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We must transform apathy to activism
September 1st, 2011
Milwaukee-native Alexandra Frolkis won the first prize in the seventh annual Dov and Arlein Chetner Essay Contest run by the Jewish Community Foundation of Calgary. (See July issue.) The subject of all the entries was: “Recent statistics indicate a change in feelings for Israel in the under 35s. How will this affect Israel? What might this mean to the Jewish Diaspora?” Edited excerpts from her essay follow:
Alexandra Frolkis (right) with Arlein and Dov Chetner.
In 2007, sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman conducted a study to assess the degree of attachment to Israel felt by four distinct age brackets of non-Orthodox Jews — those over 65, 50-64, 35-49, and under 35 years.
The results of these studies are startling and have raised a wave of panic in Jewish non-Orthodox communities in the Diaspora.
The gradients represented by these results show a clear reduction of connection to Israel in young Jews. While 40 percent of Jews over 65 assert a strong attachment to Israel, only 20 percent of those under 35 share the sentiment.
In order to assess how the change in feelings for Israel in the under 35s is affecting the Diaspora and Israel, we first need to understand why these feelings have changed.
Jews over 65, my grandparents’ generation, grew up with a different need for Israel than my generation of Jews under 35. The ever-present threat and the reality of anti-Semitism are the reasons why the establishment of the State of Israel was an especially powerful event for them.
Throughout my life, I have heard from my grandparents and their friends about the importance of Israel as a safe haven for Jews — a place for us and governed by us where we can celebrate our culture and practice our traditions without fear.
Perhaps more importantly to my grandparents’ generation is that Israel is representative of the strength of the Jewish people; a strength that stands in juxtaposition to the weak and defenseless profile of Eastern European Jewry. In this way, Israel answers the question of how to most effectively respond to and heal from generations of anti-Semitism.
My generation has a different perspective. Due in large part to Israel’s existence, we have had the privilege of growing up in a world largely free of overt anti-Semitism.
As a result, Israel as a place for Jews to openly practice our religious and cultural traditions is a non-issue for my generation. We feel safe living as Jews. This is particularly true in Canada and the United States, where there is a near absence of religious persecution. We are Jews without fear.
My grandparents’ generation grew up with a different Israel from the one my generation knows. From 1948 until 1977, when our grandparents were able to form and solidify their opinions about Israel, it was governed primarily by the socialist, leftist Labor party.
The nation’s first 30 years brought the War of Independence in 1947, the Sinai War in 1956, the Six Day War in 1967, the War of Attrition in 1968, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Israel was not perceived by the Jewish community as the aggressor in any of these conflicts. Instead, she was viewed as the underdog that successfully fended off her attackers.
As a result, my grandparents’ generation has historical precedent to view Israel as a country that — though capable of defending herself — is constantly under attack from her neighbors and should use whatever means necessary to defend herself.
In 1977, the dawn of my generation of under 35s, Israel’s political landscape changed dramatically when the right-wing Likud party came to power. Five years later, Israel fought the first war for which she was seen as the aggressor, the First Lebanon War.
Until the early 80s, defending Israel through advocacy was an easy task. There was a clear dichotomy of right and wrong: Israel was right for defending herself, the Arab world was wrong for attacking her unprovoked.
After the First Lebanon War, some Jews in my parents’ generation saw Israel’s actions as inappropriate. This generation of Jews raised a new generation of similarly minded Jews — Zionist but openly critical of Israel when they did not agree with her actions.
These Jews — both of my parents’ and my generation — do not feel part of the mainstream pro-Israel community. Many feel pressure to choose either a liberal or Zionist identity, and do not see the two as reconcilable.
As a result, many Jews under 35 are abandoning their critical, though still pro-Israel ideology in favor of a liberal identity.
Simultaneously, there were Jews of my parents’ generation who felt that Israel’s actions were appropriate and necessary as a way to pre-empt an imminent attack. Whether there was evidence of an impending attack or not, the multiplicity of prior conflicts in which Israel had been attacked without provocation were engrained into the collective psyche of many of the Jews of my parents generation.
This cohort of Jews raised a generation of Jews with similar ideologies — Zionist, fully in line with, and happy to defend Israel’s policies. It is this group to which the mainstream Jewish community caters.
The reason this group feels less of an attachment to Israel does not have to do with the ideological alienation experienced by liberal Zionists; rather it is because of an epidemic of apathy afflicting most under-35s, regardless of heritage.
Globalization and easy access to information have changed how my generation views and perceives the world. My grandparents’ generation did not have the Internet or television in their formative years. They were not bombarded with news, issues, causes, pleas, and heart-wrenching images from all across the globe.
Instead, their community news was locally focused and accessed through local newspapers and institutions — both synagogue and school. Their awareness of Israel was acquired from the local rabbi, or from traveling friends and family. The relative dearth of information about the happenings of the rest of the world posed no distraction to their attention, energy, and passions — those lay safely aligned with Israel.
Additionally, Jewish communities were much more tightly knit and there were a few core issues that were considered paramount. Two of these were the importance of marrying Jewish and of raising Jewish children. This was an important way of ensuring Jewish continuity and battling anti-Semitism.
Only 13 percent of Jewish marriages prior to 1970 were out of the faith. This means the vast majority of Jewish couples had Jewish children who were highly likely to be raised in a pro-Israel environment.
In contrast, my generation of under 35s does not generally feel passionately about any specific issue that does not directly affect us. We are constantly bombarded with an overwhelming amount of news, information, and causes, to the point where we seldom align ourselves with any issue, for there are simply too many.
Traveling to Israel is no longer seen as a priority or special treat. A trip to Europe, Asia, or Australia is perceived as more romantic and desirable. We no longer feel uniquely connected to Israel because we can connect ourselves with any place in the world through the click of a button — we feel more attached to the global community than the Jewish community.
