Jewish Youth, Israel, Then and Now

Mayah Bernstein Tradition Online | January 8, 2024

Pro-Israel Rally during the Six Day War (June 1967)

A well-known midrash relates the story of an inheritance dispute between a two-headed man and his siblings. The two-headed man asserted that as he had two heads, he rightfully deserved double the amount of inheritance. His brother incredulously retorted that the man, no matter how many heads sat atop his shoulders, only has one body, entitling him to one corresponding share. The family brought their case to the court of the wisest of all men, King Solomon. He ruled that to determine the verdict, boiling water should be poured over one of the man’s two heads. If the second head screamed in pain, then it would be clear that the two heads comprised one single entity. If the non-scalded side remains unaffected, however, then he is indeed entitled to two portions of inheritance. In the end, both heads cried out in response to their common pain, and were ruled to have been entitled to one portion alone as they were proved to be one indivisible unit that shared the same fate.

The lesson of unity in the face of pain is eminently applicable to the contemporary state of the worldwide Jewish community. Rarely have Jews around the world, regardless of background, location, or beliefs, viscerally felt the anguish of our brothers and sisters in Israel after their victimization at the hands of barbaric Hamas terrorists. While direct victims were and continue to be most acutely affected, Jews worldwide have experienced a sense of shock and national identification that has not been seen in recent memory.

That said, as an American university student currently studying in a midrasha in Israel, I cannot help but notice that the American college-aged Jewish youth are incredibly divided. The cry of pain that has been seen throughout the Jewish world has not been a universal occurrence; not all of them cry in agony for the “scalded heads” in Israel. Many members of outspoken anti-Israel groups are themselves Jewish, and even use their heritage to be tokenized as part of the in-group; the young brave Jews who dare take on the mainstream Jewish community and speak out against Israel. This increasingly common phenomenon distresses me deeply, and it is difficult for me to stand helplessly on the sidelines of this troubling disunion.

Pro-Israel Rally during the Six Day War (June 1967)

The response of Jewish-American youth differs drastically from the response of young American Jews following the Six Day War. While today we see a noticeable absence of religiosity in the young adult response to our current state of war, the years following the Six Day War evoked a feeling in America’s Jewish youth that it was necessary to restore and re-engage with the Judaism that many of their parents had abandoned post-Holocaust. This spiritual awakening helped energize the ba’al teshuva movement as we know it today. In response, numerous young Jewish-Americans chose to make aliya, viewing Zionist perspectives as emblematic of their Jewish identity. Ultimately, my peers’ interpretation of events in Israel alienates us from our parents’ generation to our detriment. Here, I question how this dissonance began, and look with wonder and confusion at how some in my generation openly call for the destruction of our homeland. By revisiting a three-decade-old TRADITION symposium and exploring events of twenty-five years earlier, I offer an approach to understanding their morally compromised response.

Published in this journal’s Summer 1992 issue, “Reflections on the Six Day War After a Quarter Century” (full access here) looked at the so-called “religious euphoria” that arose in the wake of the 1967 war. TRADITION invited several Israeli and American Orthodox intellectuals to reflect upon key questions that arose as a result of the miraculous victory of Israel against its neighbors: Theologically, how should we understand God and His role as an actor in history? How ought this war change, if at all, our approach to the State of Israel at large? Historically, how do modern miracles compare to defining miracles of our national past, such as Hanukkah and Purim? Finally, what implications do the events have on the messianic arc of history, and the role of the State of Israel within it? The respondents were challenged to “reconsider those issues and see if perspectives have changed.” Each writer delved into these questions, considering the different possibilities and their implications for Jewish life, identity, and worldview subsequent to the war.

Notably, the contributors to the 1992 symposium focused on the concept of God’s hand in the events of Jewish history. Following the Six Day War, many Jews alike attributed the relatively low casualty rate to direct Divine providential intervention that amounted to nothing short of a miracle. Skeptics, however, attributed these events to an interplay of social, political, military, and economic factors. In his essay, Prof. David Berger suggests that the “observer’s [approach to] faith plays a crucial role in evaluating the miraculous character of any event.” Outlining his own position, Berger argues that neglecting to acknowledge God’s role in historical events, “leaves Judaism bereft of meaningful faith in the God of Hazal and of the prophets.” Additionally, Berger combats the belief that the establishment of the State of Israel lacks religious significance, a view that was popular in several Haredi modes of thought. In doing so, he reveals a divide within Orthodoxy, about how various religious groups approached the relationship between Israel and how it interacted with both the faith and fate of the Jewish people. Towards the end of his essay, while arguing strongly in favor of viewing the State of Israel through a religious lens of Divine providence, Berger also warns against those who contend that the establishment of a Jewish State will bring Messiah, distinguishing between Godly intervention in the present day and intervention in the future. In another contribution, R. Sol Roth emphasizes the core Jewish belief that the ultimate outcome of Jewish and human history is determined by God’s will alone. Berger also underscores this idea, urging readers to have faith in God’s guidance, while simultaneously cautioning against making claims of knowledge that are beyond our ability to discern, such as arguing with certainty that Israel is the beginning of the dawn of redemption.

