Israel’s military operations in Lebanon may represent a greater test of American Jewry’s resolve and engagement with the Jewish state than of Israel’s military capacity. For more than two decades, observers of the Jewish scene have commented on the decline of American Jewish support for Israel. Studies in part confirm this shift away from the special attachment and commitment American Jews once felt for Israel’s cause.
The 1982 Peace for Galilee Campaign waged in Lebanon, the first Palestinian intifada that began in 1987 and subsequent events over the past 20 years were seen as dividing American Jews and undermining their support for the Jewish state.
Some in the ranks of Jewish leadership countered this notion, arguing that engagement with Israel represented a cyclical phenomenon and that our communal apparatus would ratchet up its advocacy and fund-raising infrastructures whenever there was a pressing need for American Jewish participation.
Others suggested that due to controversial Israeli policy decisions in the human-rights sphere and concerning territorial concessions, support for the Jewish state had evaporated in many liberal circles.
More directly, many Jews dispirited by Israeli actions had stepped away, while younger Jews seemed uninterested and uneducated in the realities of Middle Eastern politics, specifically the dramatic and complex story of Israel’s creation.
Correspondingly, much of the debate over Jewish identity has centered on the measure of support that Israel enjoys today among American Jews. An American Jewish Committee study released in April 2006 included a number of interesting observations.
One of the most interesting was the across-the-board, high level of resonance of the Holocaust in shaping Jewish identification. For most American Jews born before 1965, the major Jewish shaping experiences were the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel.
Many scholars have argued that the impact of these events should decrease with time, yet there appears to be a divergent response: The Holocaust continues to be profoundly important to a broad spectrum of young Jews, while Israel appears much less important in positively affecting Jewish identity.
In no small measure, birthright israel was designed and introduced as a countermeasure to these identity trends. Similarly, a broad array of Israel advocacy programs on college campuses have appeared, driven by the concern to engage younger Jews in promoting the case for Israel.
If Jewish connections to Israel had weakened over time, that most likely would be reflected in general American public opinion. On the contrary, however, recent polls show that, by a four-to-one ratio, Israel is seen both as a special friend to the United States and as representing anti-terrorism policies that align with America’s interests.
Similarly, as one peruses the letters-to-the-editor pages of U.S. newspapers, it’s hard not to be struck by the voices of American Jews anguishing over Israel’s right to defend itself or calling on the U.S. government to pressure Israel to make concessions as a way to leverage peace at this moment.
Many younger American Jews face an absence of information and rootedness regarding Israel and its story. In part, this disconnect is tied to the politics of disregard that seemed to define American Jewish institutional disengagement from Israel during the first intifada and beyond. Many in the community seemed to remove themselves from conscious involvement with Israel.
The price of this political and cultural disconnect is a generation of younger Jews less equipped to reflect on the dimensions of Israel’s historic struggle for normalcy or on its geopolitical environment. This may be the single greatest tragedy of American Jewish indifference.
As media reports and Web postings about Israeli military operations grab our attention, one of the primary questions we may need to ask is, where will American Jews be in this latest challenge facing Israel?
Will we witness something like the period after the 1967 Six-Day War, a renaissance of Jewish commitment? Or far more troubling, will there be silence during these critical hours and days, an absence of American Jewish voices in offering statements of support or engaging in solidarity events?
Steven Windmueller is dean of Hebrew Union College’s Los Angeles campus.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.