A quotation from Israel Policy Forum Chair Susie Gelman in a recent Haaretz article has stuck with me since first reading it. Following Netanyahu’s welcoming encouragement of the Otzma Yehudit party back into Israeli politics, Susie said:

Not only did it resonate with me, but it was circulated widely through retweets by various invested individuals like IPF Atid Los Angeles leader Joe Goldman, Brookings’ foreign affairs director Tamara Cofman Wittes, and even with the Israeli NGO leader Uri Keidar of Yisrael Hofsheet. It is through this intergenerational context and conversation, that I now attempt to channel the perspectives and experiences of the dozens – indeed hundreds and hundreds by now – of IPF Atidniks around the country who are increasingly grappling with these difficult issues as a result of Israel Policy Forum’s new work with my millennial generation.

It’s not only Susie’s words that I’d like to piggyback off of, but also those of Michael Koplow. Israel Policy Forum’s Policy Director adds in his 2018 “Does Israel Owe Us Anything?” column that while younger generations zoom in on Israel’s actions, the “much larger segment of American Jews that still feels a strong connection to and pride in Israel is driven by something less tangible but more emotionally resonant, which is not what Israel does but what Israel is.” Applying this framing to American Jewish political actions over the past few decades until now, one can see how the attachment to Israel’s symbolic being has sustained the unifying concepts of Jewish peoplehood as we know it, as well as the broad bipartisan advocacy for Israel.

When on the road with Israel Policy Forum, I will often hear questions from younger generations like “Why can’t Israel just stop doing this, or start doing that?” – while more seasoned community members will ask “Why can’t millennials just love Israel for what it is? Why are they so focused on the conflict?” In this context, we can see how Koplow’s framing helps explain both the relative lack of opposition to Israel’s 52-year control over the West Bank and its Palestinians on the part of American Jewish institutions, as well as in the dynamics playing out with new organizations that challenge the prevailing talking points. In sum, young American Jews are challenging this foundation because they are less inclined to view Israel primarily through its symbolism and are much more likely to interact with it just like all other countries: by the words, policies, and actions it takes.

Was this generational rift inevitable? Are second and third-generation survivors of the Holocaust or the 1948 expulsion from Arab lands bound to take the Jewish State for granted as the twentieth century fades into historical memory? Since I was born just a few days after Israel Policy Forum was founded in September 1993, it’s hard for me to answer that purely from a historical perspective. My best attempt at this, however, is through an experience I know is shared by thousands of other millennial Jews from trips we took as young adults:

After experiencing all the mixed, positive emotions walking from Independence Hall down Rothschild Street through modern Zionism’s most trendy foothold in Tel Aviv, our group arrives at Rabin Square in the heart of the city. I can still hear the different tour guides in my memories: “This was right where it happened. This is where the prime minister was assassinated. And this was where President Clinton spoke to our nation and our people: ‘Shalom Chever.’”

For me and my friends listening, we couldn’t help but latch on to that endless ideal that Rabin, and Israel represented. A Jewish warrior of measured optimism who died for the cause of peace and for a better future for his entire people: this is what Israel is, what Israel symbolizes, and what Israel does.

I cannot state with confidence that had Rabin’s vision for peace been realized, we would be in a much different place in this generational dilemma.  Perhaps if it had, the generation that built the state could have gradually transitioned Israel’s future over to the next generation beneficiaries of their (and many of your) efforts and investments. Perhaps Israel’s next chapter of integration into the modern Middle East would have been written. However, we know how this story unfolded. Many many more lives were lost to terror and war. My Israeli cousins remain in uniform while their most intimate neighbors are in refugee camps or the isolated enclaves of Areas A/B.

What I can state with more confidence, and on behalf of the broader IPF Atid network, is that it is becoming more and more difficult to advocate for, let alone attract new supporters to, the Israel of today. From speaking with Israeli friends just about everyday things, touring the Old City through its various quarters, or reading Times of Israel stories on Knesset happenings, I believe the same disconnect is likely true for the non-Atid community as well. The important part to remember, though, is that previous generations did succeed in passing along Zionist values to successive ones. But it is far from guaranteed that this will remain the case for current generations through the rest of the twenty-first century.

What Gives Me Optimism

IPF Atid representatives and leaders often encounter questions like “Why still do this work?” or “What gives you optimism?” I have many answers to this question, and some days my response contains more shrugs and ambivalence than confidence. However, my most simple answer is that people are showing up. And a lot of them. We launched IPF Atid a year and a half ago in July of 2017, and our biggest challenge to date has been keeping up with its energetic growth and expanding number of volunteers who want to be at the forefront of this work. Programs are now operating in San Francisco and Boston, adding to the network of four self-sustaining chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC. Our first ever call for applications from last year’s Charles Bronfman Conveners Summit yielded nearly one hundred high quality candidates for only twenty-five spots. I am inspired to see how IPF Atid’s community has people coming from all corners of the pro-Israel world, united in their hunger for nuanced Israel education and pragmatic ideas for Israel’s future. From grassroots progressive leaders in Forest Hills to Christian pro-Israel professionals in Chicago to everything in between, it has been a fun and illuminating ride to engage with the thousands of IPF Atidniks across the continent.

Maybe we should really ask then: Why are all of these millennials showing up at IPF Atid? Why do they crave this Israel education and these two-state solution conversations? First, let’s acknowledge that similar to the wider community, most American Jewish millennial leaders still fundamentally believe in the value of Israel’s existence as the one Jewish homeland. This same majority also understands, even to a disproportionate degree at times, the agency we have in maintaining this Zionist existence, especially through bipartisan advocacy for a strong US-Israel relationship. So whether one is looking at young Jews inside the convention centers or outside them (yes, even including some of those protesting), American Jewish volunteer and professional leaders should understand the immense success it has achieved in gifting me and my generation with this deep appreciation for Israel and world Jewry.