Philosopher Michael Wyschogrod reflected upon these claims with a sense of caution but still went on to praise the conception of the State of Israel as a catalyst for the messianic era. “[Viewing Israel using a redemptive lens] prevents us from sinking into the psychological rut of thinking that there is nothing new under the sun, [instead leading us to believe] that the future will be like the past, that redemption is human destiny and that God has done and said everything important that He will ever do or say.” Wyschogrod emphasized that trust in the imminent coming of a messianic era in the context of the establishment of Israel will free us from “vanity of vanities,” as depicted in Ecclesiastes.

In a similar line of reasoning, David Singer condemns the belief found most prevalently in religiously right-wing communities that “consign[s] the messianic fulfillment to some indefinite future.” This view, he suggests, comes from a refusal to acknowledge a redemptive-historical arc and a terrible lack of confidence in the historical process. Singer also locates a lack of trust in the historical process within the “black hat” Orthodox community as much of their practice revels in the past by hunkering down in a “permanent state of siege.” Singer further associates this position with the traumatization of the Holocaust, which he says has led to the insistence that Jews remain in a “permanent state of siege” as perennial victims. Conclusively, Singer aimed to understand why the messianic conception of Israel was not as popular in 1992, at the time he was writing, as compared to 1967.

R. Mayer Schiller contends that the way one interprets the conflict of the Six Day War “will be colored by one’s prejudices regarding Israel and the entire Zionist enterprise,” going on to assess how different groups view the events of the Six Day War in the context of their perspective on Zionism and Israel in general. Specifically, Schiller narrows in on Agudah, Religious Zionists, and zealots he terms “Kanaim.” He concludes that the Agudah circle would stand against political Zionism and question if the State of Israel should have been created by human action at all. Obviously, this would inform how they view the events of 1967. Schiller further emphasizes that they stood by the belief in God’s hand in history in establishing Israel, but saw it as an instance of mercy, as opposed to Religious Zionists, who view God’s role in the Six Day War as a fulfillment of a promise to his people – not as an act of mercy. Religious Zionists further attribute the military victories to a vision of “great practical and meta-historical good which they see Israel representing.” At the end of his piece, Schiller notes that the Kanaim evaluate the events of 1967 as a pre-Messianic test from God to evaluate our faith in God in exile. Viewing political Zionism as an “attempt to assimilate the essence of the Jewish People as a Divine Nation to that of other profane peoples,” this view holds that it is incumbent upon religious Jews to staunchly reject any expression of Zionism, which is viewed as anathema to authentic Jewish tradition.

In a similar vein, R. Immanuel Jakobovits, then Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the British Commonwealth, suggests that the promises of secular Zionism wrongly view the establishment of the State of Israel as principally some safe haven for Jews following the Holocaust. Jakobovits maintains that Jews “shall go not as bowed refugees fleeing from oppression, but as dauntless Jews attracted to living a fully Jewish life in the only place on Earth where we can fashion our own national destiny.” Jews should define our national identity not by being rejected by the nations of the world, but by the positive imperative to fully manifest our identities in the Promised Land.

Returning to Wyschogrod, we see a call for a messianic view of events in Israel, but note that he cautions against violence rejecting the politicized, secular Zionist military response to an attack on the establishment of the Jewish State. Wyschogrod holds that he “cannot believe that the peaceable kingdom of the Messiah will be brought about by lethal strikes of the Israeli air force or the small arms fire of settlers in fear of their lives and that Messiah will not come if Jews become accustomed to killing.”

My generation’s response to today’s war largely diverges from its counterpart of 1967, particularly as examined by the writers of the 1992 symposium. It seems to me that religious analysis and sentiment are strikingly absent in my generation’s approach to events in Israel. The primary reason for this glaring difference is that in 1967 support of Israel meant everything to American Jews, coinciding with a religious renaissance. In contrast, my generation is much more assimilated, caring less about their Jewish identities, which leads to a dip in their identification with Israel and the Jewish national struggle. A 2020 Pew Research Survey found that young Jewish adults tend to be less religious compared to the American population at large: Fifty-three percent of Jewish participants say that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important to them, and three-quarters of respondents said that they do not believe in God “as described in the Bible.”

