I was on the bus, returning to Washington from New York where I spent Yom Kippur.
I wouldn’t have talked to the kid next to me him except I could not find the outlet near my seat to charge my phone. He saw me struggling and helped me find it. (It was camouflaged under the seat in front of mine). We started to talk and, after I told him I had been in Manhattan for the Jewish holiday, he said that he had been there for the same reason.
“Forty-six million Americans live in poverty and the situation keeps getting worse and worse. This country keeps getting worse. Why should I worry about Israel?”
We talked about Georgetown University and why he chose to go there and then he asked me what I did. I told him “my story,” which led him to say that he had no interest in the Middle East at all. His issue was income inequality in the United States.
Nonetheless, he was fairly knowledgeable about the Middle East. I discovered he was fairly knowledgeable about everything. Judging from his looks I’d have taken him for a jock or a preppy but he seemed more intellectual than either of those categories would suggest.
After telling him about my odyssey from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to critic of both AIPAC and Israel, he said this (paraphrase, obviously):
“I don’t get it. I’m Jewish but Israel is not important to me. I live here and I’d like to help out people who live here. Forty-six million Americans live in poverty and the situation keeps getting worse and worse. In fact, this country keeps getting worse. Why should I worry about Israel?”
I explained why and he said:
“You may not realize it, but your premise is Zionist. You think Jews are, by definition, connected to Israel and have to care about it. But that isn’t who I am. I’m an American kid whose religion is Jewish. Period. I have no obligation to Israel or to Palestinians because I feel no connection to either. I feel that as a privileged American I do have an obligation to Americans who aren’t privileged. I’m not saying I don’t care about people in other countries. I do.
“Maybe someday I will think about Israel more than I do. But, just as likely, I’ll care about poverty in Latin America. As for your point that America is responsible for Palestinian suffering by sending aid to Israel, I agree. But how does that make the situation unique? As a taxpayer, actually a future U.S. taxpayer, I will be contributing to all kinds of terrible things everywhere. But my being Jewish has nothing to do with it. It’s not like I would ever take a Birthright trip! I don’t consider Israel to be my birthright.”
I asked him if he was typical of his friends. He said that he was.
“The Jewish kids who are deeply involved with Israel or Palestinians are sort of the same kids. They accept your premise that they are connected to that place. I don’t and most of my friends don’t either. I’d say we are post-national. America is our country because we live here. Period. It’s home. But then we travel, see the world, and want to help other people, at least some of us do. But Israel is not special to us and neither are Palestinians.
“You, M.J., are a Zionist. You think I have an obligation to try to stop the occupation because of my religion. To me, that is no different than telling me I have to support Netanyahu because of my religion. I see no difference. It is outmoded thinking. Tell me why Israel and Palestine is any more my problem than that of any other American my age, or why I should think about it anymore than I think about the treatment of women in India. I have the right to choose the issues I care about and work to solve, don’t I? Or does my being Jewish mean I have my choice made for me? Show me where I’m wrong? I’m sure that if you were 20, you would feel the exact same way. Am I right?”
I had no response.
M.J. Rosenberg is a Special Correspondent for The Washington Spectator. He was most recently a Foreign Policy fellow at Media Matters For America. Previously, he spent 15 years as a Senate and House aide. Early in his career he was editor of AIPAC’s newsletter Near East Report. From 1998-2009, he was director of policy at Israel Policy Forum. Follow him @MJayRosenberg.