Jewish American Families Confront a Generational Divide Over Israel
"Gen Z and young Millennials often see Israel as an occupying power oppressing Palestinians — a shock to their parents and grandparents, who tend to see it as an essential haven fighting for survival.
Marc Kornblatt prepared uneasily last month for his daughter, Louisa, to arrive for 10 days with the family. Her homecomings once brought the comfort of movie nights and card games, but this year was different.
Mr. Kornblatt sang under his breath some lyrics from “West Side Story”: “Get cool, boy.” He and his wife discussed: How would they greet their child? Would they acknowledge the emotional distance, the slights that had piled up from afar?
He and his wife, Judith, had moved away from Madison, Wis., to live in Tel Aviv, where they felt a real sense of belonging as Jews. Around the same time, their daughter, attending graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, came to oppose the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
The political divide between two generations within the family has grown into a painful chasm during the war between Israel and Hamas. Until late November, it was addressed mostly in tense exchanges on WhatsApp. “Really sad that you seem out of touch with where our heads are at,” Mr. Kornblatt had messaged his daughter after she told her parents about a friend speaking out in support of people in Gaza.
As she packed her bags to go to Tel Aviv, his daughter questioned how her parents could argue about a political solution that felt morally urgent to her: a permanent cease-fire.
“It feels so simple — just don’t murder people. Don’t kill people. Just stop it,” said Louisa Kornblatt, 31, who now lives in Brooklyn. “It feels so simple, and a lot of my mom’s responses are like, ‘It’s so complex.’”
“It feels so simple — just don’t murder people. Don’t kill people. Just stop it. It feels so simple and a lot of my mom's responses are like, ‘It’s so complex.’”
The ideological rift between the Kornblatt parents and their daughter is a clash between an older generation of American Jews, who believe Israel has a right to defend itself and that its very survival is at stake, and a younger generation more likely to view Israel as a great military power and an occupying force.
That’s not the case in every family, of course. Many Jewish college students have been vocal and firm in defending Israel; plenty of Jewish Americans in the Boomer generation have criticized Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Many American Jews are united in a fear of rising antisemitism, and last month, tens of thousands of them attended the March for Israel in Washington, D.C.Yet some Jewish families are grappling with internal divisions, in the heart of a holiday season that is forcing difficult conversations.
“This is an acute, painful moment for many Jewish American families,” said Jackson Schwartz, a Columbia University senior who has found himself pulled to the left even of his liberal parents on the subject of Israel.
For at least a half-century, American Jews — the substantial majority of whom tend to be liberal and vote Democratic — have largely supported the Jewish state across the spectrum of age, partisanship and religious denomination. Recent polling suggests that that is changing.
Even before the war, younger American Jews were generally less attached to Israel than their elders, according to a 2021 Pew Research survey. (Most of the people interviewed for this article did not identify as Orthodox, a small segment of the American Jewish population who tend to have a stronger attachment to Israel than others do.)
A survey that the Democratic pollster GBAO Strategies conducted in November, a few weeks after the start of the war, for the nonpartisan Jewish Electorate Institute, found a striking generation gap in American Jews’ attitudes toward President Biden’s strong support for Israel: Eighty-two percent of those 36 or older supported the president, but only 53 percent of those 18 to 35 felt that way.
Jim Gerstein, who conducted the survey, said that younger American Jews have little or no memory of an underdog Israel surrounded by enemy states or terrorized by suicide bombings. Instead, they grew up when Israel had developed into a thriving economic and regional military power, backed by the United States and largely insulated from its neighbors — a perspective that inclined them to judge Israel more harshly, especially under the conservative leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Jewish voters are very liberal, and younger Jews even more so, and hold a different perspective of Israel than older generations,” he said.
‘How do I bridge this?’
The parents of Mr. Schwartz, the Columbia student, said they listen to him with open minds when he tells them about documentaries he has seen or things he has learned from professors like Rashid Khalidi, a prominent Palestinian intellectual who is a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia. Dan Schwartz said his son helped him understand the Palestinian perspective on Israel’s founding, which was accompanied by a huge displacement of population that Palestinians call the Nakba, using the Arabic word for catastrophe.
