Tabling Under Duress
This week I am embarking on one of the most awkward aspects of my job- tabling for Birthright. At its worst, I feel like a kid wandering around the cafeteria, wondering where to sit, and at its best, surrounded by people who stop by to say hello, I feel like the most popular kid in school.
Yesterday, as I arranged my colorful poster board with pictures of my smiling students riding camels, smearing Dead Sea mud all over each other, and looking with amazement out over Jerusalem, I noticed that the student group who had been sitting there before I showed up was the International Socialist Organization. I looked around for someone who could appreciate the irony of this with me, but found no one. Then, with trepidation and shame, I looked around for the Socialists, and with relief, also found none.
This semester, much of my work has been about Israel. Some of it has been pro-active, creating programming for left leaning students who are nervous about entering what they believe to be a right wing environment. A lot of it has also been reactive, which makes me feel like I’m throwing myself in front of a speedily moving train (not to be melodramatic or anything).
Part of the tightrope I walk in supporting my progressive students around Israel requires that I demonstrate my own lefty credentials: feminist activism, an organizing fellowship after college, years spent working on a campus where shoes are considered superfluous. I have to build trust, which is difficult when on the Left, Zionism, a movement I also align myself with, is most often seen as “racist, imperialist, insert incendiary political adjective here: ___________.”
So what am I doing behind this Birthright table, trying to rally Jews and only Jews to go to Israel with a program whose agenda is to make them rabid, unquestioning supporters of its actions? What am I supposed to say to my students who identity more with Palestinian solidarity than with a Jewish state? What would I do if I was confronted by an activist who challenged me on the seemingly “racist” nature of Birthright? Would I smile and offer them chocolate and hope they go away? Would I engage them? Would I acknowledge their confusion and indignation? Would I haul out the classic Israel advocacy tractates that I have (knowingly and not) absorbed from years of working for Hillel?
What I want to believe is that it’s complicated, and I want to be able to say it with a strong voice, while looking this person in the eye and knowing that I’m living my convictions in that moment. Birthright, in spite of its flaws, can serve a function to even the most skeptical Jewish student. It places a person on the ground, albeit in a bus and far away from conflict zones, but on the ground nonetheless, and this is where the work, to a certain degree, begins. I believe it takes the right person, perhaps one who is wrestling with their own questions and identity and politics, who can see this through the eyes of one who is changing and struggling, because they are as well, and because they believe in authenticity more than indoctrination.
Campus activism around the war in Gaza (I refuse to use the term “anti-Israel,” or “pro-Palestinian,” unless presented with a specific situation) has resulted in a tense atmosphere at best. It’s difficult to recruit for a program that not only asks students to travel to a conflicted region at the center of controversy, but markets itself as a birthright to the people who are seem to many as holding all the power in the situation, the undeniable aggressors, the blood thirsty oppressors of a people they occupy for no good reason. As I write this, my own confusion seems overwhelming, and I’m reminded that to expect my students to be any less is not only unfair, but an enormous disservice, especially in light of the trust and community we continue to build together.
Earlier this week, I attended a lecture by a noted Columbia professor with the students I’ll travel to New Orleans with in a few weeks. He spoke to the difficult issues around cross cultural coalitions, institutionalized racism, and movement building. “How can we do this right?” one student asked, referring to the coalition our group is attempting to forge between Jews and People of Color. “How can we make sure it’s a success?” The professor eluded the question, to the frustration of the group, and over the course of the evening, proceeded to do so many more times, with other questions. As I watched this play out, I realized that one negative result of being entrenched in the world of academia is that we always expect an answer to our questions, or at the very least, an allusion to one. I’m guilty of the same thing-except on this end, I want to be the one who provides the answers, and I feel like an inadequate educator when I can’t. Ultimately, I want to encourage my students to not be afraid of grey, of complexity, of the exhilaration and fear that comes with not knowing the answer.
This is the kavannah, the intention, with which I seek to go to work everyday, but it is quite another to live it, especially given how fragile Jewish identity and community can feel, in these times in particular. In spite of all this, tomorrow, I’ll return to the table.
Chanel Dubofsky is theTzedek Hillel Coordinator at Columbia/Barnard Hillel,
The Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life