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Survey: Young American Jews Less Attached to Israel Than Their Elders

  • Laurel Bowman

American Jewish college student Dani Stouck in Jerusalem.

American Jewish college student Dani Stouck in Jerusalem.

In June, The New York Review of Books published an article by author Peter Beinart contending that young American Jews think little about Israel, if at all. The article cited a survey conducted by a conservative pollster. It concluded that many young American Jews want an open and frank discussion of Israel and its shortcomings, including its treatment of Palestinians under occupation.

This is the story of a conversation about whether young American Jews are increasingly disillusioned with Israel and if so, why.

In June, author Peter Beinart splashed his theory across the pages of the New York Review of Books, and it's been reverberating ever since. "I thought I was hitting a nerve but it re-affirmed to me that there is a deep sense of discontent amongst many American Jews, he said.

There are some five million American Jews, the second largest Jewish community after Israel. American Jews have been a bulwark of support for the Jewish state.

But Beinart was referring to a survey of American Jewish college students on why they're not more supportive of Israel. The poll found the students felt distant from Israel and even angry at what they saw as Israel's abuse of Palestinians' under occupation. "What they wanted to try and connect with in Israel was a country and a people that had liberal democratic values, he said.

Young American Jews surveyed in the poll wanted peace, held the right to question the Jewish establishment and even empathized with the Palestinians.

Dani Stouck is a college student who was raised in a conservative Jewish home near Washington. "Growing up my family was very proud of the fact that we were Jewish. They tried to instill Jewish values and you know bring us to synagogue as often as we would let them. We were always encourage to ask questions about our faith and what it meant to be Jewish, she said.

She traveled to Israel several times as a teenager. The tours included trips to the World War II concentration camps in Eastern Europe. "After seeing the devastation of the Holocaust I really believed we deserved that land, we deserved a space, we had been through such horrors and we built the land up and we deserved it, she said.

But the drive to question that her parents instilled in her eventually led her to question Israeli policies. On her latest trip to Israel, she worked with Arab Israeli women and also visited the West Bank where Israel continues to build Jewish settlements.

She says she has sympathy for the Palestinians because, she believes, their rights are being violated. "If Israel is persecuting others then there's a problem, there's a major problem, and I am not going to ignore that because it is a Jewish state. In fact, because it is a Jewish state means to me that it needs to embody those Jewish values that I grew up with, she said.

It's a conversation Stouck has skirted around with her rabbi Stuart Weinblatt. He says American liberal values are not necessarily Jewish values. "I need to try and be sure that we convey to these young people that Israel is not something that can be taken for granted. It is only 62 years old and every day it struggles for its existence, he said.

He goes further, saying, "What would happen if all of the Arab armies bordering Israel took a day off? Let's just say they all took a day off and walked away from their post. The truth of the matter is nothing would happen. But if all of Israel's soldiers guarding its borders happen to take that same day off, you know as well as I what would happen in terms of the slaughter and the massacre and the coming across the border that would occur."

He's concerned that the young American Jews criticizing Israel could threaten the nation's existence.

If American Jews no longer support Israel, analysts ask, how will that affect US policy toward that country?

Will the bonds remain unbreakable?

Rabbi Weinblatt says American Jews need to support Israel, no matter what. "I think the fate of the Jewish people is intricately tied up with the fate of Israel, he said.

Stouck thinks the best way to support Israel is to question it. She read from the journal she kept while in Israel and the West Bank a few months back. "I am proud of our heritage and our traditions. I am proud of our shared values and morals yet I cannot be proud of the state of Israel today and I can't believe God would be completely proud either, she read.

As the summer in America draws to a close and the Jewish high holidays approach, elderly Jews will be filling the synagogues and pledging their support of Israel.

But Jewish students returning to their campuses are the future of the American Jewish community and its link to Israel.

And it's unclear where they're going.