Five young Jews interrupted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech at the General Assembly (GA) of Jewish federations yesterday. You can read the first-hand accounts by lead protestor and Jewlicious and ROI alum Rae Abileah, LA Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman, and JTA’s Fundermentalist Jacob Berkman, among many others.
I will echo the comments by LA’s Eshman when I note that these protestors spoke in a language of Israel’s self-interest, setting them apart from the Muslim protestors at UC-Irvine earlier this year. The media statements by the protestors demonstrate — despite their chosen allegiances or tactics — thoughtfulness and rootedness in Jewish ethical culture. As Eshman reported, ‘ “What were they against?” one Israeli journalist in the audience asked rhetorically. “The loyalty oath? The occupation? Gaza? Most Jews would agree with them.” ‘ I and many others on Jewschool have made the occupation and many Israeli policies the topic of our consistent, vocal and stringent calls for reform.
I admire dedicated, assertive, moral student activists. The 1969 student sit-in of the GA resulted in reform of Jewish student program funding. Ultimately, it led to the expansion of Hillel. Many of those young leaders now head Jewish organizations and I’m honored to have some of them as mentors. But New Voices’ editor Ben Sales compares that event with today’s stunt, saying, “Far from articulating a positive and productive vision for the Jewish community, all they did was yell vapid sound bytes during a public event.”
I may have little taste for these theatrics. But for every five protestors who resort to dramatic headline seeking, there are dozens more like me.
There are better ways to instigate the conversation (and with more respect of a head of state, however odiously right-wing). But out here in the Jewish community, we’re starving for meaningful conversation. The atmosphere of hostility against those who feel the issues of settlement freezes and loyalty oaths are at least slightly important silences and alienates us.
The Israel Action Network just launched prior to the GA is a prime example of pouring fuel, not sanity, on the fire. San Diego Hillel director Lisa Goldstein just opined in Haaretz against the “fight fire with fire” approach:
A polarized campus quickly turns into small groups of activists screaming at each other while the vast majority of students, who are uninformed, uncertain or simply turned off by the rhetoric, flee to the perceived safety of apathy. “Safety” is the operative word. […] As a consequence, we have found that in this environment of heightened conflict, it is more difficult to engage uninvolved students around Israel issues. Even worse, it becomes more difficult to engage Jewish students around any aspect of Jewish life, not just Israel-related issues. They just don’t want to be associated with the hostility.
The same is true for those of us young Jews off campuses and now finding our way through communal life. The Israel offerings outside the social justice, peace or art crowds is decidedly propagandistic, infantalizing and apologetic. It speaks poorly of program directors at every major Jewish institution to not integrate the lessons of those copious studies of our age demographic.A dearth of realistic relationship-building with Israel’s full picture — “hugging and wrestling” — results in boredom and distrust. The trope emerges that we are closed-minded, which is disingenuous to the grassroots: “reasonable people,” to quote Jon Stewart.
Case in point, the GA footage of a bearded, kipah-wearing Jew tearing up a confiscated protest sign with his teeth in theatrical abandon made me queasy. What young observer wants to attend a conference with that guy? Or the smug, quippy retorts by Netanyahu as he announces new illegal settlement construction that threatens the peace process. Sounds like a real genuine partner for peace. And worst, that Jeff Shapiro, purportedly a federation representative from San Antonio, deemed it necessary to put a protestor in a choke hold. (As a martial arts practitioner, I found that potentially deadly technique beyond grossly disproportionate — no one was physically endangered by slogan-chanting from the back of the room. Metaphorically, just because Jewish Voice for Peace sent you a flotilla didn’t mean it was smart of you to board it.) Is this the reception I would get for voicing ethical concerns, albeit less rudely?
And I’m similarly disenchanted with the predictable “responses” to the activists from the right-wing, which amount to the usual “It’s all the Palestinians fault” masturbatory diatribes beloved by the anti-peace choir. The loyalty oath, Israel’s Foreign Minister’s proposals to expel Arabs, the illegal settlement project, and other thorny truths deserve communal discussion, not obfuscation. The Palestinians didn’t propose those things; the Israeli Knesset under Netanyahu’s leadership is. These “responses” don’t reach beyond the dwindling audience of self-certain elders — they certainly don’t answer young Jews’ legitimate questions.
As a side note, I happened to read the book of Ezekiel this weekend and was amazed at how full it is of stinging, bitter condemnations by God of the Jewish people. (It wouldn’t survive Abe Foxman’s editing pen for a minute.) It reminded me that the Jewish people are supposed to have a higher tolerance for calls for reform from within. Instead I fear that I see a prophecy from Ezekiel: we are cannibalizing our children.
Luckily, the Jewish left is growing, both the left and the far-left, and young Jews feature prominently in the leadership of both. It is growing because so many of us — young and old — feel a doomsday contradiction between the conflict and Jewish values. The more this drags on, the more we will grow. The meteoric rise of new Jewish left groups show that disenchanted Jews are seeking outlets for their frustration. And attempts to tarnish these groups don’t remove the demand for their existance. Communal research confirms the rift between young Jews and the establishment grows. And young Jews are doing what the Jewish community taught them to do: take action on their values.
In the words of Peter Beinart’s single tweet, “Expect more of this.”