A socially elite group, young secular Jewish-Israelis were once the backbone of the peace movement, working against Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza.
But increasing numbers of millennial secular Jewish-Israelis, known as hilonim, have come to see military activity by the Israel Defence Forces in the West Bank and Gaza as acceptable after four Gaza-Israel wars.
My new book sheds new light on why their attitudes towards the Palestinian struggle have shifted.
The failure of the Oslo peace process and four wars in Gaza between 2006 and 2014 have made them cynical about peace. Separation barriers dividing Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian populations in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza have made them feel safe. Since 2006, politicians have gradually shifted popular attention from occupation to the economy.
No progress without pragmatism
Over the two years following the 2014 Gaza-Israel war, I conducted 50 in-depth interviews with a diverse sample of self-identified hiloni millennials, plus a larger survey and additional research.
Researchers have criticised hiloni millennials for being self-absorbed, not committed to Israel’s future. But I found they had a great sense of responsibility. Many felt a heroic idea of themselves as reasonable, moderate and socially responsible. Across the political spectrum, they thought of themselves as reasonable, as what I call “fulcrum citizens”, balancing out extremists – including violent religious nationalist Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis. One man in his mid 20s, Tamer* told me:
Being moderate allows you to do more for people. Pragmatism is very important in life. Where there is no pragmatism there is no progress.
But the political impact of feeling reasonable has been double-edged. Even those who described themselves as left-wing and ultimately against the occupation, saw continuing occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel “for now” as “reasonable if regrettable”.
Ruth, also in her 20s, the child of Oslo-era activists, told me why fewer of her generation were fighting against the occupation.
I’m kind of hopeless actually. I think we’re stuck … We’re really numb … Our life is too good. We have too much to lose. If I want to intern at the UN, you don’t want to get caught at a protest and have a police file. We’re like yeah, (occupation) sucks but (fighting) it is too risky.
This finding is consistent with post-Oslo public opinion polls since 2000. These show that while half of Jewish-Israelis are open to peace with Arab states (such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan), they do not prioritise the protection of Palestinian human rights under international law.
Building on broader research on this group which looked at the economic, social and political dynamics affecting them, I focused on what it was like to come of age as a secular Jew in Israel after the failure of the Oslo peace accords, against a backdrop of rising ethno-religious nationalism among Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians.
I found that personal life philosophies, close relationships and experiences had shaped the political opinions of those I interviewed in surprising ways. To understand this, we need to think of being a secular Jewish-Israeli in a new way.
I observed what I call a neo-Romantic sensibility among those hilonim I interviewed. Nineteenth-century Romantics in Western Europe tried to find new ways to live a sincere, authentic life in line with their personal intuition and emotional experience. Romantics promoted greater self-expression – but also greater attachment to one’s nation.
They also sought new ways to achieve transcendence beyond, but also within religious tradition, particularly via the arts. Jewish thinkers influenced by Romanticism were excited about how creative individuals could interpret Jewish tradition and develop new ways of being meaningfully Jewish for themselves, beyond rabbinical authority.
While there is no direct historical connection between hiloni millennials and the 19th-century Romantics, I found similar sensibilities among them. Like the Romantics, my interviewees had a commitment to self-expression and emphasised sincerity and personal experience. They were interested in philosophical exploration within and beyond Judaism. They felt a strong sense of attachment to other Jewish-Israelis – particularly family and friends, but also the Jewish ethno-national collective.
These sensibilities were a product of the political, economic and social context in which they came of age during the 2000s and 2010s, which produced an interplay between individualism and ethno-national solidarity.
Over this period, Jewish-Israeli society has been brought together by multiple factors, including repeated wars with Hamas, a 2006 war with Hezbollah and fears of a nuclear Iran. Since the 1990s, mainstream Israeli politicians have mobilised people around ethno-religious symbols, and there is greater positivity towards Jewish tradition within society (ha-datah).
Previous generations felt more attached to wider society and the government. But a number of factors have bred feelings of individualism and reliance on the self, family and friends. These include political corruption, the willingness of successive governments to leave economically vulnerable individuals to the logic of the market and deepening consumerism.
Hiloni culture has also evolved. New Age spirituality and Mizrahi (Middle-Eastern Jewish) motifs have become mainstream, echoing 19th-century Romantics’ emphasis on emotion. The internet has facilitated even greater self-experimentation and expression than in previous generations.
As a result, hiloni millennials, like the Romantics, came to rely on their own experiences as a personal moral compass. Personal experience included what happened to them and how they felt about it and also expert opinions they had researched.
Hiloni millennials across the political spectrum said they base their politics on a combination of personal experience, rational deliberation and love for others they feel close to.
They came of age physically and emotionally separated from Palestinians, with Israeli politicians loudly asserting that there is “no partner for peace” and promoting Jewish ethno-religious solidarity and Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. They therefore feel more attached to, and personally responsible for, other Jewish-Israelis than Palestinians, even if they sometimes feel angry at settlers.
I found complicated feelings about Palestinians across the political spectrum: a mixture of understanding, empathy, frustration, despair, friendship, indifference, fear and loathing.
Like 19th-century Romantics, many hiloni millennials have turned inwards – to their own lives or activism around social and economic justice among their own community rather than working to end the occupation.
Young hiloni peace activists in the 1980s and 1990s also saw themselves as reasonable – but they saw working against occupation as the only reasonable option. Times have changed.
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of interview participants.