Growing Intolerance, Focus on Israel Driving Youth Away from Organized American Jewry

By Brownfeld, Allan C. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2014 | Go to article overview

Growing Intolerance, Focus on Israel Driving Youth Away from Organized American Jewry


Brownfeld, Allan C., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


As the organized American Jewish community has made identification with the State of Israel the centerpiece of its activities, more and more young people, as well as others, have withdrawn from participation. Israeli flags are to be found in many synagogues, aliyah, or emigration to Israel, is promoted as a virtue, and young people are told that Israel is their "homeland" and that they are in "exile" in their own country. This is hardly a message which resonates with them.

At the same time, we are witnessing increased limitations upon free and open debate within the Jewish community and a growing intolerance of diversity which are alienating an increasing number of men and women of all ages, but particularly the young.

In an article headlined "The American Jewish Thought Police On Patrol," Marshall Breger, a professor at Catholic University, writes in the Nov.-Dec. 2013 issue of Moment that the organized American Jewish community has imposed "increased pressure for conformity and 'orthodoxy' in political views: recent bans on the use of Hillel facilities by Jewish students who support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement; efforts to cancel Jewish Federation funding of theater groups that mount controversial plays drawn from conflicts in Israeli society; and efforts to deny a communal voice to Jews who oppose settlements on the West Bank. This is trouble for anyone who cares about the American Jewish community and the future of Israel."

The desire to project a picture of "Jewish unity" with regard to Israel, argues Breger, now "encompasses the rejection of controversial political positions even when they are held by a substantial number...of Israel's population. It is passing strange that even where 35, 40 or 49 percent (let alone 51 or 55 percent) of the Israeli population is prepared to criticize specific actions of the Israeli government, the American Jewish thought police will censor similar discussion. Even more absurd, any semblance of the robust political debate one can see daily in Israeli newspapers and Israeli plays, books and movies is verboten in the American Jewish establishment's vision of a Jewish polity."

"The younger generation of Jews demands a new paradigm for engaging with Israel."

The examples of such efforts to stifle free speech are many. The Jewish Student Union at the University of California, Berkeley, rejected the membership application of the student arm of J Street, J Street U. Thus, the student branch of an organization whose annual conference is attended by Israeli ministers and members of the Knesset, including Likud members, was deemed outside the Jewish consensus. According to the Dec. 29, 2013 New York Times, "Hillel's...staffmembers on more than a dozen campuses have refused to allow J Street U...to co-sponsor events. The explanation was that donors to Hillel do not support J Street, which supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but is critical of Israeli settlement building and the occupation of the West Bank."

Recently, there was an effort to have the Boston Jewish Federation cut its ties with Leonard Fein, the co-founder of Moment, a columnist for The Forward and a Labor Zionist leader. His crime was writing a column advocating that American Jews not visit Ariel, a settlement 15 kilometers into the West Bank whose location makes territorial contiguity for any future Palestinian state virtually impossible. Leading Israeli intellectuals, including Amos Oz, David Grossman, actors of the Israeli National Theater Habima, as well as many average Israelis, have refused to visit or perform in Ariel for the same reason.

In Washington, DC, a group calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art sought to force the local Jewish Community Center's highly regarded Theater J to cancel a performance of a controversial play by the award-winning Israeli playwright Motti Lerner. Citizens Opposed claimed that the script of his play "The Admission" defamed Israel by drawing on disputed claims of a 1948 massacre of Palestinians. …

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