Genetic imperative and 'deliberative capability' destin us to live as long as possible on this planet -a more or less single life-form. What we do not need, consequently, is the primitively irrational sectarianism that has kept us reproducing, squabbling and warring in complete antithesis of that end. So go ahead; hold your heads up high! Go 'jewish'! Go muslim! Stay proud and keep fighting! There are too many people on this earth anyhow!
September 16, 2007 Los Angeles Times
Reconnecting with Israel
A program puts young Jewish Americans in touch with their ancestral land, forging deeper ties and seeking to build future support.
By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
As the only Jewish kid in his small New Mexico hometown, Ben Rubin says he was "clueless" about Israel.
Los Angeles Jews ride camels in the Negev Desert. Members of the group, ranging in age from 22 to 26, went to Israel as part of the Taglit-birthright israel program. Such programs focus on young people who may feel little connection to their ancestors’
Rubin said he was transformed by the 10-day visit, during which he saw the Holocaust Museum, the battlefields of Masada and the Golan Heights, the ancient Western Wall and modern nightclubs, the Negev Desert and the Dead Sea. Now he reads the Jerusalem Post online every morning, and he has applied for a job with a Jewish community organization and went to a Rosh Hashana service last week for the first time in a few years.
"Going to Israel really opened my eyes to what the Jewish people have gone through to survive," Rubin said. "It's really made me want to do what I can to support Israel."
The program, called Taglit-birthright israel, is an unparalleled effort among ethnic communities that are working to reconnect young Americans with the lands of their ancestors. Other communities also attempt to forge ties -- the Japanese government sends a dozen or so young Japanese American leaders to Japan each year and Taiwan's government sends about 1,000 Chinese Americans to the island in an annual program dubbed "the love boat."
But the Jewish program dwarfs those numbers. Since its inception in December 1999, the birthright program has sent 150,000 young Jews, most of them from North America, to Israel. Initially funded by Jewish philanthropists Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and others, the $80-million annual program is now financed by individuals, Jewish community organizations and the Israeli government.
"I don't think there's really any community quite like American Jews in trying so hard to maintain this link," said Don Nakanishi, director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. "In social science literature," Nakanishi said, "there's a straight linear line, with every generation showing greater acculturation and distance from where people came from." Indeed, the decline in attachment to Israel among youths has, for some, stirred fears that the Jewish state's survival could be at stake if American Jews begin to withdraw their financial support and political firepower.
Alienation from Israel is not growing in all quarters, however. Orthodox Jews, for instance, maintain strong ties and constitute a growing segment of the American Jewish community at nearly 10%.
In the broader community, age plays a role in support. According to a study by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Ari Y. Kelman of UC Davis, two-thirds of Jews younger than 35 identified themselves as pro-Israel. Forty-eight percent of them said the destruction of Israel would be a personal tragedy and 54% were comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state. In contrast, 78% of those older than 65 said Israel's destruction would be a tragedy and 81% said they were comfortable with a Jewish state.
Younger Jews were less likely than older Jews to express pride, excitement and high emotional attachment toward Israel. They were also less likely to talk about Israel with friends, identify themselves as pro-Israel or Zionists or feel that caring about Israel is an important part of being Jewish.
Cohen said several factors explained the growing disconnect. For older Jews, memories of the Holocaust, the Jewish state's birth and victories over Arab states in 1967 and 1973 cast Israel as a heroic underdog in a treacherous region, he said. But many younger Jews don't remember those events, he said, and instead grew up to see Israel command the Mideast's largest military and engage in sometimes controversial actions in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
In addition, the tight communities once bound together by housing, workplace and educational discrimination have dissipated as many Jews fully integrate into the American mainstream. Other studies have found that younger Jews enjoy positive, individual ethnic identities but have little awareness of or affiliation with communal organizations, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"If this trend continues, we'll have fewer Jews passionately committed to Israel in years to come," Cohen said. "That means Israel's sense of mission as a sovereign state for the Jewish people will be diminished."
The growing evidence of youthful alienation from Israel has sparked a lively debate among American Jews on the best way to rekindle ties.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller, director of the Hillel at UCLA program, said the state of Israel should demonstrate more Jewish values, such as social justice, to attract the natural idealism of youth. More proactive measures to help Darfur refugees, for instance, would help restore the state's image as a beacon of hope and refuge, he said.
Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance, argued that the organized Jewish community must begin to teach youth about Israel in a more objective way. In a recent meeting with several Jews in their 20s, he said, only one expressed a passion for Israel; others were ambivalent or not particularly interested. Their top concerns were not Israel, but labor rights, immigrant rights, the rich-poor gap and the war in Iraq, he said.
"We don't do Israel in a way that works for young people," said Sokatch, whose organization has recruited many young Jews. "We teach young Jews to whitewash the history of Israel and then they see CNN and learn Israel does right and wrong, but there's no room to have that conversation in the Jewish community. That's precisely why young people are dropping out."
The single most effective way to deepen ties, the Cohen-Kelman study found, was arranging visits to Israel.
The organized Jewish community has sponsored trips to Israel for years. In Los Angeles, about 500 students travel to Israel each year as part of exchanges involving 36 Los Angeles and Israeli schools, said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
To some, however, that number was insufficient. About a decade ago, an Israeli government official and philanthropist Steinhardt approached Bronfman, a Canada-born billionaire who made his fortune in liquor, to give high school students free vouchers for trips to Israel.
"I said that's a formula to break the Jewish world financially. It's ridiculous," Bronfman recalled in a phone interview from his New York home. "But it's a heck of an idea."
Bronfman and Steinhardt ran with the idea, collectively pitching in $16 million and collecting another $4 million to send 8,000 students to Israel in December 1999. They followed up with studies showing the trips cultivated a significant increase in attachment to Israel. After that, the Israeli government and Jewish community organizations joined the effort.
The trip is now regarded as a rite of passage for many young Jews.
An important program component, Bronfman said, is having several members of the Israeli Defense Forces accompany each group. The intent is to give young American Jews a chance to get to know their Israeli peers.
For some, the encounters ranked as among the trip's most memorable and powerful moments.
Evan Raff, a 23-year-old Los Angeles health policy analyst with the Rand Corp., said the soldiers helped him see he could be proudly Jewish without being religious, since some were agnostic or atheist.
When he landed at the Tel Aviv airport, Raff said he was greeted with signs that read "Welcome Home." A visit to the Holocaust Museum helped him reconnect with the struggle to create a homeland, he said. An encounter with a Palestinian Muslim stirred sympathy and a new understanding of the complexities of the conflict. A visit to a kibbutz showed him not religious zealots but "progressive, ambitious people" who wanted a place for Jews to live.
"I had let this sense of being Jewish in my core get a little dusty and forgotten," Raff said. "But the whole trip was an awakening that...Israel is not necessarily a place for religious people but an idea a lot of people hold on to to help define them and their Jewish identity."
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