Today’s Make-or-Break Moment Around Israel for Jewish Institutions and Millennials
By Jonathan Kamel
Seasoned Israel educator Robbie Gringas was spot-on in his recent op-ed, “The Greatest Challenge to Israel Education is Just Around the Corner,” writing here in eJewish Philanthropy about both the potential impacts annexation will have on Israel’s future and the American Jewish community at large.
Should unilateral annexation move forward, I fear that it will not only be Jewish educational structures that will be challenged, however, but the entire foundation of American Zionism. As such, and given the data that points to decreasing engagement from my millennial generation with Jewish institutions, Jewish funders and executives would be wise to pay close attention to this current moment.
Specifically, and from where I sit as a millennial leader, these changing dynamics in Israel policy and US-Israel affairs underscore the need for preparation, leadership, and action from our community leaders.
During a virtual gathering hosted by Israel Policy Forum last month, Rabbi Rick Jacobs shared, “The issue before us, of annexation … literally will foreclose the most critical piece of Israel’s very heart and soul, which is the Jewish and democratic state.” Extending beyond just education or a public relations challenge, the outright shift in Israel’s narrative and identity away from a liberal democracy will truly affect all aspects of our work in the Jewish community: synagogue life, conversations on campus, and of course transformative experiences in Israel such as Birthright or gap years.
What is the best way for communal organizations to ensure they, and we, thrive past this moment and into the coming decades? For me and my peers, it boils down to three key components: relevance, credibility, and values.
In terms of relevance, our leaders and institutions must be involved in uncomfortable conversations, speaking truthfully about the realities on the ground regarding the West Bank and the future Israel is heading towards. Whether the good, bad, or ugly, we millennials care deeply about what happens in Israel and in the global Jewish community. Without our institutions serving as convening forums for forthright, honest discourse around Israel, we are only expediting the phenomenon of younger generations continuing their aversion to affiliating with legacy or “establishment” organizations.
In addition, evidenced by the giant leap annexation itself has made from fringe to the Israeli mainstream over the past year, times can certainly change – and so too must our communal starting points when discussing these issues. Can the same positions from decades ago vis-a-vis our relationship with Israel remain credible into the next decade and beyond? Of course not. To attempt to do so would be an abdication of leadership, felt most prominently when my peers and I hear the same, repeated talking points that were appropriate for the 1970s but not the 2020s.
In order to facilitate adaptive processes like these mentioned, I believe our institutions can best help themselves and those they serve first by ensuring that they represent a diversity of views and backgrounds. This diversity not only encompasses ideological and generational gaps on leadership boards but also regarding gender parity and representation of queer Jews and Jews of color, as well as other similar ways organizations can harness diversity for building success into their futures. Now is the time to start making these institutional changes to reflect our diverse Jewish community, serving to also strengthen decision-making processes and policies themselves around Israel and other delicate conversations.
While I believe institutions must vocalize concerns about annexation’s risks and educate their community members about it now, they also must not allow themselves to be blindsided by the gaping fissures and blowback that it is likely to have throughout the community. In recent weeks, some groups have started preparing for the “day after” potential versions of annexation. Executives must develop plans to activate staff and lay leaders across communities to create spaces where voices can be heard and engagement on how to move forward can take place. Empowering younger leaders to help steer these conversations amongst themselves and in conversations with other generations is another tactic that is especially healthy and has proven valuable through my leadership involvement with IPF Atid.
Amidst these proactive ideas I’m suggesting, we must simultaneously be attuned to the new bounds our communal tents might expand into as we seek to widen the discourse. Believing strongly in Israel’s right to exist with safe and secure borders through a negotiated two-state solution best represents my personal affinities, but I’m not as sure on where I stand in drawing these exact lines for our community and its discourse. Through a commitment to deliberating and unifying around our values, however, we will be in much stronger positions to thoughtfully build out this tent together.
Whether through public letters, grassroots campaigns, or even behind-closed-doors meetings, we millennials have in fact been warning about these incoming fractures for years now. Our efforts are not at all done in spite of the community but rather because of our deep love for it – and Israel – and our wish to see its organizations prosper for when we assume their mantles of leadership. Ignoring these calls for greater responsiveness and reflections of our wider community not only comes at the expense of us all in this current moment, but also helps guarantee that these problems will persist and trouble us for decades to come. Even if it’s difficult, let’s choose the more responsible path.
Jonathan Kamel is a Chicago-based millennial and is the national chair of IPF Atid. A board member of Israel Policy Forum, he also is involved with AJC, AWB, NIF, and Base Hillel.