The Answer Is Jon Stewart

May 07, 2010 1:04 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

The New York Times has just published another major piece on the declining support for Israeli policies among American Jews.  It is excellent reporting (replete with poll numbers) that confirms something most of us know:  American Jews do not approve of the Israeli government, oppose the continued occupation, and support President Obama's policies over Prime Minster Netanyahu's.

And, least surprising of all, the "leadership" of the "major" Jewish organizations (AIPAC, American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League) speaks only for older Jews and not for that many of them.

All this is obvious, especially to those with kids.  In this context, the "kids" range from teenage to about 63 (i.e., the baby boomers -- born between 1946 and 1964 -- and their children).  The Woodstock generation did not turn into an amen corner for our own government, let alone Israel's.  And our kids are even less accepting of dogma.

This is especially true of the so-called Millennials. These are the children of the younger boomers and demographers call them Millennials because they came of age in around 2000.  They are in their mid-20's to early 30's now.

I have an alternate label for them.  They are the "Jon Stewart" generation.  Whether they watch Stewart's "Daily Show" when it's broadcast or just on YouTube, he typifies their world view. Not surprisingly, he is a late Baby Boomer, about the age of the parents of the youngest of the Millenials.

And what is the worldview Stewart conveys? It is skepticism about any and all ideology, a belief that racial and ethnic boundaries between people are just plain dumb, and, above all, that true believers in anything are downright funny.   

Not surprisingly, Jon Stewart is Jewish and assertively so.  Being a Jew is part of his shtick.  But he's clearly neither religious nor an ethnic chauvinist.  As for his politics on Israel, I'd classify him as J Street. And that makes him typical of both the late boomers and their kids.

That is why all the free Birthright trips to Israel aren't changing anything.  And it's why those cheering young AIPAC-ers do not represent anything.

The generation coming up now tries to think for themselves.  And, although no smart kid would ever turn down a free trip to Washington, DC or to any foreign country with a beach, they take the propaganda with a grain of salt.  It does not matter that they are told that the Palestinians are responsible for their own problems, these kids don't buy it.  And neither do their parents (although their grandparents might).

I know a little about this from personal experience.  I was a pro-Israel activist back in my days on campus. I was the leader of about 50 kids (on a campus of several thousand) who tried to convince our indifferent fellow students of the importance of Israel. 

I even was given a free trip to Israel where I was taught how to combat "anti-Israel" propaganda on campus. (It was not just a week, like the Birthright trip, but two free and wonderful months.)

All my friends (or almost all) felt about Israel the way I did then.  We were an embattled minority, but we knew we were right. (The occupation, still new, was infinitely less onerous then than it is now.  There were no more than a few thousand settlers. And, back then, no Arab state recognized Israel's right to exist.)

Today, not one of my friends from those days feels the way we did then.  It is not so much that our feeling for Israel disappeared, but that the situation changed.  Even in the 1970's, none of us would have supported a settler-dominated Israeli government or the horrific Gaza war.

But there is another element as well.

Even in those days, pro-Israel American kids were uncomfortable straying too far from the general campus ethos.  Those were the days of the anti-war movement.  Fortunately back then, Israel seemed to be pursuing peace while the Arabs weren't.  There wasn't all that much space between us and our fellow students. The government in Israel was socialist, for heaven's sake, and the country's huge agricultural sector was dominated by communes!  Israel was not that hard to defend.

But today there is a massive gap between the overall ethos and the pro-Israel one.  Liberal young people, the kids who came out in unprecedented numbers for Obama, are not going to support Israeli policies designed to perpetuate an occupation by expelling Palestinians from their homes to make room for settlers.  And the last thing that will convince them to support what they know is wrong is by telling them that "as Jews" they must.  Or, God forbid, mentioning the Holocaust to justify those policies. They don't think that way. And history tells us that they never will.

Luckily, all is not lost for those of us who do care about Israel.  No, the kids are not going to come around to seeing Israel as central in their lives. (It isn't -- they live here.)

But an Israel that establishes peace with the Palestinians, that brings the settlers home, that ends the tyranny of the Orthodox in matters that should be left to civil authorities, will have their support.  Not their allegiance -- their support.

Imagine a leader like Yitzhak Rabin rising to power again.  Better, imagine Rabin himself.  I can see him walking on to Jon Stewart's set to the roaring applause of the audience.  I can see Stewart treating him with the deep respect and affection he would feel, and even trying (unsuccessfully) to make Rabin laugh.  I can see the kids at home watching and thinking that Israel seems like a cool place.  They might even be willing to pay their own way there.  I can see pride in Israel taking hold.

Of course, it's only a dream.  Rabin is dead.  But today, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Theodor Herzl, it is more than appropriate to say, as he did, that dreams do sometimes become reality.  In 1897, he said that in 50 years there would be a Jewish state.  The world - including Jews - laughed.  But in 1947, right on schedule, the United Nations passed a resolution that gave Israel its birth certificate.