Friday, May 21, 2010

How to revive liberal young American Jews' interest in Israel, in three steps

I recently predicted the disappearance of The Secular American Jew. But I'm talking eventually. For now, Seinfeld's in syndication and we're not going anywhere. While I don't think there's much that can be done to make a population whose very existence depends on an ever-fading social divide with non-Jews continue for all eternity, I do think there are ways to increase interest in Israel among the apathetic. I don't quite agree with Beinart that a more liberal Zionism that chucks any anti-Arab rhetoric would bring young liberal Jews into the Zionist fold in droves, although I'm all in favor of that shift happening, so who knows. Anyway, my ideas are outlined below:

1) Make Birthright about Israel and not America. The trip that sends young American (and other Diaspora) Jews on free trips to Israel is obviously the place to begin. And every time Birthright comes up, someone, soon enough, will refer to "Zionist brainwashing." This could be the case on some trips, but the one I went on was far more devoted to convincing wary American Jewish guys to embrace (literally, figuratively) American Jewish girls - and, in the person of IDF soldiers, to convince American Jewish girls of the potential of Jewish masculinity - than it was about anything to do with our surroundings. If my group took anything away from the trip relating to Israel in particular, it was probably that the country's drinking age is under 21. The whole thing might as well have taken place in Montreal. Israel was at best a picturesque environment, one from which we had to be shielded by a security guard and rules preventing us from wandering off on our own for ten minutes because OMG terrorism. What I'd like to see isn't indoctrination, just more discussion of Israeli history, contemporary life in Israel, and so forth, including but not limited to the conflict, and less pleading instruction on how to be a Jew in America.

2) Place Zionism into a postcolonial-studies framework. Young, liberal, educated American Jews who hear "Israel" and "colonialism" assume what's meant is that Israel is a colonial entity. We need to get everyone to read Memmi, and to think of Israel as a state that came out of oppression, that's flawed in all the ways one expects of such states, but that's surprisingly successful, considering. No, the right-wing friends-of-Israel won't like this. But if young Jews had a better understanding of Zionism as a liberation movement for a people who'd been faulted for centuries for not having a land of their own ("Go back to Palestine" was a cry yelled at Diaspora Jews, after all), a movement that couldn't possibly have emerged in response to the Holocaust because it began well before, then perhaps the necessity of Israel as a Jewish state would become a starting point. How to best and most ethically protect Israel - and how to criticize its current actions that some read as colonialist but that I'd choose to criticize with other language for reasons I won't get into here - could then be discussed from a place where the country's very existence isn't up for debate by those who don't quite get where it came from in the first place.

3) Put Israeli culture above Israeli politics, or at least shift their relative importance to American Jews so that the latter doesn't fully overpower the former. Israel apologists so often come up with the same list of reasons we should love the place. Reasons 1-98 have to do with Israel being the good guy in every last conflict with its neighbors or the Palestinians - those who believe this believe it, and those who don't think it's all kinds of ridiculous. Reason 99 is Israeli high-tech achievements, inventions, and so forth. Reason 100 is Bar Refaeli. It gets tiresome. The existence of any kind of Israeli culture, high or low, is obscured. Music? Cuisine? Fashion? Film? If what Israel's defenders are trying to communicate is that the country is not defined by its symbolic place in international relations, the way to argue that point isn't by explaining just how hopeless the Palestinian leadership was in this or that year, but by cultivating an appreciation of Israel-the-place. American Jews more up on how Israel actually is, and what Israelis really are like, might end up in some ways more critical of specific Israeli policies and all that. There'd be less knee-jerk rah-rah, but also less knee-jerk I'm-liberal-which-means-I-think-Israel's-evil.


Matt said...

Scroll down a bit on this list of photos

And you'll seen an example of why, even if #2 was right at one point (I think it's debatable either way), it's not really defensible now. Obviously, not all Israelis support the settlers and like policies, but they are clearly a major, often dominant part of society there. So long as that's so, the "colonialism" charge seems highly plausible to me.

David Schraub said...

I don't see how a picture of a group of young Israelis acting like assholes in any way obviates #2, anymore than, say, the depravities of the ZANU-PF would cause us to say that the history and present of Zimbabwe should not be understood within the context of a liberation movement battling against oppression.

Phoebe is quite aware of -- indeed, incorporates -- the notion that the fact that Israel grew out of a liberationist struggle does not give it a halo (indeed, in some ways that sort of history puts states at greater risk). She merely says -- and I think this is quite obvious to the point of banality -- that a proper understanding of Israel, past and present, has to take due accord of that history. If you don't understand where Israel comes from, you're not going to have a particularly accurate view about where it is now.

