Israel could now destroy young Jews' commitment to it

Young people mustn't be alienated from Israel, says Jonathan Freedland, whether by its politics or the misguided actions of those in the diaspora

July 26, 2018 12:02

It’s the season of that most modern Jewish rite of passage: the post-GCSE summer tour to Israel. From what I can tell, it hasn’t changed much over the past 35 years: still the hikes through parched deserts and over ancient mountains, the night trek up Masada, moments of adolescent contemplation at the Western Wall, some museums, a kibbutz or two and constant, aching teenage laughter.

But this summer there will be two clouds in otherwise blue skies. The first is the most significant. Last week’s passage by the Knesset of the nation-state bill is a desperate blow for all those who feel bound up with Israel, who feel compelled to defend it and who wish to see it not only survive but to thrive as a just and fair society.

It says that the right to self-determination in Israel is a right that applies to Jews only and that Hebrew is the state’s only official language, with Arabic now granted merely a “special status”. The combined effect of those two moves is to tell the one-fifth of the country that is not Jewish and whose mother tongue is Arabic that they are second-class citizens.

For all those who’ve long defended Israel against the accusation that the very idea of a national home for the Jews is inherently racist and who have campaigned hard against the claim that Israel is an apartheid state, this is a heavy blow. Israel has explicitly granted collective rights to one group of citizens and denied them to another. Those used to shouting that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East” will need to find another slogan because this is not how democracies behave.

Naturally, Israel’s most committed haters are heartened by this move: this proves, they say, that Israel is and always was a racist project. That’s not right: on the contrary, this represents an appalling break from Israel’s founding vision, a terrible violation of the promise contained in the Declaration of Independence that Israel would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

What’s more, it came in a week when Israel’s prime minister warmly hosted Viktor Orban, who won re-election with a shamelessly antisemitic campaign, and when Israeli police arrested a rabbi in a dawn raid on his home for the “crime” of conducting a non-Orthodox wedding. Those of us who care about Israel have to face facts. Netanyahu is not only enshrining discrimination against a minority into Israel’s basic law, he is overseeing both the Orbanisation and Iranification of Israel, twin processes which are equally depressing.

Which brings me to the second of those clouds. Earlier this summer, the RSY-Netzer youth movement told a volunteer, Nina Morris-Evans, who is 20, that she was not, after all, going to be leading an Israel tour. (Full disclosure, perhaps unnecessary in the JC: I’ve known her parents for years.) She had attended the now notorious Kaddish for Gaza demonstration and, as the chief executive of the UJIA candidly put it, “There is such a thing as going too far.”

Now, my own view is that the Kaddish for Gaza event was a terrible idea. It took what is perhaps the most precious, sombre Jewish rite of mourning and used it for what looked like a political stunt. Nor did Nina help herself with a poorly-worded blog written after the event.

But none of that either justifies the extraordinary torrent of murderously violent, misogynistic abuse that rained down on her from hawkish Jews via social media I’ve seen a sample of it and it would make your jaw drop or makes the decision to drop her as a madricha on Israel tour a sensible one.

That’s partly because everyone, especially the young, are allowed to make a mistake, and partly because no one involved in this sorry episode can dispute Nina’s deep, active commitment to the Jewish community and to Israel. (Happily, she is now involved in a tour for the Liberal Jewish youth movement.) But chiefly it’s because of the wider conclusion other young people are likely to draw: that they are only welcome in Jewish communal life if they can endorse Israel as it currently stands, the Israel of the nation state bill, the Israel that embraces Orban, the Israel of Bibi Netanyahu.

And if they do reach that glum conclusion, too many of the next generation will simply walk away from supporting Israel, most certainly, but also from Jewish life itself. You can see it in the ongoing US controversy over Birthright tours: young Jews who want to reject occupation and racism, but embrace Israel. If they are told these things are inseparable parts of a single whole, they will reject it all.

That would be a huge mistake. These young people are engaged and committed. They want Israel to be the country its founders believed it could be. Sure, they’ll make mistakes. But don’t cast them out: they might just be the people who wrench Israel off its current, tragic path.


Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

July 26, 2018 12:02

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