Jewish leaders are failing our youth

Jewish leaders by always taking the middle ground, have lost their self-respect. They have failed to recognise that taking a clear pro-Israel side does not mean they have no capacity to question; it just means taking a side on an issue.

Harry Saul Markham

OpEds Zionism

It is a sad state of affairs that in the UK we have some university Jewish societies that have a no Zionist activity policy. It is shameful that Palestinian Arab demonstrations are able to attract an inordinate number of young activists, yet for many of my fellow young Jews, rather than counter this virulent antisemitism, they fight unremittingly for every social justice cause possible. 

In May 2018, this Jewish guilt hit an all-time low, when some Jewish youth in London decided to have a kaddish for dead Gazan rioters, the majority of whom were members of Hamas and other Islamist groups. When was the last time they had a Kaddish for murdered Israelis? And then even after they found out those dead were members of terrorist organisations – some participants defended it – aggressively and publicly!

Make no mistake – this is not unique to the UK, this is worldwide as a recent survey of Jews living in San Francisco’s Bay Area attests. This survey found that only 40 percent of those between the ages of 18 to 34 said they were comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state. Just over a third thought that a Jewish state was very important!

What is happening with our youth? Why are Jewish youth feeling not just an estrangement towards Zionism, but also an antipathy? How did we let this happen? What is the way forward?

In his widely read essay, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, Peter Beinart, made his name as the new poster boy of Liberal Zionism. 

Liberal Zionism is an ideology within the tent of Zionism that believes in the existence of a Jewish state, but on the condition that state is liberal and democratic as they define the terms.  

Beinart’s thesis was that the alarming indifference of American Jewish youth towards Israel and Zionism was due to what he called the Jewish and Zionist establishment’s dogmatic and unflinching approach. He says “The only kind of Zionism they [young Jews that participated in Frank Luntz’s 2003 research] found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs.” 

And thus, Beinart believes the approach to Zionism by Jewish leaders is unconscionable to the enlightened American (indeed Western) mind. 

 He warns, “If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled…” 

He is writing from an American perspective; however, I believe his principle can be applied in the Jewish diaspora.

To this extent I would agree with Mr Beinart. We are seeing a disturbing change amongst our young Jews in their relationship to Zionism and Israel. And I would agree with his view that the approach of our leaders to Zionism is either leading young Jews away or to a critique of Zionism which is full of self-doubt, if not, self-loathing.

However, I believe it is because our leaders have employed Beinart's approach to Zionism that many young Jews have abandoned it.  It is not the case that his approach will bring Jews back to Zionism; it’s a slippery slope and will only lead them astray.  

Zionism in our postmodernist world ihas been turned into a dirty word. On campuses, one can find a plethora of literature that equates Zionism with colonialism, racism and extremism.  Why should any young Jew therefore identify with such a word?

As a result, our Jewish leaders, who are concerned by the attitudes of these young Jews, feel they must answer this question – why be Zionist?

And in response, Jewish leaders have created the following:

In order to make Zionism more acceptable in this era of intellectual scrutiny, we will create a “I love Israel, but I don’t like it very much” ethos (borrowed the phrase from Amos Oz).  In short, if we criticise Israel and Zionism, this will lead young people to feel closer to it, as it will feel more socially comfortable, rather than just affirming Zionist pride.  

This is precisely what Peter Beinart is advocating. 

In my view, this is an absurdity that is condemned to fail.  The notion that Jewish students will feel more Zionist if only you criticise Israel is a nonsense.  

Take the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), the voice of Jewish students on campus. On their Israel Campaigns page, they say the following: “With UJS being one of the first diaspora Jewish organisations to support mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians, much of our work around Israel campaigns focus on advancing peace in the region and raising support for the Two State Solution.”

Likewise, the Board of Deputies (BoD), the principle voice of British Jews, states that their work to do with Israel encompasses the following areas: Peace, Security, Prosperity and Equality.

How about, UJS & BoD, some Zionist pride? Ensuring Zionism is central in the identity of young Jews? Are those not priorities?

On Tuesday 21 April, the UK Board of Deputies alongside the Jewish Leadership Council and Labour Friends of Israel,  hosted a virtual meeting with the new Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy (who also happens to be the chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East) and new Shadow Middle East Minister Wayne David.

In summarising the meeting, the BoD president said, “We were keen to stress the importance of an even-handed and constructive approach to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that seeks a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state… and clarify that her [Lisa Nandy] support for a Palestinian right of return was on the understanding of making this work in the context of a viable two-state solution...”

 “Even-handed”? Since when is the job of the BoD to be “even-handed”? In fact, according to a 2010 survey carried out by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, 90% of British Jews view Israel as  the “ancestral homeland of the Jewish people” and the BoD have as their slogan “advocacy for the community.”  For whom exactly are they advocating?

Rather than debunk the preposterous notion of a "right of return", or promote affirmative Zionism, the senior voice of British Jews endorses falsehoods to make their Zionist position seem reasonable and palatable. 

These leaders are regarded as esteemed members of our community. Is it any wonder therefore that young Jews, who look up to these leaders as role models, think to themselves why should I be a Zionist? Or if I am, why should I be proud of it?

