(JTA) — In addition to juggling school, extracurriculars and trying to fit in, American Jewish teens have the added challenge of trying to foster a relationship with Israel in an increasingly hostile environment. Proposed judicial reforms by Israel’s far-right government and terrorist attacks and reprisals have led to a sense of crisis within Israel and its supporters and critics abroad. Discussions in America about the United States’ continued support for the state are front and center on the political stage, and teens have noticed.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency gathered four teens from across the country to talk about their relationship with Israel. Their thoughts are uniquely influenced by their experiences as American Jewish teens who are constantly surrounded by those who often challenge their support and connection to a country where many have family or friends. They are also hesitant to voice their views about Israel due to fear of backlash from critics of Zionism or being told that they are not pro-Israel enough by its fiercest supporters. An edited transcription of their discussion is below.
JTA: How would you describe your relationship with Israel?
Gayah Hampel, 15, Houston: I have a lot of family in Israel, and I haven’t been there since I was 8 years old, but I really, really want to go again. The trip was a very important part of my life, even though I don’t remember much from it. Israel’s history is very important to me, and I really want to go back to take in all the religious stuff there and all the history, because that really fascinates me.
N.Z.,15, Los Angeles (N.Z. asked that their full name not be used because they do not share that they are Jewish and are concerned about antisemitic attacks): I have some family in Israel, but I only visited there once before COVID started. I’m not totally connected to it, because I don’t really talk to my Israeli cousins a lot since they live so far away and the time zones are far. I don’t really have a huge connection to it.
Avi Wolf, 14, Cleveland: I go to a school that’s based on Zionism, and we learn a lot about Israel and Israeli history in our school. We have a ton of teachers who are from Israel, and I visit every Passover along with keeping in touch with my Israeli friends a lot, so I have a very strong connection to Israel.
Emmie Wolf-Dublin, 15, Nashville: I write a lot about Israel for my local paper. I’ve never been, but I have a lot of family there. It’s really important to have a connection to that land, and I feel like it’s definitely important to me. One thing that I’ve thought a lot about, is the whole idea: Would you go fight for your country, for Israel, if there was some war to happen? I think I would.
JTA: If you had to describe your biggest concern about Israel in one or two words, what would it be?
Wolf: Probably safety.
Hampel: The growing terrorist attacks.
N.Z.: Safety and reputation.
Wolf-Dublin: Reputation, publicity.
JTA: What do you mean when you say reputation?
Wolf-Dublin: My personal belief is that it’s not so much about Israel’s actions, but the way that Hamas and Palestine and the Palestinian Authority present them to the world. We would have a lot fewer issues on our hands if we were more careful about that and [would have] a lot more allies on our side if we made different choices in that sector.
N.Z.: Jewish people are already hated enough, especially in America, just for believing in Judaism. Having the addition of making it seem like we’re stealing this land away from Palestinians, people just find more and more ways to be antisemitic towards us and be like, “Oh, well, we have a reason.” So, the more bad things happen and the more things that get blamed on Israel, the worse antisemitic attacks will become.
JTA: Avi and Gayah, you both talked about safety. Is that safety from terrorism within the country or safety from foreign countries? Or both?
Hampel: I would say both, but mainly, what’s happening inside the country because a lot of people living in Israel are also doing the terrorist attacks and physically attacking army personnel and citizens. So [I’m mainly worried about attacks from the] inside because it’s destroying us from inside, which is much scarier than from outside.
Wolf: It’s mainly that there’s a lot of terror attacks. There are a lot of other countries, like Iran, Syria and Lebanon, who surround Israel. They’re very big enemies with Israel, and they have a lot of power, so it’s always scary for the people inside but also [Israel is] the only Jewish state in the world. It’s the one place that all Jews can go and know they’re safe. If Jews don’t have a homeland anymore, it’d be a big issue.
JTA: What is your opinion on equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism? If someone is anti-Zionist, does that necessarily make them antisemitic?
