Rather than trying to somehow convert the Idealist Zionists into one of those older flavors of Zionism, the challenge is to engage the adherents to this new flavor and to help them pursue their idealism within the context of Israel’s security dilemma and domestic constraints. One way to do this is to teach what Haifa University Professor Hanan Alexander calls “Mature Zionism.” This is essentially exposing students to the full range of life in Israel today, which includes heroic stories of Israel’s founding and survival against the odds; the socialist and democratic traditions of the state; the ingathering of exiles; the Jewish beliefs that are the foundation of the state and the biblical/historic connection of the Jewish people to the land; the film, literature, dance and other culture unique to Israel; the ongoing security threats and examples of how Israel is falling short of its goals to provide for the needs of all its citizens and to protect their civil, religious and human rights.

This is not a lost generation; it is a cohort of passionate Jews that is choosing its own path to identify with Israel. It is a generation with the desire and goal to make Israel live up to its role as a light unto the nations. If this energy can be harnessed and given a gentle bit of direction, this generation may be the greatest of all.