J Street: It’s a generational thing

J Street: It’s a generational thing

For a while there I could understand why people disagreed with J Street, but I couldn’t figure out why the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group enraged them so.

I think I’m figuring it out.

As an upstart alternative to the mighty American Israel Public Affairs Committee, J Street aims to be a voice for American Jews who want the United States to take a more assertive role in the Mideast peace process. They resist the idea of unquestioning support of Israel’s sitting government, and feel the settlement movement is fast destroying the possibility of a two-state solution.

It’s easy to see why a good chunk of the American-Jewish community, especially its leadership class, disagrees with these positions. For many veteran pro-Israel activists, American “assertiveness” means unacceptable pressure on Israel. AIPAC’s policy has long been to reflect (sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes not so much) the policies and positions of Israel’s elected government — Israeli voters, after all, have to live with the consequences of their government’s actions. As for the settler movement: Some organizations support the settlers outright; others insist the emphasis on settlements obscures the real issue, which they say is Palestinian intransigence and incitement.

But as J Street followers gathered in Washington this week for their first-ever conference, critics didn’t just disagree with their politics. A few began a campaign to tar the group as anti-Israel at worst, naive and dangerous at best. J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami had to defend not just his positions, but deny assertions that his goal was to undermine the Jewish state.

What accounts for this sort of anger, especially when it extends beyond the reliably intolerant activists who have never brooked dissent?

I think it’s a generational thing.

I keep going back to something Ben-Ami said in James Traub’s much-talked-about profile of J Street in The New York Times Magazine. Here’s the paragraph:

The average age of the dozen or so [J Street] staff members is about 30. Ben-Ami speaks for, and to, this post-Holocaust generation. “They’re all intermarried,” he says. “They’re all doing Buddhist seders.” They are, he adds, baffled by the notion of “Israel as the place you can always count on when they come to get you.” 

As soon as I read this, I understood that he was speaking broadly about the generation of Jews attracted to J Street, not the J Street staff per se. Nevertheless, many readers ignored that distinction, and started blogging that J Street was staffed by indifferent Jews who didn’t care enough about Judaism to marry within the faith.

Last week, in an interview with Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, Ben-Ami insisted the paragraph was misleading, and that he had sought a retraction from the Times. “What I said is that the young generation of Jews is a different generation, and all that,” he told Goldberg. “No one is intermarried in my office!”

And from there the interview entered what Goldberg called “Seinfeldian” territory, as Ben-Ami quickly added, “There’s nothing wrong with intermarriage.” A 1984 graduate of Princeton, Ben-Ami is of the generation that has seen intermarriage morph from taboo to norm. In the past 20 years, mainstream Jewish movements have either embraced interfaith families (Reform) or pledged to be more welcoming (Conservative). Ben-Ami says his friends who are intermarried are “searching for welcoming Jewish communities.” How welcoming they should be is a mainstream Jewish discussion.

And it’s part of a wider discussion about the dissolving boundaries between Jew and gentile, Jewish and Other. Younger, non-Orthodox Jews are fluid in their identities, often proudly Jewish but part of a world in which multiple religious and ethnic identities are the norm.

Not surprisingly, Israel plays a much different role for this generation than it did for their parents and grandparents. In a study called “Beyond Distancing,” Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kleiman showed how age is directly related to Israel attachment over the entire age range, and how younger adult Jews are less attached to Israel than older generations. A major factor in their study: the increasing number of intermarried Jews among the young.

For J Street’s critics, the group’s rise, like that of intermarriage itself, is evidence of weakening Jewish bonds among the young and an eroding sense of Jewish peoplehood. According to these critics, those most likely to push the “peace” platform are weakly identified Jews to begin with who won’t suffer or sweat the failure of their misguided policies.

For J Street’s champions, its followers represent a more multidimensional, less reflexively tribal identity. They are more open to new ideas and influences. Unlike a generation scarred by the Holocaust or weighted down by myths of Israeli infallibility and insecurity, they are able to see the situation with more clarity and less ethnic defensiveness than their elders.

Both sides have a point.

J Street’s membership no doubt includes Jews of all ages; Peace Now itself was founded over 30 years ago. But it owes a lot of its buzz and potential to the way it appeals to Jews who have questioned their elders’ boundaries (literally and figuratively) and assumptions. The debate over J Street is not just over Israel, but over how to be Jewish.

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