Stop selling and start channeling

After 1967, support for Israel came to dominate American Jewish public life and politics and represented a unifying element that most American Jews held in common. That support tended to be unconditional and uncritical, especially during the two decades following the Six-Day War when being pro-Israel became central to the American Jewish “civil religion.”

As has been documented in numerous studies, however, younger American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal in their politics, tending to be more “dovish” than older generations in their attitudes toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In the weeks and months following Oct. 7, a broad array of young American Jews have continued to express their dissonance through group letters and individual statements.

In December, for instance, more than 500 staff members from over 140 Jewish organizations across the country signed an open letter to President Joe Biden with the following message: “Our organizations may or may not join the call for a ceasefire themselves, but we feel moved to speak as individuals to demonstrate broad support within the Jewish community for a cease-fire.” 

Alumni from Charles E. Smith Day School in Rockville, Md., issued an even more critical statement concerning Israel’s actions:

“We feel deeply to our core the indelible generational trauma of the Holocaust. Instead of approaching historical and current Jewish oppression as exceptional, however, we believe we must extend the lesson of ‘Never Again’ to oppressed communities across the globe, and especially in this moment, to Palestinians undergoing a war fueled by genocidal intent, supposedly in the name of our safety.”

To be clear, dissonance about Israeli policy is not a novel product of the present conflict between Hamas and Israel. In 2022, for instance, the American Jewish Committee shared survey findings that 53% of U.S. Jews between the ages of 25-40 reported feeling connected to Israel, and that those who reported otherwise fell into two camps: 

“First are those who have disengaged over disagreements with Israel’s policies. Second are those who fear social ostracization driven by both blatant and casual antisemitism, which is being fueled by anti-Israel sentiments among their peers… There is a vocal cadre of American millennial Jews who have publicly denounced Israel and Zionism and point to the 2014 Gaza War as a breaking point. And we cannot ignore the reality that American Jewish millennials are distancing themselves from Israel more than their elders.”

What explains the disparity between younger generations and older ones with regard to Israel? For folks over 45, Israel’s formative years significantly shaped their Jewish consciousness. The miracle of its creation, its ability to successfully defend itself and its commitment to the pursuit of peace inspired global Jewry and garnered its support. Israel’s swift victory against seemingly overwhelming odds in 1967, the rescue of Jewish hostages held in Entebbe in 1976 and the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979 were powerful propulsions of Jewish pride and engagement.

By contrast, the Israel-consciousness of Jews born after the first Lebanon War in 1982 was forged during the First Intifada (1987-1993) and Second Intifada (2000-2005). Many Millennials, Gen Z-ers and Gen Alphas have only known an Israel led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, racked by internal divisions and unable to forge peace with the Palestinians. All of this had led them to perceive Israel with far greater ambivalence.

Two additional factors that came into play in the past 20 years have also contributed to this significant generational divide: the ubiquity of negative Israel messaging on social media and toxic campus environments where Israel is presented in the worst possible light.

We can no longer ignore the significant and growing schism between older and younger generations of American Jews in perception, attitude and affinity towards Israel. Many Jewish households have become generational battlegrounds, with parents and children fighting over Israel as never before. These divisions existed before Oct. 7, and evidence indicates they will only continue to grow. Many younger Jews are now disenchanted with mainstream Jewish leadership and distancing themselves from Zionism, and many parents are at a loss as to how to connect with their children on this topic.

Let them help

It is time to make the core of the problem the core of the solution. Rather than castigating young people for their legitimate angst and dissatisfaction, our community should work to channel their dissonance and dissent.

Both Western liberal education and the pronounced focus placed on tikkun olam and universalism by Jewish institutions have provided younger Jews with a deep and abiding commitment to humanity; but a parallel appreciation for the particularism of Zionism and the regional threats posed against the Jewish state are missing. The resulting divide between mainstream Jewish institutions (and the generation of Jews who established and lead them) and their prospective younger constituents is pronounced. 

Jews have long been committed to bettering America, strengthening Israel and supporting the U.S.-Israel alliance. These values have been nurtured within families and passed from generation to generation. The problem is that many young Jews no longer see their own yearning and aspiration to fix things that are broken reflected in the Israel programs that were created to engage them. They don’t feel respected and valued by these programs because they are treated as spectators and consumers rather than potential contributors of passion, talent and effort to make Israel and the world better than it is today. 

It is incumbent on our community to provide critical young Jews opportunities for self-actualization as changemakers — show them how they can better, not batter, the Israel they are encouraged to support. 

A three-part community intervention

Addressing the breakdown of communication over Israel between parent and child, the widening generational gap between younger and older Jews and the distancing of young Jews from Zionism requires robust community-based programming, which can be divided into three parts: introspection, intergenerational dialogue and Israel re-enchantment.  Organizations such as Heart of a Nation, For the Sake of Argument and Theory of Enchantment are a few examples of groups equipped to partner with community institutions — federations, schools, synagogues, campus groups — to facilitate this process.  

Part 1: Introspection should involve the convening of “parents’ circles.” A space where adults can ask questions and receive guidance from trained Jewish family counselors — as well as vent and commiserate with their peers — parents’ circles can help older Jews better understand the dynamics of the generational divide over Israel and give them a community of support.

Part 2: Intergenerational dialogue should consist of professionally moderated intergenerational dialogues, which can allow older and younger Jews to share their values-affinities, anxieties and aspirations with each other. Moderated communication is a powerful vehicle for exploring commonalities and building bridges.

Finally, Part 3: Israel re-enchantment should consist of forums featuring inspiring Israeli and American changemakers to empower younger and older Jews to embark on the betterment of Israel, together.            

Only by channeling the dissatisfaction of young Jews and uniting them with older Jews committed to tikkun olam will we begin to reverse the distancing of our youth and witness the emergence of new intergenerational cadres of changemakers committed to helping improve the State of Israel.

Jonathan S. Kessler is the founder and CEO of Heart of a Nation, which works to empower young American, Israeli and Palestinian changemakers. 

Steven F. Windmueller is professor emeritus of Jewish communal studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.