I am an ardent Zionist, and I raised my children to be Zionists as well. I fostered their passion thoughtfully and deliberately, by serving as a role model: For the better part of the last two decades I have worked as a volunteer in Jewish communal life on a local, national, and international level. Inspired by my example, my oldest child served as a lone soldier in the Nahal combat brigade of the Israeli Defense Forces. His younger sisters also are committed Zionists and proud of their Jewish heritage.
I was recently named to sit on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel. I’m thrilled to be part of this organization as, in my view, it acts as the largest bridge between diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel. Next week, the board of governors meeting will take place in Jerusalem, and the leaders of JAFI will set a new course for the organization, potentially reshaping the Jewish world.
In June, I took part in the JAFI Lab in Jersey City. More than 100 leaders of Jewish organizations from around the globe participated in a three-day group-think exercise, narrowing down the issues that the Jewish Agency faces and making recommendations for its future. This global leadership included the heads of major foundations, including the Adelson and Schusterman; executives from important federations, including New York, Miami, and Washington; many seasoned volunteers and executive directors of major institutions; and, in a groundbreaking development, the head of J Street Israel. I watched and listened over the course of three days. We workshopped and debated.
I was disappointed that there were very few young people present, and no Jews of color. I was told, however, that this meeting was a breakthrough in that several foundations that had never been involved with JAFI before were willing to participate now.
Our first exercise was to create a timeline of significant world changes. Participants were asked to volunteer to add notable dates. After some time, we added the birth of the State of Israel in 194 and the U.N.’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; both happened in 1948. At the same time, I was mystified that no one pointed out that the Palestinians think of 1948 as the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe,” and I was struck by the fact that no one put the first or second intifadas, in 1987 and 2001, on the timeline.
When we went into our small breakouts, I mentioned these omissions to my fellow participants. One gentleman, who spoke in a near-whisper with a thick Israeli accent, replied, “There is no conflict in Israel.” Incredulous, I asked him to repeat himself. “There is no conflict in Israel,” he repeated, this time more emphatically. I was astounded. I said that quite a few other people might disagree.
At this point, the gentleman became more aggressive. He looked me in the eye and said, “You Americans don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m Israeli, I’m 52 years old, and my son serves in the army.” I replied, “I do know what I’m talking about. I’m American, I’m 52 years old, and my son served as a combat soldier in the Israeli army.” The gentleman was so dumbfounded that he walked out of the room. It turns out he is a former colonel and runs an NGO that assists Russian immigrants. He is also on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency.
I was so proud of the courageous young representative from J Street. It was the first time that a group that disagrees with the Israeli government’s right-wing policies was represented. Unfortunately, when she stood up during one of the final plenaries and discussed the idea of defined borders, J Street’s young representative was hissed. I then noticed that my friend the colonel again left the room. As representatives of Jewish institutions, the act of truly hearing and listening is our biggest challenge. We must listen to young Jews’ issues and their identity struggles. If we simply walk out of the room, or hiss at them, we will lose them forever.
As part of my studies at Columbia University, I have just finished Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land,” which is a beautifully written, nonbiased account of the conflict. After his book first was published, Shavit went on a tour of Jewish America, were he was bedazzled and amazed by the strength and beauty of the Jewish community, but, like me, he was mystified about the lack of young people in the room. In response, he embarked on a two-year tour of American college campuses. (His tour was marred by accusations of sexual harassment, to which he admitted, but that did not affect his insights about the American Jewish community.)
What Shavit found was that “Israel’s nationalist-religious policies create significant friction between enlightened American values and what is erroneously perceived as the new and ugly face of Zionism.” Its nationalist policies have caused a rift with the majority of young people in the United States who are non-Orthodox and have progressive, liberal values. According to Shavit, many crave Jewish identity and Jewish values but “oppose the Israeli government’s pugnacious policies of occupation and settlements.” He says that “anyone (on campus) who identifies openly as Zionist —even as an ultra-liberal Zionist — is immediately branded an oppressor, a genocide-monger…The only ethnic group that gets no respect on campus …is the Jewish one.” One student told him that, “Israel is making it so hard for me with what it’s doing in the West Bank and Gaza.”
I believe that in order for the Jewish Agency to truly be in touch with diaspora Jewry, particularly American Jewry, it needs to pivot in order to address Israel’s policies. While older generations may support Israel unequivocally, the next generation is having difficulty doing so. For young American Jews, the liberal, humanist, progressive version of Jewish American identity refuses to allow the conflict to be ignored. The recently passed nation-state law, the reneging of the Western Wall decision, the marginalizing of the Ethiopian community, questions of marriage, divorce and conversion, and, of course, the treatment of the Palestinian population and the settlement project all sit badly with young American Jews.
Our institutions must pivot our policies and do a better job in fostering a positive, strong narrative of non-Orthodox Judaism and Israel that can allow these young people to be proud of their Jewish heritage and pass it along to their children. The Jewish Agency is deciding on its direction and how to foster peoplehood among world Jewry. I hope and pray that it courageously addresses these issues head on, and truly changes the course of our world for the better.
Dana Post Adler of Tenafly has been a Jewish communal leader for the better part of the last two decades. She is a new member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel and recently has begun graduate work in human rights at Columbia University.