When young Jews fall out of love with Zionism
June 29, 2011
Is there a new rift growing among American Jews over Israel? Recently, there has been an increasing number of Jews willing to take Israel to task and champion the Palestinian cause.
An example is contained in recent articles sent to me by a good friend. The column that started it all was Village Voice film critic Allison Benedikt’s “Life After Zionist Summer Camp” in the online publication The Awl.
Benedikt spent a number of her summers in a Zionist youth movement camp. She and her sister traveled to Israel. She grew up with extensive exposure to things Jewish and Israeli. In typical rebellion, she decided she wanted to do her own thinking.
Benedikt got a job at a magazine where she met John, her future husband. John is anti-Israel. While her sister became an Israeli citizen, Benedikt changes her home page from The New York Times to Ha’aretz, “whose columnists seem to agree more with my Jew-hating fiance than with my community-leading parents.”
After her marriage, Benedikt and her husband are “a united front against the organized Jewish community, and I find myself saying and thinking things that I’m not even sure I believe because I’m not really sure what I believe.”
On a trip to Israel, “John confronts my sister and her husband on their ‘morally bankrupt decision’ to live in Israel.” Nonetheless, Benedikt concedes, “My sister lives a full and happy life in Tel Aviv.”
Ironically, Benedikt and her husband are raising their kids as Jews. And here’s the clincher: “Most of my Jewish friends are disgusted with Israel. It seems my trajectory is not at all unique. My best memories from childhood are from camp, and I will never, ever send my kids there.”
A number of columns have taken on the Benedikt piece. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic particularly became involved, publishing three separate blog posts on Benedikt’s essay.
In his June 15 post, Goldberg recalls his own Zionist camp experiences before summing up Benedikt’s essay: “Essentially, the essay is about Benedikt falling out of love with the Zionist dream, which happens as she marries a non-Jew named John, who, by her description, spends a fair amount of time passing judgment on Israel.”
Goldberg found Benedikt “faux-naive.” What he “found substantially more grating was Benedikt’s conformism, and her stunning lack of curiosity.” He had a number of questions for Benedikt. Here are few:
When her husband acts like a self-righteous s***t toward her sister, does she get a spine? Does she wonder why her husband hates Israel with such ferocity? Does she ever try to answer for herself why Israel exists? Or is she happy to subcontract out her thinking about the most important questions facing Jews first to her camp counselors, and then to her husband?
Goldberg went for the religious jugular when he asks, “Does she think about the sin of the wicked son in the Passover story, and how that sin might echo in her own life?”
A week later, Goldberg published Benedikt’s rejoinder. Needless to say, she defended her husband. Then there was this telling response:
If the decision comes down to brutal occupation forever to maintain the Jewishness of the state OR true democracy, which would mean no Jewish state, I would have to choose the latter — but there is nothing easy or wishful in me writing that, and I hope it never comes to that (though more and more it seems like it will).
Benedikt no longer feels any special affinity with Israel because she is Jewish. “I do think we all have a responsibility to make the world better — but specifically Israel, because I am Jewish? No,” she writes.
As to Goldberg’s allusion to the wicked son, Benedikt responds, “This is not meant to be snide, but John and I lead a seder every year and I’ve taken to making my own Haggada because I’m not comfortable with many of the traditional stories and blessings. The wicked child bit is something I’ve deleted.”
Writing in The Forward about the Benedikt essay, Gal Beckerman said he shared Goldberg’s assessment if not his vehemence, calling the essay a “Peter Beinart moment of disillusionment” — referring to the author of a much-talked about defense of liberal Zionism in The New York Review of Books.
Addressing Beckerman, Benedikt stated that coming into contact with the wider world after growing up in an insular one, “you must face that you’ve been fed — and accepted — an incomplete or even false narrative about an issue that is more than just an issue but also a huge part of your identity.”
What Benedikt doesn’t ask herself is whether her new world perspective could also be based on an “incomplete or even false narrative” — one she accepts because it is politically or emotionally convenient for her to do so.
We are losing many American Jews, particularly the young, to this type of rationalization. We owe them, and ourselves, superior arguments about why support of Israel is essential, not only for Israel, but for American Jews.