The War & Diaspora Jews

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From Eyal Press

With the war in Gaza on pause, at least for a week, it's worth reflecting on the generational rift it has exposed in a community often assumed to be united in its feelings about Israel: American Jews.  As this article in the Canadian National Post notes, while the justness and proportionality of Israel's military campaign was self-evident to the likes of Alan Dershowitz and William Kristol, it was less apparent to a growing circle of young Jewish bloggers: Spencer Ackerman, Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, Dana Goldstein. 

Accused by Marty Peretz of hating their inheritance, these writers can more accurately be described as speaking for their generation.  As a 2006 survey of American Jews underwritten by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies found, the attitude that Israel can do no wrong has decreased dramatically among Jews under 35, only a small fraction of whom are "always proud" of Israel.  A mere 54 percent are even comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.

The Bronfman survey excluded Orthodox Jews, who tend to identify more with Israel, but it also underrepresented Jews aged 21 to 24, leading its authors to speculate that the real level of attachment among young Jews is even lower than what they found.  Cultural assimilation - rising intermarriage rates, less participation in Jewish education - explains part of the pattern.  So does the fact that, as the work of the above bloggers suggests, fewer and fewer young Jews appear to have internalized the idea that criticizing Israel amounts to a form of self-hatred.  Some have even dared to suggest that failing to criticize Israel when its actions are reckless or shortsighted risks endangering the long-term well-being not only of Israelis but also Diaspora Jews.  The incursion into Gaza, Dana Goldstein wrote,

seems manufactured in opposition to the founding idea of the Zionist project itself -- that the world should be made safe for Jews. And that if the larger world could not be safe, than at least one place -- the Promised Land -- should be...  Asking young Jews to fight and die in a ground war, one whose perpetration inflames anti-Semitic sentiments, is not the best way to make Israel, or the world at large, safe for the Jewish people. And sure enough, it is tragic to learn that due to the fighting in Gaza, Jews in France, Sweden, Belgium, and Denmark have suffered anti-Semitic violence and vandalism in recent days.

I grew up in a household where merely to suggest such a thing was sacrilegious: Israel fought wars because it had to, not because it chose to.  It was reviled because it exists, not because its actions fueled hatred.  And if it didn't exist, Jews everywhere would be less secure, dependent on the goodwill of people in other countries.  An argument can be made that the war in Gaza was launched against an implacable foe that will never yield to compromise.  The much tougher sell is convincing Jews like Goldstein that, with protests erupting throughout the world against a campaign seen as brutal and excessive (all while the Palestinian dream of a homeland remains unrealized), subjecting Israel's conduct to critical scrutiny is somehow improper or unfaithful.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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