It seems like Jewish leaders will give their full-hearted support to marginal features of Israeli culture like food and drink. My friend in the US terms this as `Hummus and Shalvata` Zionism. Whilst Israeli food or Israeli wine is certainly delicious and provides a point of social engagement, promoting Zionist culture to such a superficial level is counterproductive.  

The current strategy – such as it is - is not working.  It leads young Jews to feel either that they can have no relationship to Zionism, or only one that is riddled with doubt and guilt. Perhaps Beinart is able harmonise an unwavering Zionism with a critical mind, however I do not believe the other followers of Liberal Zionism can do the same.

It seems many have not learned the lessons from Moses Mendelsohn’s legacy. He was a major figure of 18th century Jewry, who sought to bring traditional, Torah observing Judaism out of the ghetto in order for Jews to reap the fruits of enlightenment, e.g. through translating the Hebrew Bible into German. In spite of this, he was able to maintain a strong religious identity. Though unintended by Mendelsohn, his ideas became a slippery slope for many; they gave people the incentive to take his changes further, and consequently abandon Judaism all together (4/6 of his children were baptised).

Unfortunately, as my introduction asserts, Liberal Zionism is on the same trajectory. This approach paves the way for Jews to abandon Zionism. 

I am not advocating for a non questioning, dogmatic Zionism. I believe in meaningful discussions and debates; anything otherwise would be antithetical to Jewish and Zionist values. However, I think there are two fundamental values that must be at the heart of Zionist education, Hadar and Ahavat Yisrael, in order to ensure that a critical mind does not lead to an erosion of Zionist identity.

Since I run the educational movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Herut UK, I would like to reflect on his concept of `Hadar` which means pride and self-respect. This was a defining pillar in his youth movement, Betar. 

What pride and self respect does UJS have when it refers their Real Deal trip as a trip to `Israel and Palestine` - when the Palesitnian Authority is a terror supporting entiry? What pride and self-respect does the BoD have with its `Invest in Peace` events which seems to me to end up in criticising the Jewish state? 

Why is it Jewish leaders want to be nicer than our enemies? How many Palestinian organisations in the UK fight for the British government to take an “even-handed” approach to the conflict? Not one. They fight, unapologetically and with pride, for the Palestinian Arab cause. They have self-respect. Yet Jewish leaders by having this propensity to find the middle ground, have, in my view, lost their self-respect. They have failed to recognise that taking sides does not mean you lose your capacity to question or think; it just means you’re taking a side on an issue. Period.

Perhaps these organisations ought to teach young Jews the story of Dov Gruner, Joseph Trumpeldor, Menachem Begin, Hillel Kook etc. These individuals exemplified Jewish pride. How many young Jews know their stories?  I bet your bottom shekel you would struggle to find more than a few that know their heroic and inspiring stories.

I ask, what has UJS or the BoD done to teach young Jews of stories like these? What has UJS done to teach young Jews the value of having a Jewish state? What has UJS or the BoD done to teach young Jews the importance of taking pride in our homeland?  At best, very little or nothing; at worst, they have succeeded in promoting the opposite. 

Our job, as Jews whose existence is contingent upon the survival of the Jewish state, is not to undermine our state. It is to love it.
It is therefore incumbent upon our leadership to introduce pride and self respect at the core of Zionist education. Whilst our young may have qualms with particular areas of Israeli society or policy, I believe it is our job to instil in our young people the value of having a Jewish state. And why that value is higher than our own views on Israeli policy. 

The ultimate flaw with the Beinart approach is that it puts Jew against Jew.  It insists the only way to advocate for Israel is to call out Israel’s failings and shortcomings. I do not believe we must support every policy; we are not the ambassadors of the Israeli government. Our job, as Jews whose existence is contingent upon the survival of the Jewish state, is not to undermine our state. It is to love it. And do whatever is necessary for it in the diaspora, even if we personally do not support its actions. 

As to the second principle, Ahavat Yisrael – the love of the Jewish people.  

The Jewish state has a unique purpose that no other nation state has. There is an important message that I believe has been overlooked by our leaders. 

Israel is unique in that is defined by its Jewish character. Israel has a purpose therefore that transcends passports or citizenship; its mission is to be a state for any Jew in the world. No other nation has this purpose.

And just how Israel is there for any Jew in the world, so must we Jews in the diaspora be there for Israel. 

What have our leaders done to educate young Jews on this message? What have they done to ensure Jews feel a responsibility for one another?

Rather than undertaking this fundamental educational programme, Jewish leaders, it seems, have placed a greater emphasis on social justice causes, or as I term it `interfaithism` - an obsession with inter faith meetings. Whilst I do not oppose these concepts in principle, they cannot come at the expense of Jewish interests.

If they do, as they have, then of course Jewish students are going to feel less enthusiastic about Zionism – as they see a greater reason to involve themselves in social justice causes, than they do a Zionist one.

Our leaders are not listening. 

There is one movement today that is educating young Jews on these important values – World Herut. We are a proud, grassroots unapologetic Zionist movement. We give lectures on campuses, workshops to high school students, run street stalls in public and appear on panels. 

If we, unapologetic Zionists, do not educate our youth on the importance of pride and love, who will? 

We need you. Will you join us?