by Sarah Posner
Why we should keep talking with Jewish campus activists who criticize Israel.
If there’s one message I want to shout from the rooftops to skeptical American Jews, particularly those in religious and lay leadership positions, it’s this: The kids are all right. And the American Jewish community’s support—and critique—of Israel will be all right, in fact immeasurably improved, if the organized Jewish community can just treat young pro-Israel, anti-occupation activists as ordinary, indeed impossibly mundane members of the community.
The inevitable future of pro-Israel activism in the United States lies with the young progressive Zionists who count among their Israeli heroes not Benjamin Netanyahu but Stav Shaffir, the 29-year-old Labor Party MK who ignited global admiration when a video of her Knesset “Who Is a Zionist” speech went viral. “Don’t preach to us about Zionism, because real Zionism means dividing the budget equally among all the citizens of the country,” was Shaffir’s impassioned entreaty. “Real Zionism is taking care of the weak. Real Zionism is solidarity, not only in battle but in everyday life.”
Let’s not have another—and another and another—debate over whether liberal Zionism is alive or dead, or whether liberalism and Zionism are now mutually exclusive. Let’s not fret about whether young liberal Jews are drifting away from Judaism. The reality is these young Jews are here, confident in their Jewish values and dedicated to their cause: supporting Israel by working for an end to the occupation. Not an end to Israel.
The greatest risk in sidelining these activists is not merely making them feel unwelcome, thus driving them away from organized Jewish life. The greatest risk is in utterly dumbing down the American Jewish debate about Israel. By treating them as the enemy—often blurring the lines between a pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement activist and a pro-Israel but anti-occupation progressive—some Jewish leaders engage in a coarse and short-sighted disservice to their constituents.
Jewish organizations make a mockery of themselves when they try to pretend that anti-occupation, pro-Israel activists are outliers in American Jewish life. In March, 500 Jewish college students in town for the conference of the pro-Israel, anti-occupation advocacy group J Street walked from the Washington Convention Center to Hillel International’s headquarters. They sought a meeting with Hillel’s president, Eric Fingerhut, who had withdrawn from participating in the conference, he said initially, because of the presence of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Later, Hillel claimed the “conference agenda overall was concerning,” and said it made the withdrawal decision after speaking with the “full range of Hillel stakeholders.”
Fingerhut may yet meet with some students. However, the underlying problem is broader: Hillel has constrained itself, through its impossibly overbroad “guidelines”—which prohibit Hillel from hosting or partnering with speakers who, among other things “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel”—from engaging with the very community for which it exists.
As Benjy Cannon, the president of J Street’s campus arm, J Street U, pointed out, the students Fingerhut didn’t address may well be the future of pro-Israel advocacy in the United States. The landmark 2013 Pew Research Center survey of American Jewish attitudes found that 50 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 believe that ongoing settlement-building hurts Israel’s security, and only 26 percent of them believe that the Israeli government is making a sincere effort for peace with the Palestinians.
Cannon and other J Street U activists rightly fear that a democratic future in Israel is in deep peril, and they argue that snubbing critical Zionist voices is self-destructive. Daniela Tolchinsky, then a third-year student at the University of Chicago, wrote in 2013, “Being pro-Israel also means actively advocating for its future as a secure, democratic state and Jewish homeland at peace with its neighbors.” Josh Boxerman, a co-founder of the Northwestern University chapter of J Street U, wrote that being pro-Israel, even in the face of Israel’s rightward lurch, is undergirded “by an unyielding belief that it didn’t have to turn out this way, and it doesn’t have to stay this way.”
And there are more MKs for these young activists to admire, like Labor’s Merav Michaeli, who told me last year that she welcomes American “support in my struggle for what I see as the Israel that I want to live in and I want to reconstruct as a democratic state that is the homeland of the Jewish people but that allows all of its citizens to live peacefully together with equal rights.”
The grown-up J Street, which takes just such positions—against BDS, against the occupation and for a democratic future for Israel—has faced its own obstacles to inclusion. Last year, when J Street sought membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it was denied. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said at the time that the conference “is captive of a large number of small organizations that do not represent the diversity of views in our community.” About the Hillel incident, Cannon, J Street U’s president, went further, writing in a Haaretz op-ed that Jewish organizations are subject to “the overwhelming and dangerous power of right-wing money in pro-Israel politics.”
It’s clear that donors such as Sheldon Adelson have become significant players in American Jewish discourse; it’s harder to tell whether right-wing money drives the exclusion of voices critical of Israel, or whether such exclusion reflects the deeply held convictions of the organizations in question.
Either way, though, what these organizations need is transparency and openness—openness about the role of funding, and openness to the full range of ideas being expressed by younger Jewish activists. What it doesn’t need is unaccountable gatekeepers deciding who can speak for American Jews.
Sarah Posner is an investigative journalist and a contributing writer to Religion Dispatches.