Wolf: In the past, anti-Zionism and antisemitism were very different things before the creation of Israel, but now, in our modern times, there are Jews who are very anti-Zionist and don’t believe Jews should have Israel. If you’re not a Jew, and you’re just a person who’s anti-the State of Israel, which is the only state of the Jews, you can’t antagonize Israel or be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic, even if it’s indirect.
Wolf-Dublin: I agree, and I would honestly say that denying Israel’s right to exist and denying the Jewish connection, I think Jewish connection to Israel even more so, but Israel’s right to exist too. I feel like they’re both outright antisemitism.
JTA: Have you ever experienced anti-Zionism or antisemitism against you?
N.Z.: I haven’t personally experienced antisemitism because I don’t share that I’m Jewish at my [public] school. I do see a lot of Israel-Palestine stuff online, and people are like, “get the Jews out, give it to Palestine.” We had a basketball game at this Jewish school that some of my old classmates went to a week or two ago, and they played against a non-Jewish school and they were holding up photos of the Palestine flag and swastikas and screaming Kanye West at some of the kids. It was really bad. I don’t know all the details because I wasn’t there, but I heard it was bad.
Wolf-Dublin: I live in Nashville, and Nashville does not have a big Jewish population. It’s in the south, there’s a lot of anti-Israel stuff, especially at school, but there’s also been Holocaust denial. It’s really everywhere, and I’m also really linked in the Jewish community, so I feel like it’s part of that. I had a teacher who had family in Palestine, and she got into this entire fight with me about it. She left earlier on in the year, so that was a win. I don’t understand how you can do that and still call yourself a professional. So I stopped paying attention in that class because why should I pay respect to someone who can’t respect my heritage?
Hampel: I haven’t personally directly towards me, but in seventh grade, a few years ago, when there were rockets firing every day from Hamas into Israel, like non-stop, there were Jews in my grade who were saying, “Israel is in the wrong, they need to stop attacking,” or “they need to stop attacking the innocent Palestinians.” It wasn’t directed towards me, but I still felt like they were, in a way [being anti-Zionist]. It was indirectly affecting me. I do know of Jews who have experienced antisemitism before.
JTA: How comfortable do you feel sharing your attitudes about Israel when around Jews?
Wolf: I feel extremely comfortable sharing all my opinions about Israel, regardless if it is a Jew or not. In Cleveland, most Jews believe in Israel and think the Jews should have a state. I have very strong attitudes towards Israel, and I don’t mind sharing my attitude with other Jews, even if they don’t believe in Israel or think what Israel is doing is wrong because I believe in it. There’s real history, and you can look in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), and you can see the real claims to Israel and everything. That’s why I’m very comfortable sharing with other Jews.
Hampel: I’m extremely comfortable sharing my opinions about Israel with other Jews and also non-Jews as well because I think it’s important. I’ve noticed that there are so many people who don’t know what’s actually going on [in Israel], and the story behind it. It’s important to me that I share that history, and I share my side of [what’s happening in Israel], especially having people in Israel who are very close to me. I’m very comfortable sharing my views on Israel, for that reason. Also it’s part of my personality so even if I don’t mention it, in our friendship, you’ll most likely hear me saying something about Israel.
Wolf-Dublin: I’m sort of both. In terms of Jewishness, I’m always open to talking about that. In terms of talking about Israel with my Jewish friends, I might bring it up, but I’m not always super-wanting to. I don’t know that I generally do pose [questions]. I’m sure I’ve done it before, but with non-Jews, if somebody brought it up to me, I would not be shying away from the conversation. However, I don’t know that I would personally bring it up myself.
N.Z.: I don’t love sharing my opinion of Israel because I’m afraid I might say something wrong, and then people will come after me for it. Sometimes, when I’m not really confident in what I’m saying, I don’t like sharing my opinion because I’m afraid people will try to shame me for it, especially on something so touchy as a subject like this.
JTA: N.Z., you feel that way even around Jews?
N.Z.: Even around Jews, especially. I feel like talking about this kind of stuff would be even more awkward because if I don’t share the same views as them, I feel like they’d be like, “Oh, well, are you trying to say you’re antisemitic or something?”
JTA: How comfortable do you feel sharing your attitudes about Israel when around non-Jews?
