Do young American Jews understand the Middle East?

November 24, 2016 22:54

A perceptive piece in the Boston Globe about why American-Jewish support for Israel is seen to be 'dropping'. Jesse Singal argues that it isn't dropping - rather, what it means to be 'pro-Israel' is changing:

There are still plenty of young American Jews who take pride in wholeheartedly supporting the Israeli government. But this view isn’t nearly as dominant as it once was, and research by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College helps show why. Cohen found that younger Jewish professional and religious leaders tend to be less likely to see Israel as threatened by its neighbors, and therefore less worried about Israel’s security.

The idea that being an American Jew doesn’t necessitate lockstep support for Israel, and that Israel is strong enough to withstand criticism from the outside world, were on full display last week at Harvard’s Hillel House, which hosted a talk by J Street’s head, Jeremy Ben-Ami.

In an interview before the event, Ben-Ami talked about the changing experience of being an American Jew.

“If you’ve had personal experience - if not you [then] at least your parents - with the destruction of your people, you’re more likely to take it as a possibility that it could happen again," he said. “If you have grown up here in complete comfort and safety and no one you know in an immediate sense has been through that, I do think [you’re] going to have a very fundamental[ly] different view, a different take, on how you view the Iran threat.’’

As I understand it, Ben-Ami is saying that the Holocaust generation and their children were overly anxious; we, today, know better. But you can read his words quite the opposite way, and to my mind, the truer way. The Holocaust generation knew what they were talking about because they knew how dangerous the world could be; our younger generation today is completely naive, stupidly understanding the complex Israeli reality through the prism of their own, safe experience.

If this analysis is right, it shows a fundamental lack of imagination on the part of the younger generation. No country today, including Iran, threatens America existentially; this does not mean it is not true for Israel. Yes, the notion of any country wanting to completely annihiliate another seems ludicrous if you live in the peaceful West; but this doesn't mean that this goal can't seem perfectly normal elsewhere.

Unfortunately, it's not just American Jews who misunderstand the Middle East because they imagine all people share the same basic desires. It is true for many in the West.

We can't understand that suicide bombers would have any other motive other than 'desperation' - because in our own culture, there wouldn't be any other explanation. We can't understand that some people would sacrifice their own national aspirations in order to achieve a larger goal of destroying another people - because this order of priorities, in the individualistic West, seems practically insane. Most of all, we can't understand how deep the hatred is for Israel in the Middle East - because we don't hate any other nation that way. We don't do hatred, we do cultural relativism, multiculturalism, pluralism and tolerance.

The root of it all is that as an increasingly secular society, we just don't get religion - and hence cannot understand how religious beliefs can make people prioritise war, death, land and destruction of the other over an easy and comfortable life.

Successive surveys show that American Jews are one of, if not the, most secular religious groups out there. Does this help explain why so many of them (and so many equivalent British Jews) just don't 'get' the Middle East any more?

November 24, 2016 22:54

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