“It wasn’t until Jackson went to Columbia and took classes that I ever heard the word Nakba,” Dan Schwartz said.
Still, he said he felt that his son’s education downplayed “the fact that Israel is and has been surrounded by terrorists who do want to destroy them.”
Jonathan Taubes, who grew up in a right-leaning modern Orthodox community in New Jersey, understands that his own perception of Israel is starkly different from that of his parents, who remember the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. His mother is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Recently, she went to visit Mr. Taubes in Brooklyn, and began discussing her fears of anti-Jewish hatred as soon as she walked into his apartment.
Mr. Taubes, 30, felt torn between wanting to comfort his mother and feeling uneasy with her exclusive focus on Jewish pain.
“I was sort of trying to hold both sides — a progressive left one, and a defensive Jewish one,” he explained. “It’s a feeling of discomfort, like, how do I manage this, how do I bridge this?”
“There’s this feeling of being alienated from the world, but then the added layer of strife and division within our own family,” Mr. Taubes added. “It’s an extra layer of pain.”
In interviews with more than a dozen young people, many of them described feeling estranged from the version of Jewish identity they were raised with, which was often anchored in pro-Israel education. Many young Jews said they believed in Israel’s right to exist and condemned the Hamas attacks, but they believed at least as passionately in Palestinian rights, and condemned Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, its settlements and its treatment of Palestinians broadly.
Mica Maltzman, a junior at Brown University, grew up ensconced in her Reform synagogue in Washington D.C., surrounded by Jews who were pro-Israel and politically liberal.
“My parents were supportive of Israel, but not the government,” she said. “In Hebrew School, it was, ‘This is the Jewish state that we need as a homeland.’”
Ms. Maltzman grew more critical of Israel throughout high school. Since Oct. 7, she has been active with a group called BrownU Jews for Ceasefire Now, which organized a sit-in at a university building in November. Ms. Maltzman said that during conversations with her parents, who declined to be interviewed, she had sensed them returning to their earlier brand of support for Israel after years of growing more critical.
“I’m so terrified and horrified by what Israel is doing,” she said. “Fighting with my parents, who will defend various aspects of Zionist ideology, it’s been a constant back and forth.”
‘Did we not talk about the Holocaust enough?’
For Judith Kornblatt, 68, fears of antisemitism lurked throughout childhood. Her mother had fled Austria in 1938, just as the Nazis were taking over, and settled eventually in Evanston, Ill. Ms. Kornblatt, who taught Slavic languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recalled that when the family learned Nazis were planning a march in the neighboring city of Skokie, her mother went into a panic, and flew to Texas to visit a friend.
Her husband, Marc Kornblatt, 69, a children’s book writer, blogger and filmmaker, recalled growing up in suburban New Jersey, where prep school classmates sometimes taunted: “Jew! Jew!”
“From the beginning, I knew antisemitism much differently than my own children — certainly different than Louisa, who felt comfortable saying to her friends ‘I can’t go tonight, we’re having Shabbat dinner,’” Mr. Kornblatt said. “Judith and I talk about this: Did we not talk about antisemitism and the Holocaust enough with our children?”
Louisa Kornblatt grew up in Madison, spent summers at Jewish sleep-away camp, and shared her parents’ belief that the safety of Jewish people depended on a Jewish state. That began to change when she started attending a graduate program in social work at U.C. Berkeley in 2017.
Ms. Kornblatt, who sometimes uses the pronouns they/them, said classmates and friends challenged her thinking. Ms. Kornblatt felt one person “pull away” from their friendship, a change that Ms. Kornblatt attributed to her ties to Israel. Another sent an email saying that because she wasn’t vocally pro-Palestine, Ms. Kornblatt was on “the wrong side of history.”
“Judith and I talk about this: Did we not talk about antisemitism and the Holocaust enough with our children?”
