Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism

‘The assumptions young Jews grew up with about Israel have been shattered at the same time that assumptions about antisemitism being in the past and Jews becoming white folks were shattered.’

In the years following ’67, the Palestinian cause steadily gained ground on the world stage. Still, young boomers, Gen-Xers and even those of us born in the 1980s, who have charmingly been labeled “geriatric millennials,” grew up with an optimistic view of the peace process, particularly since, as Jews, we typically viewed it through an Israeli lens. There was peace with Egypt, and then with Jordan. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, on the White House lawn in 1993, before his martyrdom. (Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli Jew two years later.) When the Israel-Palestine agreement, the Oslo Accords, failed to lead to peace and Palestinian suicide bombers killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in buses and cafes during the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, the specter of terrorism first anticipated and then was wrapped into 9/11, casting Israelis as righteous victims. This story was incomplete, of course, but it provided narrative coherence to young minds eager for it.

By contrast, if you are 26 years old, you were not yet born when Oslo was signed and do not more than faintly remember the height of the Second Intifada. Your impression of Israel could well be of an occupying power and a fortress protected by militarized barriers and the U.S.-funded Iron Dome missile-defense system — a powerful country that, during a 2014 war in Gaza, responded to Hamas’s killing of three Israeli teenagers and the firing of rockets at Israeli towns with airstrikes and ground incursions that killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, including many noncombatants. Israel to you is personified not by Rabin, or the senior statesman Shimon Peres, or even the reformed hawk Ariel Sharon, but by Netanyahu, who not only presided over more settlement construction in the West Bank but sided with the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate on matters both religious and civil, attempted to hamstring liberal NGOs, engaged in racial demagogy against Palestinians and made common cause with Republicans, including and especially Donald J. Trump.

This 26-year-old would have seen Republicans use a dogmatic pro-Israel stance as a political cudgel, while the Democratic center of gravity on the subject, while still strongly pro-Israel, had moved leftward. Our 26-year-old has also seen Israel’s government explicitly embrace right-wing American evangelicals, who are devoted Zionists, while disdaining American Jews. This May, Ron Dermer, a longtime Netanyahu adviser and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., dismissed American Jews as “disproportionately among our critics.”

Several academic studies over the past decade have gone looking for disengagement with Israel among young Jews. Instead, some have found passionate involvement, but on politically different terms than the establishment might prefer. Dov Waxman, a professor of Israel studies at U.C.L.A., relied on Pew data in a 2017 paper that found that millennial Jews engage with Israel, even when young, as much as previous generations did — they were just more likely to question its actions and policies. “In the past, support was really unconditional, unequivocal,” Waxman told me. “Most American Jews today believe it’s entirely possible to be pro-Israel and at the same time critical of many Israeli government policies, especially policies toward the Palestinians.”

The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center is a bucolic combination kibbutz and summer camp situated in the hills of northwestern Connecticut, in a town appropriately called Canaan. One afternoon in August, Leah Nussbaum, who signed the letter in the spring and is now in their fifth and final year at H.U.C.’s campus in New York, took a break from farming and met me on a gravel road. Nussbaum, who is 28, was one of 10 fellows at the center’s farm last summer. The fellows woke early every morning for prayer and meditation at 6, did chores, took classes on farming and Judaism and tended to the land throughout the day. They grew leeks, tartly sweet blueberries and juicy Sungold cherry tomatoes, all pollinated by bees they kept. On Saturdays, they rested — though they still milked the goats, to alleviate the goats’ discomfort, and then gave the milk to neighbors who do not observe Shabbat. The ordinarily vegetarian Nussbaum had eaten a farm-raised chicken the night before I met them, after watching the bird ritually killed in the kosher manner by a shochet. “There’s a lot of intentionality,” Nussbaum said, “and that feels Jewish — thinking deliberately about what you’re doing.”

After we weeded the potato plants and toured the center, which hosts holiday events and retreats for the Jewish institutional world, Nussbaum and I sat in Adirondack chairs under a tent and talked a while. Growing up, Nussbaum was ensconced in a welcoming Jewish community, a Reform congregation in the Boston area that was a haven from the homophobia they experienced in public school, and supported their interest in interfaith work. H.U.C., too, was agreeable; in particular, Nussbaum praised its year-in-​Israel program for exposing them to all kinds of Israelis and Palestinians.

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