Mark Cohen said...

Thought you'd be interested in knowing about Irving Howe's prediction of the end of the secular Jew back in 1993, just weeks before he died. This link includes a quote from that Howe talk,

I was lucky enough to be at that talk and it hit me hard, because it was my world he was talking about. But the rise of modern orthodoxy was already clear and has become more so, and these cultural shifts are profound responses to changed conditions. Some of those conditions were the expansion of personal freedoms in the 1960s and the crime wave of the 1970s (David Brooks just wrote about the latter). Orthodoxy's rules seem an antidote to both and offer adherents a retreat from a civic realm, especially public schools, that were (are?) chaotic and dysfunctional. (Another benefit is that by embracing orthodoxy, Jews can leave public schools without being accused of white flight or other forms of racism. Instead of a flight it is seen as an embrace of tradition. I don't think this was a conscious strategy, but I think it was/is an attraction).

In Gatsby, Nick Carraway says that after what he saw during the 1920s he wanted to see the world stand at "moral attention." Orthodoxy offers that. And even among the non-orthodox there has been an increase of traditional practices. My family now lights candles Friday night. My parents never did. But I had immigrant grandparents and other talismans of unambiguous Jewish ethnic identity. For most American Jews, those don't exist anymore.

Finally, I agree with your ideas about Birthright, which I only know through hearsay. And maybe my experience as a Jewish American teenager in Israel is so old that it holds no lessons, but I traveled around Israel with a friend in 1973 without a group or leader, let alone guards. Seeing Israeli life (I had the advantage of relatives there) was very important to me. Israel presented an alternative model of being Jewish.

One last thing. Orthodox Judaism can also be seen as a turning away from Zionism as an axis of Jewish identity. I'm not talking about the extreme Haredim who wait for the messiah. I mean that orthodoxy competes with Zionism as a route to Jewish identity in the Diaspora. In some ways, it makes Israel less important. Jewish life is revivified without it.


Matt said...

David- you don't think there were obvious colonial elements to that photo, especially given the caption? And of course it's meant to fit with the "settler" phenomena in general. If that's not at least a lot like colonialism I don't know what is.

For Phoebe, what music from Israel do you like? I had a short period of liking Dana International, and I thought Elastica was an Israeli band, but Wikipedia seems to not confirm that. I'm not extremely well versed in contemporary music so would be interested to hear what you think is interesting.

David Schraub said...

Whether or not the photo does or doesn't have colonialist elements isn't the issue here, because the main point of #2 wasn't "are the settlements colonialist" but urging that we understand "Zionism in[side] a postcolonial-studies framework", i.e., "as a liberation movement" reacting to continual oppression of Jews worldwide. I think you're taking what was fundamentally an aside ("actions that some read as colonialist but that I'd choose to criticize with other language for reasons I won't get into here") and elevating it to the main.

The photo, for instance, really can't be understood without reference to the history of Jewish oppression and anti-Semitic domination. The Sheikh Jarrah settlers claim that the property was theirs to begin with before it was expropriated from them by the Jordanian government in 1948. Assuming that's true (and it might not be, there is controversy over the lineage of the deed), as a policy matter I still disagree with evicting the Palestinian residents and allowing the prior Jewish owners back in -- I think it's well established that part of settling this conflict means that not everyone gets to go home again, and I thought the decision was thus needlessly inflammatory.

But regardless, the history of Arab expropriation of Jewish property is obviously relevant information and the sort of thing one really needs to know in order to understand what's going on (just as someone who didn't know that Jews and Israelis have been expropriating Arab and Palestinian property would quite obviously be ill-equipped to make solid judgments on the controversies).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


What David Schraub said, 100%. My point is not that we should ignore or brush aside things like the photo you link to. (You could have also just said "the occupation" - I'd have known what you were referring to, and visual images of Mean Jews in Israel are plentiful.) It's that it helps to know what these pale-skinned Jews are even doing in the Middle East in the first place, and to separate their history from that of, say, pale-skinned French residents of colonial Algeria.

And re: Israeli music, where to begin? I really like Tipex/Teapacks (the name changed and I forget in which direction), Beit Habubot, and Ivri Lider, to name a few.

Mark Cohen,

I'll need to check out what Howe had to say! And I did go back to Israel (well, just Tel Aviv) post-Birthright, and it made all the difference in the world. I was probably in more physical danger on the block I lived on at the time in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, than on that vacation.

Mark Cohen said...

This, to me, is great Israeli music. Melancholy, but not sentimental. I just love it.