2018-2019 Brandeis University CAMERA Fellow Sarah Berkowitz

It is no secret that young Jewish Americans are opinionated and passionate about the State of Israel. With Israel groups on college campuses and majors dedicated to studying Israel and the Middle East, it is easy to actively engage with the conversation.

Jewish Americans are taking this interest further and spending extended time in Israel through gap years and summer programs. Despite this first-hand exposure to life in Israel, American Jews and Israeli Jews espouse different views of the future of Israel’s national security. 

For instance, both groups’ motives for political involvement are different. While Jewish Americans engage with Israeli politics out of interest or feeling of responsibility from the diaspora, Jewish Israelis do so out of necessity. Rather than acting from a place of concern for the climate on a college campus, Jewish Israelis are greatly impacted by political decisions, especially given Israel’s draft policy, which dictates that Israelis must serve for two or three years in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

In contrast, while the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for 18 years, our daily lives are unaffected by the war thousands of miles away. Moreover, many Americans are unaware or unphased by the war in Afghanistan. According to the Charles Koch Institute, only 44 percent of Americans knew that the war in Afghanistan was the longest war in U.S. history. Young Israelis have not had the luxury of being uninformed, as their childhood was marked by conflict and military action. 

These young Israelis also witnessed multiple wars and the withdrawal from Gaza. Laura Adkins and Ben Sales of the Times of Israel noted that this upbringing has “led many young Jewish Israelis to resent any leader who is willing to cede any more land currently under Israeli control.” As traumatic conflicts riddled their childhood, some of these young adults are now vehemently against security compromises. While these young adults have seen periods of peace, tensions have remained high throughout their young lives. 

Image result for gaza disengagement
Soldiers evacuate Jewish residents of Gaza during the 2005 disengagement (myjewishlearning.com).

In contrast to these views, young Americans have a more convoluted view towards Israeli policy regarding national security. Among young Americans and Israelis of the same demographic, there is a wide variety of opinions. Generally speaking, young Jewish conservatives tend to lean to the right on Israeli politics as well. These young Jews will likely approve of the close relationship between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu and their shared opinion on Israel’s national security.

Given Trump’s close relationship with Netanyahu, young liberals are often uncomfortable supporting Netanyahu’s policies. This concern for Trump’s relationship with Netanyahu is echoed by Thomas Friedman, opinion columnist for the New York Times, who stated that the two leaders are “essentially the same person, and they pose the same threat to their respective nations.”

Several scholars have attempted to explain the discrepancy between Jewish Americans and Jewish Israelis. First, many commentators reason that Israeli millennials have grown up during an interesting time in Israel, which likely explains why they are voting differently than their parents.

An Israeli currently serving in the IDF was likely born between 1997 and 2001. This means that they grew up during the Second Intifada, which began in 2000 and changed the perception of safety in Israel. Violence was no longer constricted to the battlefield as suicide bombings killed civilians and rocket attacks hit populated towns. These young adults also experienced the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and the Second Lebanon war.

The aftermath of a suicide bombing during the Second Intifada (timesofisrael.com)

National security is consistently a top issue for Israelis. A Jerusalem Post poll from February noted that 26 percent of Israelis said national security was a top priority. Interestingly, nine percent said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was their top priority.

This reveals that among Israelis, national security and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not synonymous. Israel is located in a challenging and unstable neighborhood surrounded by countries that openly express animosity towards the Jewish state. One could easily argue that Israel’s only truly safe and secure border is to the West – the Mediterranean Sea. 

In contrast, in the United States, the two terms are frequently used interchangeably. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is understood to be the main and greatest threat to Israel’s national security. In North America, national security is a concern, but only to the extent it is for citizens of any powerful nation. 

This confusion can be attributed to the fact that despite research and visits, Americans cannot fully grasp the complexities or difficulties surrounding Israel’s national security, the impact it has on civilians, and the threats Israel faces. For outsiders, it is easy to feel that national security is only a concern when something appears in the news. To Israelis, this issue is a priority and one that affects their daily lives.

Intellectual debate is integral to democracies such as the United States and Israel. Rather than rushing to judgement or virtue signalling, we could benefit from engaging in productive dialogue. As a diaspora with diverse backgrounds, it is expected that we have differing opinions, but they do not need to divide us so strongly.

Contributed by 2018-2019 Brandeis University CAMERA Fellow Sarah Berkowitz.

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