In direct correlation with this lack of connection to Judaism and Israel — and the aforementioned general sense of apathy — is the rise of inter-marriage and assimilation.
Since 1996, over 47 percent of Jewish marriages have been out of the faith. Studies also show that households of non-Orthodox Jews under 40 are reporting the lowest levels of affiliation and participation in Jewish institutions in history. This means the majority of Jews is marrying out of the faith, not affiliating, and is more likely to raise children who are ambivalent towards Israel.
Meaning for Diaspora
Clearly, two main forces are eroding the Diaspora: feelings of apathy leading to disassociation with the Diaspora Jewish community, and divergent political ideologies leading to factions within that community.
Apathy and intermarriage are depleting the Diaspora. The pool from which we draw Jewish Zionists shrinks with every Jew who marries a non-Jew, every Jewish family that does not associate with the Jewish community, and every Jewish family that ignores its inherent connection to Israel.
Because my generation is the future of the Jewish Diaspora, if we do not take the reins with gusto, we will be responsible for its destruction. It is our job to engage our Jewish peers. We must create programs and organizations that appeal to them and help them understand the dire importance of Israel and of the worldwide Jewish community.
The second and arguably more imperative meaning for the Diaspora is an immediate need to appeal across the gamut of Zionist ideology — from left of liberal to right of conservative.
Fortunately, action is already being taken in this direction — there are organizations sprouting up to provide a voice for all types of Zionists. It is possible that, with regard to feelings toward Israel in the under 35s, we are already seeing a positive shift.
In 2003, Jewish philanthropists in the United States noticed that Jewish university students were not feeling connected to Israel. They hired a Republican pollster to conduct a study. The findings, released in 2010, are arguably more startling than the 2007 study at the root of this essay.
It found that these young Jews considered the mainstream pro-Israel Jewish community alienating. They felt that they had no voice in largely secular Zionist lobby powerhouses like CJPAC in Canada and AIPAC in the United States, which align themselves with Israel’s policies.
Rather, they sought a forum where they could openly discuss and criticize Israel, and collectively express their views as liberal Zionists. In response to these sentiments, J Street was formed. J Street is a largely secular, progressive, Zionist lobby group that represents liberal Zionists in the same way that CJPAC and AIPAC represent their more conservative counterparts.
Creating a platform for liberal Zionists is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that liberal Zionists have a place where they can expresses their leanings, whereas before they were largely disenfranchised from Israel advocacy. It is a curse because it laid bare the factions within the Diaspora.
Rather than there being one unified Diaspora for Israel, it is possible to pit the politically liberal against the politically conservative in such a way that is apparent to the entire world, which in itself poses a threat to Israel.
If we are able to organize an Israel-centered community and engender Israel-advocacy activities that include these differing ideologies, we are more likely to remain unified in support of Israel and perpetuate positive feelings toward Israel in our peers and in our children.
Effect on Israel
Jews under 35 are not primarily responsible for financial support and advocacy of Israel.
It therefore is difficult to definitively assess the effects that my generation’s disparate viewpoints are having on Israel’s position. It will only be when we become financially and educationally responsible for Israel’s Diaspora support (which I predict will occur in the next 20 to 30 years) thatwe will know the true effects on Israel. Until then, I can only speculate.
If Israel remains low on the priority list for non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora, Israel will be negatively affected in the long term. Fewer Jews will visit or move there, negatively affecting tourism and the economy.
More importantly, though, the connections between Diaspora Jews and their Israeli counterparts will erode beyond repair. There will be fewer Jews advocating for Israel in their hometowns, on their campuses, and we will be more likely to see politicians elected who do not consider political and financial support of Israel a priority.
These Jews, in turn, will raise a generation of further disassociated Jews, and the negative cycle will continue and strengthen.
Alternatively, if we can engage unaffiliated and dissociating Jews, there could be advantageous effects for Israel — increased tourism, more friendships and stronger relationships between Diaspora and Israeli Jews, increased aliyah, more political advocacy, and continued financial support.
If the Jewish community ignores differing political views with regard to Israel, then educated, pro-Israel Jews will disengage from advocacy and financial support of Israel. I believe that the effects will be similar to what will occur if Jews remain apathetic to Israel — except that in this case it will be groups of Jews that feel isolated from the Jewish community because of their Zionist ideology.
The creation of pro-Israel groups for a wide range of political voices, though, lessens the probability of diminished advocacy and financial support for Israel. Instead, we are likely to see a range of support for Israel — the financial support, advocacy, and political reinforcement we currently see in the established channels.
Additionally, as support comes from those with a more liberal standpoint, it is more likely that there will be engagement with Palestinians who have similar liberal leanings.
More importantly, though, is that if more pro-Israel groups come into existence, and if these groups cater to a wide range of Zionist voices, our children will have a place to express their Zionism. As such, they will be more likely to offer financial and political support to Israel when they come of age and the torch passes to them to assume responsibility for support of Israel in the Diaspora.
Though the findings of the 2007 study are startling, there is reason to be hopeful for my generation of Jews under 35. Those of us with strong Jewish and Zionist identities remain dedicated to the Diaspora and to Israel.
In every generation, the Jewish people have feared destruction. The difference between past generations and mine is that the fears were external. For the first time in our history, we are facing this threat from within.
It is upon us, as it was in past generations, to guard and preserve our identities and to pass the torch to the generations that come after us. The 20 percent of under 35s with strong Jewish and Zionist identities have the torch. It is up to us to reach out and transform apathy into activism for the sake of the Diaspora and Israel.
Alexandra Frolkis is a graduate student in community health science at the University of Calgary.