Can we channel the anger over Israel?

By editor on

Just over a year ago, Peter Beinart offered a compelling diagnosis of, "why Zionism is dying among America's secular Jewish young".  His now-famous conclusion: "Because they have inherited their parents' liberalism, they cannot embrace their uncritical Zionism." And because they perceive Israel as a "regional hegemon and an occupying power," they reject their parents' readiness to, "grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril." 

Two essays published over the last few weeks serve as first-person testimony, indicative of the trend about which Beinart has been warning.

In "The Romance of Birthright Israel", Kiera Feldman synthesizes her 2010 Birthright experience with a series of interviews with past participants, as well as Birthright funders and staff.  She comes away seeing the Birthright excursion as a shallow, feel-good but purposely-mind-numbing exercise, whose ulterior motive is no longer Jewish heritage or continuity, but pro-Israel advocacy of the right-wing kind.

In "Life After Zionist Summer Camp", Allison Benedikt tells a personal tale of disillusionment with her mainstream Zionist youth movement and summer camp, which, she argues, duped her into loving a falsely angelic image of an Israel as pure as the driven snow.  Until she grows up, that is, starts to engage the issue without an older generation's filter, and becomes decidedly "disgusted" with the country she once adored.

The two essays have sparked intense discussion, with many people, including progressive Zionists, asking: Were Benedikt and Friedman "fair" in their respective critiques?  Were they "balanced"?  Do the essays encourage a hatred of Israel?  Or just of those forces in Israel which we, too, believe are endangering the country's future as a democratic, Jewish-majority state?

Such questions are not unworthy of discussion.  But they seem to be missing the more important point.  The most powerful message being delivered by Benedikt and Feldman (a self-described "child of intermarriage") is not in the area of research and analysis, but in the realm of visceral emotion.

This is certainly not to say that the two pieces are without reasoning and solid argumentation.  Far from it.  And although Benedikt's essay is framed as a retrospective diary (in a gripping back-and-forth with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, starting here, she writes, "I wrote the piece to record what I experienced, not to analyze it, and definitely not to talk policy or really even politics"), Feldman's goes far beyond the scope of personal reflection, taking a socio-anthropologist's approach to her subject of exploration.

Still, the central arguments the two make - that a certain Hadassah-guided youth movement gives a very one-sided rendering of Israeli-Palestinian politics; and that Birthright has become a tool for the defense of Israeli government policy - are not particularly earth-shattering, or even new to the ears of left-Zionist circles.

What's truly powerful about both essays, then, isn't the argument, but the anger.  Each writer is clearly outraged by the sense of being the object of manipulation by the mainstream Jewish community.  Benedikt rebukes a youth movement that exploited her innocence and lack of political sophistication, and that used peer pressure to deny her freedom of thought.  Feldman excoriates Birthright as a quasi-brainwashing operation that over-stimulates the participants - sensorially, emotionally, and sexually - in order to inculcate the narrative of the Israeli right. 

Both writers harshly scold an older generation for its hypocrisy and half-truths, and they naturally respond with resentment, fury, and a barely-contained desire to get even.  Benedikt disowns the world of her childhood, styling herself part of a "united front against the organized Jewish community", and declaring in the essay's ultimate sentence that she, "will never, ever send my kids," to Zionist summer camp.  Feldman's tone is often snide and sarcastic, as she depicts Israelis as caricaturized "rednecks", gloriously oblivious to their bigotry and ethnocentrism.  "Birthright, like Israel itself," she writes mockingly, "can do no wrong".

The main question for progressive Zionists, then, is not: Benedikt and Feldman, wrong or right?  But rather: Can we find a way to channel the anger and disappointment with their parents, rabbis, educators, and guides, and turn it into a force for positive change in the American Jewish community and Israel? 

After all, if the mainstream American Jewish community is to have its comeuppance, it won't be because a few individuals penned a few well-crafted broadsides and then walked away.  It will happen if Benedikt's and Feldman's generation becomes part of a movement that helps usher out the current mainstream leadership and charts a new, more mature and healthy course for Israel-Diaspora relations.  Such a relationship will be guided by a combination of love and honest, constructive criticism, with neither component being subordinated to the other.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ron Skolnik
Executive Director
Meretz USA

June 24, 2011