I am, as I write this, about to depart for a lecture tour to the United States. While I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the Jewish scene across the Atlantic, this time, I am going with some trepidation because there is a new Jewish reality in the Diaspora.
Most audiences I will address will be comprised of older folks, whose Jewish historical memory of Israel is pretty well fine-tuned. The establishment of the state of Israel, the Six Day War, the Soviet Jewry movement, the Yom Kippur War, Entebbe, the pre-Intifada terrorism like Ma’alot, Zion Square, the Savoy Hotel and Lod Airport, the peace accord with Egypt, the continued expansion of the settlement enterprise, the first Lebanon War, Sabra and Shatilla, the first Intifada, the Oslo Accords that witnessed the famous handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the peace agreement with Jordan, the Persian Gulf War, the liberation of Russian Jews, the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, Rabin’s assassination — all these seminal events are very much alive for an older generation of American Jews.
However, only the latter few of these milestones — along with the second Intifada, the Gaza disengagement, the Second Lebanon War and the war in Gaza — resonate with the 30-something generation of Jews. As for those even younger, they have been forced to relate to Israel, not with nostalgia, but with negativity, as they contend with a hostile environment toward Israel on many college campuses. The vast majority of these young Jews does not possess any Jewish historical perspective or has had any personal interaction with Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sophomoric speech before the U.N. General Assembly did not alleviate matters. In response to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, his puerile lecture on the systematic destruction of a third of the Jewish people was embarrassing, cheapening the tragedy, as if his brandishing maps of the Birkenau-Auschwitz concentration camp needed to be demonstrated to a world community that clearly recognizes the horrors of Nazism and who consider the Iranian president a racist idiot.
Equating Nazis with Hamas reinforced the current view among the social and intellectual elite in America that Israel, in the name of eternal justice for the crimes of Adolf Hitler, feels it can exact vengeance with unyielding force against anyone who threatens the Jewish state.
Netanyahu gave credence to the nefarious claim that the Palestinians are unjustly suffering for the crimes committed against the Jews by Europeans. Most young Jews are not only unaware of the ancient historical ties of the Jews to the land of Israel, but also don’t know that modern Zionism preceded the advent of the Holocaust by 50 years. Also, unknown to them is that after World War I, the Middle East was ruled by England and France, with Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon arbitrarily created by international fiat.
And so, I will arrive in the States to address essentially two different Jewish communities: an older one whose emotional tear ducts and Jewish pocketbooks equally open up at the very mention of Israel being a besieged state, and a younger one whose view of Israel is emblazoned with images of separation fences, perceived aggressive wars in Lebanon and Gaza, checkpoints, blockades, political corruption and religious fanaticism. Many of the over-60 crowd, who will attend my presentations, view themselves as American Jews while the younger generation sees itself as Jewish Americans — if that.
We can no longer sweep under the rug the ever-widening generation gap that exists within the Diaspora Jewish community. When speaking to adult audiences, I will continue to play upon their Jewish identity, often defined by the unconditionally positive relationship they have with Israel. However, with the younger generation, I will address the issues on Israel that are not only a cause for the fierce battering with which they feel continually confronted, but that are a matter of grave concern to them as well, as they have been taught that the Jewish state would be a bastion of freedom and enlightenment — a country whose ideals are a reflection of a prophetic vision of social justice, equality and humanity.
One builds support for Israel not by categorically denying criticism — even if much of it is unbalanced and unfair — but rather by dealing with it honestly and openly. We must prick young Jews’ moral conscience, inviting them to engage in a frank dialogue based on their subconscious sensitivity to Jewish values.
At the same time, we should insist that they call to task Israel’s detractors for their too often unwarranted condemnation, all the while hypocritically ignoring the contemptuous actions of so many other countries around the globe, including the murderous acts of Palestinians aimed not only at Israelis, but also at their own people.
Just because Israel sometimes behaves in ways that indicate serious moral defects does not mean that it should be the only country whose very existence is constantly called into question.
David Forman is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.