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Generation Why: Young American Jews and Israeli Exceptionalism

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It was on Sunday nights at Temple Bet Ha'am in South Portland, Maine -- a reform congregation my mother started in 1985 -- that I first learned to think and talk about Israel. For members of my religion, Israel is the physical manifestation of our endurance as a people; though a younger political entity than Joe Lieberman, the nation represents the ancient beating heart of our identity, earthen evidence of our triumph over a history of violent oppression and unending hate. Halfway across the globe, American Jews end their Passover Seders with the words "next year in Jerusalem," and in Hebrew schools from Boro Park to Fairfax Avenue the children of Americans who were born alongside Israel in the aftermath of World War II have learned to love and protect the world's only Jewish state.

It has become clear to me in the wake of the botched flotilla raid of last week that loving Israel means something starkly different to different generations of American Jews. For those who lived through the Yom Kippur War, for whom the very survival of the Jewish people has been at times a terrifying uncertainty, love means never having to say you're sorry. Every policy of the Israeli government is justified in the name of self-preservation, acts of apparent aggression are in fact preemptive defenses against enemies whose sole desire is Jewish extinction, and any reactions among the international community that question -- even in the slightest regard -- the propriety of Israel's actions are borne of the rotten fruit of anti-Semitism. For those of us who came of age in a world where the Holocaust was a tragedy of the past -- a chapter in a book rather than the memory of a parent -- Israel is a sacred and beloved state, but not one that we tend to connect viscerally to our own sense of survival.

The fundamental disconnect that exists between generations of American Jews has of late widened the gulf of commonality when it comes to how best to support Israel. For many Jews my age, who love Israel and strive to nourish her efforts to thrive in a hostile region, defending her actions in Gaza has too often become an immense moral struggle that requires the suspension of our values as human beings and, notably, the suspension of our values as Jews. Where many older American Jews see a faultless and holy entity struggling simply and nobly to exist, we of the younger persuasion see a government -- a special government, presiding over a place near and dear to our hearts, but a government nonetheless -- with the capacity to make wrong decisions in light of a tortuous history. Some among my mother's friends rejoice in violent attacks on Palestinians who seek to harm Israel, while my friends cringe at the initiation of bloodshed by Jews. We see their aggressive stance as zealotry and paranoia; they see our discomfort as abandonment and naiveté.

The silver cord of friendship that has bound America to Israel for sixty-two years is today threatened by this discrepancy in viewpoints. Older American Jews for the most part insist upon the sort of relationship in which the American government grants Israel its full-throated support in all circumstances, operating under the theory that the need to strenuously and unwaveringly champion the Jewish state over the forces of evil supersedes any ephemeral political concerns that may arise from specific incidents. This is neither morally (let alone politically) wise, nor is it, in fact, true friendship. As one of my all-time favorite members of the Tribe, Toby Ziegler, would say, friends have to be honest with each other. Older generations may dismiss the capability of America to be an ardent supporter of Israel while at the same time admonishing her when admonishment is called for, but the tired ethos of "you're either with us or against us" ultimately serves no one: not America, not Israel, and least of all peace -- a fact that has become increasingly apparent given recent events.

I believe that the strong opinions of my elders arise from a place of eternally-justified love and once-justified fear. While I respect the considerable judgment and experience of those who came before me, a place for rationality and dispassionate thinking must be carved out of what has become a purely and furiously emotional discourse if the American-Israeli friendship is to remain strong and effective in years to come. After all, as Shakespeare put it so eloquently, hath not a Jew eyes? I pray for Israel to always be worthy of America's unflappable protection, but I cannot close my eyes at those times when they are not. As a human being, I cannot ignore evidence. As a Jew, I cannot support violence and vengeance. In our own way, young American Jews love Israel no less than do our parents' generation, and we demonstrate our affection by holding our brothers and sisters to a higher standard. We protect and defend Israel's leaders as much as we are able, but ask in return that they behave like Jews. The love of Israel is the love of an idea, an idea we share as Jews, and is not the love of a government of men. This does not mean that I don't abhor the actions of Israel's enemies, true anti-Semites who repeatedly and viciously assault her and who are offended by her very existence. When it is Israel, however, that succumbs to anger and chooses to jettison even the slimmest possibility of peace in favor of the fleeting, hollow satisfaction of vengeance, I am heartbroken and embarrassed as a Jew. When I am myself beset by troubles, and walking a road that leads away from happiness, I count on my friends to set me straight. Israel would be wise to insist upon such friendship from America, and American Jews of all ages would be wise to provide it.

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