Considering his audience at the Monday morning plenary session of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly at National Harbor, Vice President Joe Biden said all the right things. To standing ovations, he pledged the United States’ unwavering support of Israel and promised that Iran would never be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon. He even waxed poetic about his interactions with Golda Meir.
It was very Biden-esque, to borrow a phrase from the vice president himself. And it was also sincere. That’s a welcome relief to those growing tired of a perceived anti-Israel bent among the current occupants of the White House and, considering that Biden will likely run for president in 2016, positive words for those who fear a Democratic Party increasingly suspicious of Israeli dealings with the Palestinians.
But according to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, whose articles of late have laid bare administration anxieties vis-a-vis the Jewish state and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the fact that Biden and Hilary Clinton — the heir apparent for the Democratic nomination — feel such connection with Israel, whereas President Obama presumably doesn’t, shouldn’t come as a surprise. In Goldberg’s view, which he shared later that night during a panel session with Aluf Benn of Ha’aretz and Steve Linde of The Jerusalem Post, Obama’s failure to embrace Netanyahu’s narrative of events has nothing to do with visceral distrust of Israel. It has everything to do with generational realities.
Biden, 71, met Meir; he was 24 when Israel emerged victorious from the Six Day War. Obama, by contrast was 6 in 1967. And instead of Golda Meir, Benn added, Obama and his generation had Sabra and Shatila.
Discounting the ideological bent of a paper such as Ha’aretz, the observation is a prescient one. And it was amplified at the end of the night when an energetic University of Maryland student named Anna Farooqi, Southeast representative to J Street U’s national student board, took to a stand-up mic to voice frustrations that her generation is sidelined by the rest of the organizational Jewish world.
“I love Israel,” she began. But her experiences there — admittedly only over the course of four months — and her view of the conflict in the Middle East lead her to be critical of the Jewish state.
Moderator and former CNN Jerusalem correspondent Linda Scherzer thanked Farooqi for her comments but said that too many young people have emotional reactions to the conflict without the benefit of knowing the facts. It was a backhanded compliment that to some observers betrayed a sense that Jewish youth should keep quiet and open a book. There’s wisdom in such a view, but as shown by the riots outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, institutions ignore the power of youth at their peril.
As you’ll read in this week’s JT, the General Assembly earlier this week had much on the docket for engaging Jewish college students and young Jewish professionals, from sessions on the federation system’s young leaders cabinet to cocktail receptions with campus delegates. But more needs to be done to make people such as Farooqi feel welcome. Generational divides not only have consequences for Israel, they also have the power to fundamentally alter the fabric of the Jewish community. To the extent that youth are being utilized and not sidelined, the future may yet still be bright.