I stood for several more hours in the harsh mid-day sun, my reddening neck and nose betraying my Lithuanian heritage, to ask more Birthright participants what they thought about the conflict. Admittedly, the sample size was small. But it didn’t seem like Diaspora Jews were thinking very much about the conflict or even about Israel. They seemed interested mostly in having a good time. And that was all the American Jewish establishment expected of them.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Orthodox Union all identify support for Israel as a tenet or value of their respective movements. The Jewish establishment expects Diaspora Jews to unequivocally support Israel. Many articulate this support as “engagement” or the building of a “relationship” with the state of Israel. But what is the content of that engagement? What is the substance of that relationship?
I want (and I think I can speak for other critically-minded young Diaspora Jews when I say this) a meaningful engagement with Israel – one in which I can recognize Israel’s beautiful sites but criticize its political faults. I want a mature relationship with Israel – one in which I can lovingly celebrate its culture but denounce (even harshly) its unjust policies. As a practicing Jew I cannot deny Israel without denying my tradition, my heritage, and my culture. But the Jewish establishment’s enforcement of a rigid party line of uncritical support for Israel makes it hard for me and other young Jews to feel comfortable in the community. I want something more than blind support for Israel. I am not satisfied with a connection to Israel that consists of nothing more than memories of exotic foods, good-looking people, and kitschy, prefabricated spiritual moments.
The Jewish establishment isn’t ready to let young Jews build their own nuanced ways of relating to their Jewish identities. Consequently, it risks losing out on playing any role in shaping the identities of young Jews – even the ones who go on Birthright trips. If there are strict limits on what can and cannot be said, then they will be less likely to “engage”. If they are expected to connect to Israel only on a superficial level, they will be less likely to commit to building a “relationship”.
Long before this year, I was asked countless times: why do you think you have the right to criticize a country you don’t live in? When other young, diaspora Jews are asked the same question, they won’t respond by deciding to move here for a year to live and learn about Israeli society. They will answer that question with another set of questions: Why should I support a country I don’t live in? Why should I relate to a country whose language I don’t speak? Why should I engage with a place I’ve only been to once or twice? And those questions threaten the continuity of the Zionist project far more than any protest or interruption of Naftali Bennett’s speech.