TIME Foreign Policy

Where Democracy And American Zionism Butt Heads

If Israelis are allowed to disagree over the proper path for the nation, why shouldn't American Jews be given the same leeway?

Every year, wealthy American Jews spend millions of dollars to help build a lasting connection between young American Jews and the state of Israel. There are heavily subsidized summer trips for teenagers, young adult “Birthright” tours through Israel, and extensive year-long study abroad and exchange programs. The reason for all the spending can be read in the polls: Younger American Jews are far less likely than their parents to feel a connection to the Jewish nation. Visits during these formative years have a small demonstrated effect on reversing this tendency.

But the trips do not always come off as planned. One of the first things these young people learn when they arrive is that Israel’s Jewish population is far more diverse than most young Americans are ever led to believe—especially when it comes to their opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the United States, views toward Israel are primarily cast in binary terms that have long structured the political debate: You either support Israel, or you don’t. You either stand with the Israeli people, or you don’t. It’s a mentality that dates from the early days of diaspora Zionism, the symptomatic logic of an existential threat. In times of war, ideological nuance is an unaffordable luxury.

In Israel, however, such restrictions do not apply. Politics is often passionately and bluntly debated—within families, within military regiments, on the street, in the newspapers and on television. Political coalitions rise and fall. Protests spring up in the streets. Government policy reverses itself on a dime. The nation largely functions, at least for those who have the rights of Israeli citizenship, with all the necessary inefficiency and messiness of a 21st century Democracy.

As a result of this contradiction, the American Zionist project often has an ironic result, or at least that’s what I witnessed almost 20 years ago, when I helped lead a Young Judea bus tour of Israel for a group of teenagers from San Francisco. The young people returned home to question the very premise of the American debate over Israel they were sent overseas to enforce. If Israelis are allowed to disagree over the proper path for the nation, why shouldn’t American Jews be given the same leeway?

The American Jewish community is still unable to provide a satisfactory answer to this question. On Wednesday, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted to reject the membership application of J Street, a left-leaning American Jewish group that has as its mission an effort to “expand the very concept of what it means to be pro-Israel.” In practice, this means J Street is more closely aligned with the Israeli Labor party than the Likud Party; that it supports greater Israeli concessions to bring about a two-state solution; that it is more critical of Israeli history than most American Zionists; and that it does not share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish views on Iran.

By a vote of 22 to 17, the American Jewish community’s largest umbrella group has decided that these views, which are widely debated in Israel, should not be allowed as a part of mainstream American Jewish identity. In short, the American Jewish community is still not ready to embrace the messiness of a real Democratic debate. To disagree over the best policies for Israel is, for a slight majority of American Jewish institutions, still an act of opposition to the nation itself.

If the ultimate goal of the vote is to maximize American Jewish support for Israel, there is no easy way to know for sure whether such blackballing is a superior tactic to embracing more diversity of opinion. But in the meantime, the next generation of American Jews continues to demonstrate a significant drop-off in attachment to Israel. A 2013 Pew poll found that less than a third of American Jews under the age of 30 believed caring about Israel was essential to Jewish identity, compared to two thirds of American Jews over the ago of 65.

There are lots of reason for this drop-off, but at least one of them is the unaddressed tension between the American value of being free to criticize and the American Zionist value of not allowing criticism. In America, an inability to face down and debate opposing views under the First Amendment—even bigotry, hate and insanity—is seen as a sign of weakness, not strength. The next generation of American Jewish youth is growing up in a culture and country that disconnects identity from ideology. But a majority of American Jewish institutions are not ready to take that step.

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