Last Monday a group of Jewish youth calling themselves Young, Jewish, and Proud (YJP) debuted by coordinating a widely covered disruption of Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the Jewish Federation National Assembly (JFNA) in New Orleans. In the extensive coverage and exchanges that followed, much was said. Nevertheless, I am left with the feeling that some meaningful insights were largely left out.
I am in awe still. While this action is not as risky as what many Palestinians and others face daily, it took courage – a kind of courage different from what it takes to face a sworn enemy. It is one thing to disagree with your community, be known even as an extreme voice or an odd member, and another all together to be counted as an embarrassment and, consequently, an outcast.
While a few YJP members had already crossed that line, the majority had not. For the audacity to poop on Bibi’s parade and “insult their community” publicly instead of behind closed doors they will force many of their friends, school mates, family even, to sever ties with them and give them the cold shoulder. They will become toxic in a large part of their community – a community they strongly feel a part of despite their deep disagreements. I am not speaking about the ardent Zionist community, but the community of Jewish Americans which has romantic emotional connection to a “Jewish homeland” and vague moral qualms about what is happening to the Palestinians that they wish to see change but haven’t come about yet to change their understandably victim-centric worldview and accept that their beloved state of Israel is a criminal state that practices systematic apartheid.
Consider this inferior analogy, since no community is immune to any number of maladies. In Islam, imagine some young Muslims standing in the middle of Eid prayer this Tuesday on Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia and shouting at the top of their lungs that the Saudi monarchy silences dissent in the name of Islam and that true Islam calls for women to have equal legal and political rights (not to mention Shias and non-Muslims) – then post this footage on YouTube for all to watch. A vast majority of Muslims would agree with the premise, and privately condemn the Saudi monarchy as medieval and Islamic in nothing but name, but most of this very majority if asked would describe such protest action as provocative, unseemly, ill-timed, needless, and rude on this revered occasion. While a few secret admirers and a handful of radical figures will celebrate them on Facebook, the perpetrators will be roundly ostracized in their mainstream communities, and less than a few will lift a finger, probably behind closed doors, to advocate against their being made an example of bad behavior. This analogy is not a perfect fit, but it gives the picture of what these protesters had to grapple with before standing up, raising their banners, signing their statement, filming their action, or writing about it.
Some voices I respect have mulled over the extensive coverage this event has generated vis-à-vis other news involving Palestinians dying and people risking more than a few scratches and mean name-calling. Some spoke disapprovingly of Jewish and white privilege. I loved what YJP member Emily Ratner had to say in her post about what she did, “And while I’m proud of what we’ve done, our actions are a small, highly-documented moment in a long history of resistance, led by people who have risked and lost far more than we have, or will.” Jewish and white privilege exists; these young Jews did not invent it and cannot dismantle it overnight. They employed it responsibly to attract the spotlight and focus it where it belongs.
Speaking of privilege, I feel so privileged – non-Jewish and non-white as I am – when I realize that more than half the YJP founders, pictured here, are people I have known and met. The only Jews I have grown up with were Israeli politicians and military leaders (excuse the redundancy), or stereotypical characters in caricatures and nationalist TV series. This connection would have not taken place if I hadn’t been blessed to travel and come in contact with Jewish friends whose display of moral courage helped me realize and overcome my own prejudice. Incidentally, a few weeks ago I was chatting about how I’d met some of these friends years back and concluded after speaking to them that the most they would ever do is talk and dialogue to relieve their troubled conscience towards the Palestinian suffering. I then remarked on how it has been such an experience to observe their transformation and, upon uttering this, realized that not only they, but I, have been transformed. I am reminded of Phil Weiss’ recent postings about his own racism, and feel eternally grateful that I’ve shed a good deal of mine.
Finally, on moral courage, conspicuously absent from the JFNA protest message was any critical mention of Zionism or the right of return to Palestinian refugees. The protest message was consistently framed around “occupation, settlements, siege of Gaza, loyalty oath, and silencing dissent.” Some puritans would point to this as a capitulation unworthy of wide celebration. This is irresponsible armchair sloganeering. What one has an opportunity to say in a quiet lecture hall cannot be delivered in a few seconds while being dragged out and shouted down, so one has to aim their best shot. What are the achievable objectives of this action? To open up the eyes of other young Jews present at the convention, the ones being courted by J-Street and the David Project, to their peers being brutally choked, dragged, and silenced by their elders for expressing universal truths whose validity is unquestionable. Quoting again from the Muslim tradition, the scripture relates the story of an early follower of Muhammad who confronts his abusers imploring “Would you kill a man because he says: `My Lord is Allah?’” He did not protest that they denied his right to take four wives – and he was Muhammad’s best friend and ally!
While united by their opposition to the Israeli establishment, these brave souls differ individually, and it is their right, on how they approach the problem and imagine a solution. Some are Zionists, whatever this means to them that preserves their inner peace. Others have moved beyond that, or come from an opposite direction. The slogans they raised represented points of unity upon which they agreed. As their transformation continues, this may change. It is not my role today to criticize but to congratulate, and wait to continue these difficult discussions of our intellectual disagreements at another time.
Today I say todah.
Mohammad Talat is an assistant professor of civil engineering at Cairo University and a UC Berkeley alum.