As Jews unite, is US youth moving to anti-Semitism ‘at light speed’?

While top Diaspora Jewish leaders tout an almost unprecedented solidarity with Israel, a new poll speaks otherwise for young adults

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Israeli supporters rally in Times Square on July 20, 2014 in New York City (photo credit: AFP/Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
Israeli supporters rally in Times Square on July 20, 2014 in New York City (photo credit: AFP/Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

As Operation Protective Edge continues into its fourth week, US Jewish leaders describe in excited terms an almost unprecedented atmosphere of unity among American Jews.

Citing the widespread pro-Israel rallies held throughout the country, these leaders say the support of US Jews for Israel is nearly unanimous, regardless of political or religious views.

In addition to the wave of solidarity trips organized by numerous Jewish organizations (some filling trip quotas in a matter of hours before setting off the following day), this Monday saw a “day of action” sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major Organizations. Hundreds of Jewish community leaders met with Congress members in Washington, DC, at a quickly organized summit while large-scale pro-Israel rallies saw a combined total of up to 17,000 supporters in New York and Chicago.

Emphasized repeatedly to The Times of Israel is the cross-denominational, inter-political nature of these high-profile events. From a 2,200-strong rally in Colorado to Manhattan’s mega event, politicians of all stripes and religious persuasions are speaking in defense of Israel alongside Jewish community representatives.

However, there is another narrative being voiced as well.

A recent Pew poll highlights an age group that is less than “supportive.” Instead of standing with Israel, the poll finds that a third of all young Americans aged 18-29 (Jews and non) in fact blame Israel for the Gaza conflict.

Reader Steven Colodny from the University of Texas at San Antonio argues the poll’s findings are the result of a mix of historical ignorance, trendy Twitter campaigns and a US media with an anti-Israel bias.

In a comment on a Times of Israel news article about the poll he writes: “In the US, according to recent surveys, it is largely the younger generation (18-29), the self-proclaimed liberals that chastise Israel the most, yet this is the same generation that cannot point to Israel, Iraq, or Afghanistan on a map (there are many surveys to back that up, too). Empty, misguided conviction in other words.

“Trendy twitter campaigns guide them and they get their news from The Daily Show, Colbert Report if watching the news at all,” he writes.

Jon Stewart: Gaza on the map (YouTube screenshot)
Jon Stewart: Gaza on the map (YouTube screenshot)

Colodny bemoans the age group’s lack of historical background behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and belittles the scant understanding it has acquired as coming from a few movies on World War II.

He concludes his comments with a warning, “…Because being anti-Israel or anti-Zionist is the ‘in thing’ right now, many normal people don’t realize they’re being led to anti-Semitism at light speed until they are there. Let’s hope this wave of hatred phases out, perhaps after people find the next ‘Harlem Shake’ or ‘Gangnam Style’ dance to distract them from serious issues… but Jews can rely on hope only so much.”

So, The Times of Israel wonders: is this a watershed moment of pro-Israel support for the US Jewish communities — or just another notch in the belt of an ever-encroaching anti-Semitism?

“The watershed moment is there,” says the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman. “From an internal Diaspora Jewish perspective, it’s a very dramatic moment.”

Abraham Foxman (photo credit: David Karp/JTA)
Abraham Foxman (photo credit: David Karp/JTA)

“It usually takes a crisis, tragedy, but in the last several military encounters [between Israel and Hamas], there wasn’t this sense of solidarity, unity, coming together,” says Foxman.

Foxman points to the combined 50,000 Israelis who attended the funerals of two US-citizen volunteer “lone soldiers,” or soldiers without family in the country, for Sean Carmeli in Haifa and Max Steinberg at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl.

“This is symbolic and emblematic of this situation of unity: It’s safe to say that Israel, in a large sense, poured out to embrace these two soldiers. I think it’s maybe a throwback to the days of the ‘beautiful Israel,'” says Foxman, when there weren’t overriding contentious issues dividing Israel and the Diaspora.

Other leaders are more wary of committing to the historicity of the moment, but concede willingly that Diaspora Jewry is at “a critical point.”

“I don’t know what the long-term impact will be, but there is a coming together that is unique, a unity of standing with Israel,” says Conference of Presidents head Malcolm Hoenlein. “We haven’t seen this kind of unity in many, many years.”

Hoenlein finds it notable that in many cases, Jews who are usually unaffiliated with mainstream communities are coming out of the woodwork in support of Operation Protective Edge, including the Israeli-American and Russian-Jewish-American communities.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations seen during an Interview in the Inbal Hotel, Jerusalem, January 7, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He says there is a sense that the so-far unconfirmed rumors of a “Rosh Hashanah plot” of a planned coordinated tunnel attack was a “game changer” for many otherwise indifferent American Jews.

Others see a worldwide Jewish unity atmosphere having dawned several weeks prior to the Gaza military operation. In Israel on his third solidarity mission in a month, Jewish Federations of North America CEO Jerry Silverman echoes Hoenlein’s sentiments but dates the unity phenomenon to the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens, Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Sha’ar and Naftali Fraenkel, which pushed Jews worldwide to pressure their governments to support Israel’s widespread search operation in the West Bank.

“I think it really started with the three boys. When they were kidnapped the whole world came together in prayer, in vigils, rallies to bring back ‘our’ boys. I’ve said to all three families — I saw the Sha’ars last night — we feel like these boys became part of the world family,” says Silverman, who spoke while in transit visiting soldiers in hospitals and traumatized children in the south.”The connection it created really stirred something in world Jewry, Diaspora Jewry, and especially in North American Jewry,” he says.

Like Foxman, Silverman says tragedy has birthed a stronger Jewish peoplehood. He lists a very partial summary of the recent horrors visited upon Jews around the globe, saying murderous “anti-Semitic actions in Belgium, the shooting in Kansas City, anti-Semitism in Paris and various places have brought Jews together. We are a small people, but we are all connected,” says Silverman.

The Jewish leaders explain away the recent Pew poll, saying this age group is heavily swayed by popular media and has less of a sense of history than older Americans.

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, at the 2012 General Assembly in Baltimore, Md. (photo credit: JFNA/JTA)
Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, at the 2012 General Assembly in Baltimore, Md. (photo credit: JFNA/JTA)

To stave off widespread ignorance of Israel’s existential fight, however, Silverman suggests using Birthright alumni or “young people who have been educated well as ambassadors” to their peers.

Though Silverman has personally seen a decrease in anti-Semitism on campuses over the past decade, “the only information they’re getting is what they see in the media.” And the go-to sources for this age group are often Comedy Central, the echo chamber of like-minded thinking on social media.

Silverman and Hoenlein both feel US Jewry in particular, however, is well informed of the upswing of anti-Semitism taking place globally, as well as the Israel Defense Forces’ efforts to combat terrorism locally.

“The awareness of what is taking place is really clear, the heroic measures of the IDF in stopping infiltrations — they’re heroes,” says Silverman, adding this awareness is shared not only by US Jewry, but “all over the US the public is now understanding [Israel’s plight].”

“You have terrorists coming out of the tunnels into backyards that are reaching kilometers into Israel!” says Silverman.

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