Marc Kornblatt, with his wife, Judith
At Berkeley, she read Audre Lorde, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and other Black feminist thinkers, who prompted her to consider “questions around power, privilege and whiteness.”
Ms. Kornblatt came to feel that her emotional ties to Jewish statehood undermined her vision for “collective liberation.” Over the last year, she became increasingly involved in pro-Palestine activism, including through Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist activist group, and the If Not Now movement.
“I don’t think the state of Israel should ever have been established,” she said. “It’s based on this idea of Jewish supremacy. And I’m not on board with that.”
As Ms. Kornblatt’s political views were shifting, her parents moved in the opposite direction, becoming so attached to Israel that they decided in 2019 to make it their home.
The Kornblatt parents had long felt a unique sense of comfort when spending time in Israel, and realized during a visit to Tel Aviv that they might want to put down roots there. Louisa’s older brother Jake Kornblatt, 35, who is politically aligned with their parents, also made Tel Aviv his permanent home.
“We felt like, for the first time, we weren’t going to be the other,” the elder Mr. Kornblatt said.
What he hadn’t expected, he added, was that moving to Israel would bring on a new kind of isolation. “When I moved to Israel, all of a sudden I was a Jew and colonialist and apartheid lover,” he said, referring partly to comments from American friends and students on social media.
J. Lo and geopolitics
When Louisa Kornblatt arrived at her parents’ home on Nov. 17, the tensions were briefly broken. They watched a Jennifer Lopez movie, “Marry Me.” They played cards. But the day after her arrival, her parents went to the square in Tel Aviv where families of hostages being held in Gaza were rallying for their release, while Louisa went to an antiwar, pro-cease-fire protest.
In Tel Aviv, Mr. Kornblatt asked his daughter why she did not denounce Hamas’s attacks on social media. She wanted to know why her father did not emphasize the historical context — the occupation and Palestinian displacement — that shaped the current war.
The Kornblatt parents have acknowledged the deaths of Palestinian civilians in Israel’s bombardments; Louisa has acknowledged the deaths of Israeli civilians in the Hamas attack.
Jake Kornblatt said he has come to accept and learn from some of the language his sister taught him — like the term “occupation” — but that he struggles with her stark perspective on “good guys and bad guys.”
“Has there been racism, has there been a lot of injustice, have there been war crimes potentially? Yes, but there’s more to it than that.”
Jake Kornblatt, with his wife, Tamar Asnko
His sister seems to have “this idea of this insidious plan of Zionists coming in and wanting to subjugate people,” he said. “Has there been racism, has there been a lot of injustice, have there been war crimes, potentially? Yes, but there’s more to it than that.”
He disagrees with her use of the word apartheid to describe Israel. “If you use this type of language, the other side is not going to be able to listen to you,” he said.
Tamar Asnko, 36, an Israeli Jew who is married to Jake, said she doesn’t agree with Louisa on everything, though she found their recent discussions in Tel Aviv interesting.
Ms. Asnko moved to Israel from Ethiopia when she was 4, and Israel is the only place she calls home. “It’s complicated,” she said. “There isn’t black and white here. There’s a middle ground. I feel like people who don’t live here don’t understand the middle ground.”
In the final days of her visit, Louisa Kornblatt felt tension in her parents’ home. She walked into the apartment after volunteering to help Palestinian families harvest olives in the West Bank. She gave her father a hug and noticed that he didn’t hug her back.
Mr. Kornblatt told his daughter that he was hurt that she would use her precious time on a visit with family to volunteer in the West Bank. “Does this have to be the time?” she recalled him asking her, to which she replied: “Yeah, this is the time.”
In the final 45 minutes before departing for the airport, as Ms. Kornblatt was packing, the family had one last noisy argument about what political solutions to the war were possible. Then they walked outside to get her a taxi, and hugged one another.
“I didn’t leave with any doubt that my family loves me,” Ms. Kornblatt said.
Nadav Gavrielov contributed to this story."