In his controversial piece written a year ago, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," Peter Beinart exposed the apathetic stance taken by many young Jews toward Israel. Detailing how young liberal Jews refused to be pigeonholed into a group-think and overarching defense of conservative Israeli politics, Beinart highlighted the dissonance between institutions claiming to embody Jewish values, while supporting Israel even when it acts in opposition to such moral aspirations. He criticized the Jewish establishment for shunning debate; preventing the youth from questioning, or even participating in discussions about Israel; and for delegitimizing the voice of any who dissent.
In March, at the Reform movement's Central Conference of American rabbis, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan responded to Beinart's claims. Although he recognized the truth in growing apathy among the young, he quickly dismissed the Jewish establishment from blame. Posing a rhetorical question, he asked: "You mean to tell me that if we only criticized Israel more, our Jews would be less alienated from Israel?"
As a 21-year-old Jew and a co-president of the Bates College Hillel, I challenge the rhetorical nature of this question. Put simply, the answer is yes. The inability or unwillingness of the Jewish establishment to foster open conversation, potentially critical of some Israeli actions, turns many young Jews away from Israel.
Rabbi Hirsch's attempt to vindicate the Jewish establishment falls short. This establishment is not only alienating the youth from Israel, but from Judaism.
Last summer, I attended a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at the Jewish Community Services Building in Philadelphia. Speaking to a room of young Jewish interns, AIPAC representatives started instructing us why we, the liberal youth, were wrong, and why any criticism of Israel is unfounded. When I asked one AIPAC representative why the organization refused to approach Israeli politics from a more fair and open position, I was told: "We do not always want truth; sometimes, we want bias for our cause."
In recognition of such staunchness, J Street attempts to offer Israeli advocacy with a conscience. J Street has been systematically delegitimized by the Jewish establishment. So have its young and active members. It is difficult to affiliate with a nation when its endorsed representatives preach their disrespect of you.
Israel not only welcomes the Jewish establishment that does so, but is making efforts to delegitimize youth groups in general that are trying to bring the liberal youth who still identify with Israel and Judaism back into the discussion.
I am a young Jew with a strong identity. I am not religious. I deserve as much of a say in Israeli politics as any other Jew.
Rabbi Hirsch might not hear my perspective often. I, like many young Jews, am unlikely to attend his synagogue functions. I am not interested in hearing his sermons. I know that they will insult my integrity and Jewish identity (the rabbi claims I have none), which rests on a greater sense of morality than most of the establishment wish to recognize; morality when it comes to Israel cannot be a pick and choose subject based on political convenience.
Rabbi Hirsch rightly suggests that AIPAC has the right to lobby for its interests. However, it does not have the right to act as the sole Jewish lobby. I pay no dues to an organization that continues to ignore my perspective.
I am sick of being told that I am a minority within the Jewish worldview. I am only a minority in the samples of which the establishment collects.
Dear Rabbi Hirsch and the Jewish establishment: Your unwillingness to count me and my peers as Jews with a voice worth hearing is making me question my identity. If you alienate all who wish to partake, you will have a gentleman's club of self-righteous zealots.
You will not have respect. You will cut the roots of young Jews who will lose their grounding. You will lose the forest of Judaism and gain a desert with a few prickly cacti claiming to rule the undesirable territory.
Michael Pasek, raised in Lower Merion, is set to graduate Bates College in 2012.