What Gives Me Deep Worry – Taking Trends To Their Logical Conclusions

One of the most impactful experiences I had in Israel began almost exactly four years ago to the day when I studied abroad in Jerusalem. The similarities are eerily similar to the 2019 context. Israelis were soon headed to the polls in another consequential election for the future of the country and by extension, global Jewish community. Most commentary and polls showed the continued leadership for Prime Minister Netanyahu, amidst glimmers of hope emanating from a newly-announced Isaac Herzog-Tzipi Livni merger.

Similar to the rhetoric of today, it’s speculated that the Likud’s 2015 electoral win received a late, consequential bump when Bibi pleaded for votes by proclaiming, “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.” After a full day spent getting out the vote with members of the Zionist Union list on Election Day, I tried to resume my normal routine of exploring Jerusalem and building new friendships. Yet, that same feeling of impending crisis I felt the morning after Netanyahu’s 2015 win has largely never left my conscious. It has slowly yet very clearly also penetrated the contemporary Jewish communal and political discourses, ranging from the Jewish press to the opinion pages of the New York Times. At the time, my primary concern was not how Israeli-Palestinian relations would survive through another Netanyahu coalition, but rather Israel’s relationship with American Jewry. How would Zionism fare in the twenty-first century if such racism would be normalized and rewarded? I returned from my semester abroad with a renewed sense of Zionist purpose and have remained intimately involved in US-Israel relations since, eventually leading me to the small-but-mighty organization Isaac Herzog himself helped start in Israel Policy Forum.

Even with another electoral victory secured by the Likud and Israel’s right-wing camp this month, I don’t believe we are in a crisis moment yet. I believe we are more accurately in the midst of a large readjustment phase. Whereas now they represent the entry and mid-level professionals and young lay leaders, millennials who look beyond Israel’s symbolism into its actions will soon be the large majority. Given that we’re already seeing more and more American rabbis refuse to mention Israel from the bima, increasing numbers of young and old Jews hesitant to say the “Z word” (Zionism), and more and more American Jews feeling at risk of being detained at Ben Gurion airport for a number of different reasons, I think it would be irresponsible to not take today’s trends and warning signs to their logical conclusions. This is why what gives me deep worry is not actually what our community will look like after this month’s elections or in November 2020, but what a not-so-distant 2040 will bring.

In 2040, could the credibility of today’s communal Jewish life mainstays, from Federations to JCRCs to pro-Israel PACs, steadily erode into irrelevance amongst a more vocal opposition group of Jewish Americans? For the future philanthropists and lay leaders not resigning from Israel causes, this group of passionate new Jewish donors could simply recreate brand new institutions to compete in the space. This hypothetical ecosystem would see multiple camps of American Zionist thinking containing contradictory definitions and narratives, with the broader message of the Jewish people and Israel severely weakened and in disarray. A small minority of courageous, highly knowledgeable rabbis would maybe still engage on Israel with congregants, while the vast majority would forbid any discussions about it within shul. Perhaps in this hypothetical scenario, the notion of Israel serving as the nation-state for all Jewish people would become a remnant of the past’s consensus. It could be replaced with a more loyal American minority who values Jewish survival above all other concerns, including human rights and democracy. The more widely-held opinion in America (and certainly in liberal circles) would convey that Israel’s policies and act of being, directly and indirectly a result of inaction with the Palestinian issue, are antithetical to what it means to be an American, let alone an American Jew. Just as many American Jewish groups could be at risk of being blacklisted from entering Israel or meeting with Israeli government representatives as those granted approval to do so. Whenever Israel needed mobilization in Washington, the Ambassador’s first and second calls would be to non-Jewish Zionist community leaders. As American Jewry fell into disunity, its bipartisan pro-Israel political message would risk absolution, endangering Israel’s international, regional, and even domestic well-being. In many ways, Zionism would simply not be Zionism anymore.

This is not a reality we should be accepting. Those who care about these issues cannot give up our current agency and allow these trends and narratives to determine our future. If and when we identify sources of certain problems, we must address them. Leaders and institutions must not feel paralyzed into silence or inaction for any number of reasons. The truth is that things will progress no matter what. And if we want 2040 to resemble the reality that I hope for with my future children, then we must read the writing on the wall. I ask those who may brush my thoughts off as alarmist or detached from today’s reality: where do you see our community going in the next ten, twenty, fifty years?

To be sure, this is not an easy task at all given how much of this is unknown territory. That’s why we at Israel Policy Forum view ourselves as the hand extended in service and partnership to the wider community. We enter communities looking for as many local partners to join our coalitions and programs. Our confidence and credibility in our mission grants us the unique position and responsibility to do so. We will continue to be this resource for high-level leaders, as well as the thousands of young professionals, students, educators, and many more who are finding Israel Policy Forum to be their number one address on these issues.

A Better Atid

You are receiving this dispatch for the same reason that inspires the 29-year-old PR professional to drive through Los Angeles traffic at rush-hour to make it to our next IPF Atid elections event. Or why a 35-year-old who just became a parent for the first time is spending an extra two hours at night to write and submit a personal op-ed for Israel Policy Forum’s blog in response to something happening in the news. Or even the recent college-graduate whose first happy hour in her new home city is an IPF Atid briefing.

The reason is because you understand that in the current moment, bold and forthright ideas and leadership are needed.  You are willing to imagine a far-off scenario many years away that affects me more than it does you.Thank you for thinking ambitiously and creatively with us about the solutions we can dream up together, right now, to right the course for a better atid, a better future.