by Anthony Ashworth-Steen and Robin Moss
Let’s talk about adolescence. It starts when a child is 11 or 12 years old – hormones are pumping and change is afoot. Whereas before, relations with parents were cordial, they now seem to demand space, respect, individualism. Parents are pleased to see them becoming independent, but also worried about some of their behaviours and moods (which are often angry and occasionally self-destructive). Parents find themselves, too, acting badly towards them, and realise that they are, if only subconsciously, holding onto past experiences and expectations. They aren’t the parents’ “mini-mes” anymore, and they shouldn’t have to agree with their parents on everything. This process of (semi-)detachment is painful and emotional for both sides. They still love each other, but often it doesn’t feel like there is much mutual respect.
Adolescence isn’t a bad way to look at the generational divide among British Jews when it comes to Israel. As educators at UJIA, the UK Jewish community’s central Israel Engagement agency, we see a generation gap opening up and while we are worried about this trend we are also optimistic about how the conversation could be re-shaped to ensure a more productive exchange of ideas.
Let’s start across the pond. The American Jewish community has become aware, and academic studies have shown, that young Jews are more distant from/less connected to/less supportive of Israel than older generations. Young American Jews are becoming more “left-wing” (in Israeli terms) in their views on Israel. They are far more likely to express opposition to Israeli government policies, and have an instinctive scepticism about education based on classical Zionist narratives.
Here in the UK, there is less systematic evidence, however the trends are starting to suggest that the same processes are underway. In the 2013 JPR (our community’s central research institute) communal survey, one of the most striking finds was the drop-off in how central “supporting Israel” was seen in the Jewish identity of younger people, and a study released just last year by researchers at City University showed that age and “dovishness” are negatively correlated – i.e. that younger British Jews are more “left-wing” on Israel. The emergence in our community of more vocal “left-wing” organisations committed to Israel and Israel education, such as Yachad and the resurgence of the UK branch of the New Israel Fund, are visible expressions of fundamental generational shifts bubbling under the surface.
We see effects of these changes in our work all the time. A few examples:
- Witnessing running battles on Facebook/Twitter between (mostly younger) left-wing Jews and (mostly older) right-wing Jews that is a mixture of argumentation, sarcasm and borderline (or actual) abuse.
- Shouting matches at pro-Israel conferences between older members and young people. We have sat in sessions where adults have interrupted and heckled young Jews because they disagree with their politics
- Siloisation of education in a variety of educational spaces such as schools and youth movements which leave no room for nuance one way or the other. One young person we interviewed, for instance, said that his youth movement seemed to be a “left-wing bubble” and his Jewish school a “right-wing bubble”; and as such, he didn’t really feel comfortable to engage with his own complex feelings about Israel in either space
The irony, of course, is that the generational divide over Israel actually masks a fundamental symmetry in critique. Young People complain that the mainstream, adult community only allows one narrative to exist inside their tent. “They never talk about occupation/IDF misdemeanours/attacks on left-wing NGOs etc”, say the young people. Older communal leaders complain that the young people only allow one narrative to exist inside their tent. “They never talk about positive things Israel does/pride in Israel/IDF’s relative morality compared to other armies etc.”, say the communal leadership.
Both perspectives are diametrically opposed, but ultimately see in the other the same sin: the lack of space in the other’s narrative for a “truly” broad conception of Israel.
Both sides need to understand and internalise this tension and consider a common vision for enabling this to happen.
Communal leadership needs to embrace multiple narratives within the community and initiate an open-minded engagement with young people – our suggestion is that the communal leaders have a regular forum with young people to hear their voices to start implementing this change.
On the other side, young people need to accept that not every opinion about Israel will be aired every time by the communal leadership and approach engagement with the community with an open mind and good faith. Young people should be passionately engaged in campaigns that speak directly to them but also recognise that sometimes it is important to have communal solidarity.
Where the balance lies on this, of course, is where the argument will get heated, but we would hope that when both young people and the communal leadership see each other as working for the same goal – a vibrant British Jewish community engaged with Israel in all its richness and complexity – this conversation can be positive and productive.
How might we move towards this reality? We would suggest three principles for all parties to bear in mind.
- Avoid siloisation. One of the ironies of the internet is that while we have access to more information and a wider range of voices, we actually tend to narrow our range of providers of information and analysis. Our Twitter feed becomes a mass of voices that reinforce our pre-existing opinions and convictions. Facebook’s algorithms slowly but surely reduces what we see to material which confirms, not challenges, our views.
- Embrace open-mindedness. The language of open-mindedness is very much in vogue, whereas the practice of open-mindedness seems to us to be going out of fashion. Too many educational spaces are becoming monovocal, with a set of pre-existing assumptions about who is invited to speak, which topics can and cannot be raised, which positions will command the respect and appreciation of the learners and so on. Very few educators have the courage to bring in people, ideas or resources from a different perspective to their own, allowing learners to come to their own conclusions. We see open-mindedness as a virtue, and experiences that challenge pre-existing views as educative.
- Israel education needs to move beyond the political. This is important both to create a common ground whereby the generations can truly meet and appreciate the same aspects of Israel (be they cultural, linguistic, intellectual or anything else), whilst still respectfully disagreeing about the politics, but also because an Israel engagement that is only politics is not sustainable in the long term. We are not saying that people who profoundly disagree on the nature of Israeli government policy towards the Palestinians should “just eat hummus together and chill out”. But rather that educators have a responsibility to ensure that learners in their programmes and institutions have the chance to experience Israel as more than a set of abstract ideological values and concrete political positions.
Polarisation over Israel, and the generational differences that underlie it, are real in British Jewry. And disagreement should not be viewed as unhealthy to education. But from what we have seen, the discourse – and in particular, the way that the mainstream communal leadership and young Jews in the community relate – is currently neither productive nor conducive to creating an Israel-engaged generation that can lead our community in the decades to come. We hope that by highlighting the issues and proposing some solutions we can begin making this vital shift in the communal narrative, for the better of all of us.
Robin Moss and Anthony Ashworth-Steen both work in the UJIA Informal Education Department. Robin is the Head of the Centre for Israel Engagement and Anthony is the Director of Informal Education and Israel Engagement