Shut Out of the Pro-Israel Tent?

October 11, 2010

Rabbis and Jewish communal officials constantly wring their hands about young Jews’ disengagement from Israel. They commission studies, run focus groups, and convene meetings in an attempt to determine how they can engage my generation and ensure a lasting connection to the state of Israel.

But, sometimes, when young Jews finally enter a synagogues, attend an Israel-related event, or even attempt to have a conversation about the Middle East, they are met with the very vitriol and closed-mindedness that kept them out in the first place.

Those of us who care deeply about Israel – but are equally concerned about the path Israel is on and its future as a Jewish, democratic home – are subjected to name-calling and recrimination, told that we’ve “gone over to the dark side.”

This was never clearer than last week, when a group of young Jewish Americans was told to “get out” of a synagogue simply because we disagreed on the policies that will best achieve two states and secure Israel’s future.

J Street supporters, student activists and staff traveled to Stamford, CT for Jeremy Ben-Ami’s second debate with Alan Dershowitz. The debate was part of the annual Hoffman Lecture Series at Temple Beth El, founded to highlight the multiplicity of opinion within the Jewish community and promote respect for the ideas of others. We were hoping for an evening of open, honest, and mature debate in the spirit of both the lecture series and the synagogue’s willingness to engage on these tough issues.

Unfortunately, some audience members had other plans.

Never mind Dershowitz’s own attempts to smear and demonize J Street rather than discuss the vital issues at hand (it is, after all, only one of the most critical moments in a tenuous peace process). What broke my heart was the outright hatred directed by Jews at fellow Jews, especially young ones, who held views different than their own.

When Jeremy invited audience members to find J Street’s staff afterward, some audience members screamed: “Get out!” Later, staff members were cornered and told that we were “self-hating Jews.”

Most appallingly, a Jewish American J Street U student leader was asked: “Are you Palestinian? I’m going to spit on you.”

I can only imagine what my Holocaust survivor grandparents – who compelled me to live and study in Israel, become president of my college Hillel, and dedicate myself to working on this issue – would have said.

Make no mistake – these voices are an extreme minority. Almost all of the debate’s attendees were there to respectfully listen and learn. And the synagogue itself, its rabbi and leadership, and its congregants were gracious hosts, eager to respectfully engage on the tough issues.

But the extreme voices are often the loudest. And in the face of experiences like these, it’s no wonder many young Jews are avoiding the Israel issue altogether.

For our sake, and for Israel’s, there must be a change in how our community discusses these issues. Our failure to confront this intolerance will increasingly shrink the pro-Israel community. When you shut the door to questions and constructive debate, you effectively shut the door to young people.

But the change won’t come from a university study or a focus group. It’s must come from the community and its leaders themselves – through a willingness to stand up to demagoguery and smears, and an open-mindedness that is ready to constructively engage, even on the most difficult of issues.

Until then, I fear that most of my peers will remain outside, reluctant to engage for fear of being screamed at or spit on.

And when we’re talking about nothing less than the survival of the state of Israel, there’s too much at stake to let that happen.