I am making, or may even have completed, a metamorphosis that we all sometimes fear but will inevitably undergo. I have become my parent — either one — concerned whether my children and their children, representative of the next generations, will have the benefits of the world I grew up in and whether their interests and values will be similar to mine.
One of my areas of concern is Israel.
I am five years older than the State of Israel. Its birth came at the beginning of my formative years. Israel was an integral part of my Jewish education through high school.
As more American Jews become secular and intermarry, what happens to their identification as Jews and their relationship to Eretz Yisrael?
In the American Jewish Committee’s 2017 survey of American-Jewish opinion, 50 percent of respondents said they had not been to Israel. When asked whether “Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew,” 72 percent strongly or somewhat agreed. Asked whether being Jewish was very or somewhat important to their life, 80 percent said yes.
I was surprised to see that despite over 70 percent of American Jews stating that Israel is a very or somewhat important part of being a Jew, only about 50 percent had been to Israel. I understand that part of this has to do with personal finances, but if you have the wherewithal to spend a week in the Caribbean or take a 10-day cruise every year, going to Israel would not seem much of a financial push as much as a decision made on preferences.
I further appreciate American-Jewish ambivalence toward Israel. Despite my exposure to Israel, in my early adult years I had difficulty making a connection. I had problems with Israelis, whom I found demanding. They seemed quick to criticize diaspora Jews and quick to ask for financial support. I supported Israel, but I was not an advocate.
That changed when I was 45 and was invited to join an Israel Bonds anniversary mission to Israel. It was an epiphany on many levels. I went to places I previously had only read about, saw history in context, learned about Middle East geopolitics, and had emotional experiences at Yad Vashem and the Kotel.
And I learned about the psychological make-up of Israelis.
The moment it all came together was when we toured the area of the Kinneret to learn about the importance of water to Israel and the region. We were in the Golan Heights, looking down on the sea and the Hula Valley. There, 10 meters from the headwaters of the Kinneret and a pumping station, was an old Syrian machine gun pillbox. Others dotted the hill.
It hit me: Imagine having to live in the shadow of this gun emplacement. What sort of life would it be and what type of person does it take to live there? The words “Never again” took on a different meaning.
I have been back to Israel many times, including a stint with the Sar-El volunteer corps during the First Gulf War, to celebrate my daughter’s bat mitzvah at Masada, and as a member of a mission after 9/11.
I personally can attest to the commitment to Israel that a physical presence evokes. This is why I commend philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman for establishing the Taglit-Birthright Israel program to expose young Jews to their Jewish heritage through sponsored trips to Israel. To date, some 500,000 Jewish youths have gone to Israel through the program.
But some Jews do not see the Birthright program as a good thing. “The Algemeiner” journal reports that two efforts to erode American support for Israel have been launched over the last six months by the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) with financial backing from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
With the start of the fall college semester, JVP rolled out its #ReturnTheBirthright campaign, boycotting Birthright “because it is fundamentally unjust that we are given a free trip to Israel, while Palestinian refugees are barred from returning to their homes.” JVP’s claim is wrong on many levels and is tantamount to Palestinian propaganda.
To demonstrate JVP’s mindset, in April it rolled out its “Deadly Exchange” campaign partially blaming cooperation between American and Israeli law enforcement officials for “discriminatory and repressive policing” against people of color in both countries, and condemned “U.S.-based Jewish organizations” for “making this deadly exchange possible.” ADL strongly denounced this allegation.
As you can see, there is a battle for the minds and hearts of the next generation of American Jews. Education and positive personal experiences are the best tools for making sure the next generation advocates for Eretz Yisrael.