Hampel: I’m comfortable sharing my views about Israel with non-Jews. I personally don’t want to bring it up myself, like Emmie said because if they do disagree with me, I don’t like starting arguments. It’s not something that I seek to do, and so if it becomes an argument, and I started it, that doesn’t sit with me right. However, if it comes up, I will definitely, definitely not back down, and I will defend my opinion.
Wolf: I also feel very comfortable sharing with non-Jews, but as opposed to what Gayah said, I feel comfortable bringing it up. I don’t mind if someone wants to argue with me about Israel or its attributes. I would obviously want to make sure to show the proper facts, but I feel very comfortable and confident with non-Jews because it’s the Jewish homeland, and I want to fight for what I believe in.
N.Z.: I guess if I’m really, really being pressured to share my opinion, I would, but it’s definitely not something I’d bring up because I don’t really like getting into fights about such touchy subjects.
JTA: Some of you said that you don’t want to express your attitudes about Israel, because you’re worried about starting fights. Has that happened to you?
Wolf: I’ve definitely gotten into arguments, but it has been with Jewish people. It was very interesting because they were talking about stuff, but I could tell it was from the news, but the media was twisting it. It’s like, “Israel attacks the Gaza Strip and fired a missile at an apartment building.” Yeah, it’s true, but they were just doing it after Hamas had killed a bunch of their civilians.
Hampel: That has happened before. It started not as a conversation about Israel, but it morphed into that, and it was very disappointing to me because it was such a twisted version of Israel that I definitely had not seen before. I definitely don’t believe it at all, any bit of it, and it was also with a Jew.
JTA: To change topics slightly, what have you heard about Israel’s new government?
Hampel: To be completely honest, I do not follow Israeli politics. It’s not that I don’t want to, but I just don’t. It’s more important to me to know about the events that happen, the dangers that happen, I want to know of that, or the good things that happen too, but the politics, I don’t keep up with that at all.
Wolf: I’m pretty involved in the politics and everything. In our Hebrew class, we had a whole week, just learning about the Israeli government, how it works, and my teacher presented to us all the political parties during the election. We learn about it, some good, some bad, and I know there’s a lot going on in the media. It’s kind of hard to get the correct sources since I’m not living in Israel.
N.Z.: I really don’t keep up with politics in general, but I haven’t heard anything about the new Israeli government at all.
Wolf-Dublin: I’m not very happy about it. I’m pretty into politics in general, but I definitely don’t agree with 90% of the things they’re doing. There’s a bill on drag queens in Tennessee right now that’s probably about to get passed that will outlaw anybody performing in drag. That’s the kind of thing that’s alarmingly similar [in Israel, whose new government includes opponents of LGBTQ rights], and I can see that happening in Israel, and that’s not something I want to see.
JTA: Emmie, you’re seeing trends in Tennessee that are similar to what the new Israeli government is proposing?
Wolf-Dublin: Everybody can have their own opinion, but I have a lot of issues with the current government, and I have a lot more issues with what they’re doing with the judicial system.
JTA: Where do you get your info about the Israeli government?
Wolf-Dublin: Either from my dad or just reading.
JTA: Among the political issues that you think are most important. Where would you rank Israel? This can be compared to hot-button issues, like reproductive rights, the economy, immigration, climate change, LGBTQ rights and concerns about democracy. Where on that list, would you rank Israel?
Hampel: I would say for me that it’s pretty high. I wouldn’t say it’s the highest, but it’s pretty high for me, because even if I wasn’t Jewish, Israel produces a lot of things that everyone uses and has so many inventions that we all use. It’s important to keep that safe, and it’s still a democracy. That’s very important in today’s society. It’s not at the top of my list, but it’s pretty high up.
N.Z.: I’m not really a political person, so it’s not really the top thing on my mind, but it’s definitely an issue that I read up about every now and then.
Wolf-Dublin: I don’t know that I have a clear ranking. I don’t think I could clearly rank it, but I would say it’s important, but its politics are only as important to me as a citizen of the world and not so much. Its existence is important to me.