Three converging factors significantly affect my peers’ decreased support of Israel: a diminished belief in God, increased assimilation, and a decreased level of identification with the Jewish national story. Specifically, recognizing God’s direct role in history – in a word, Jewish faith – has the capacity to unify the Jewish people and help display their persistent strength. Without it, an attitude of apathy will emerge, which the environment of assimilation and acceptance of Jews has allowed for. As opposed to 1967, today’s youth turn towards questioning religion instead of operating with the firm belief in God as an active player in history and the redeemer of the Jewish people.

Israel, whether it is a clear manifestation of a divine messianic plan or a “mere” event reflecting divine providence – must be recognized as a clear example of God’s hand in the destiny of the Jewish people. In times of crisis, the Jews of history held on to this belief with every fiber of their being. It is this faith that allowed us to persist throughout our hardest chapters. Without this belief in God and His role in history, how can a young secular community reach beyond the immediacy of what the next day holds? How will they perpetuate the Jewish faith to future generations? It is crucial to the spiritual survival and thriving of the Jewish people that they have a religious means of navigating history, as opposed to viewing it as a conglomerate of random interactive factors and events. There is justice in history, and losing this belief puts the Jewish world at risk of maintaining their identities as Jews in the modern world. Without a strong faith in God’s role in history, Jews will increasingly be detached from Israel and their Jewish identity.

Jewish-American university students of my generation have been greatly affected by the social-political influence that exists among their peers. The overwhelming sentiment of this demographic is secular and left-leaning, often extremely so. Many writers in the 1992 symposium examined the events with the underlying belief in miracles outside of the natural order; however, with the growing secularization and extreme liberalization of Jewish-American youth, the notion of the miraculous is dismissed completely. The media maintains its grasp over university students with the social pressure to be public about all aspects of their lives. Students who say the “wrong thing” are quickly “canceled,” and in a left-wing university environment, open support of the State of Israel has become a highly controversial opinion to hold. Overall, this aura of toxicity and an actively unwelcoming attitude leaves Jewish students feeling isolated and silenced. Personally, I feel this phenomenon acutely, and I am afraid to interact with my peers in the virtual space that we function in today.

Ultimately, my generation further diverts from a Jewish connection to Israel when compared to Jews of prior generations. Many fail to see the religious significance of a Jewish state and lack the sense of national destiny that the 1967 generation possessed. With this diminished faith and increased secularization, the future of Zionism in America is at great risk. Religion must re-emerge as a uniting force, spurring my generation to increase their identification with the Jewish people and our homeland. At this moment, the historical Jewish faith is largely being rejected and dismissed.

Moving forward, I am not overly optimistic about the environment I intend to return to in America, one that has become particularly unwelcoming to me and my people. To illustrate this toxicity, in response to the November 24th hostage deal, a post circulated claiming that the agreement was merely a ploy to distract from the “Boycott Black Friday for Palestine” campaign planned by campus youth. Viewing the release of Israeli hostages as a distraction to an insignificant American protest reflects how completely oblivious many of these organizers are to what is occurring here in Israel. It also illustrates a lack of moral clarity and perspective, as people their age are fighting unadulterated evil and for their right to exist.

Nevertheless, a note of optimism is in order. Some Jewish youths who had been victims of assimilation and secularization have turned to their heritage and faith, understanding the enormity of the current historical moment. There have been signs of unity as well, even among these same Jewish youth, who are realizing that people who were previously considered political allies act with apathy – or even “exhilaration” in response to Hamas’ attacks – in response to their people being viciously slaughtered. Looking back over the TRADITION symposia, I hope for a new spirit of faith, and a firm belief in God’s role in history re-emerging among Jewish youth. The response of my generation to the war in Israel is one of incredible importance, and it is certainly one that will be remembered for generations to come. Jewish youth have to ask themselves: how do they want to be remembered in the arc of the Jewish story? Will they choose to be partners with God in history, identify with the plight of their people, and support them in their time of need? Time will tell. History is watching, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Mayah Bernstein of West Palm Beach, Florida, is a student at Tulane University currently spending a year abroad at Midreshet Amudim in Jerusalem, and is an intern with TRADITION.

Leave a Reply