In the last week there have been four momentous events in the Jewish political world, two of them soul-crushing, two of them uplifting. I say momentous because the two uplifting events signal a major change in Jewish political culture that is likely to leave many of us speechless in months and years to come, and that represents a revolution in definition of community.
First, the two deadly events. A week ago AIPAC, the leading Israel lobby organization, held its annual conference in Washington, and never has US politics seen such a sumptuous procession of rusty musty cadavers trooping across a stage with so many scripted lines. Even Republican conventions look bacchanalian by comparison to this staged obeisance to wealth. Not a word was out of place. Donald Trump was cheered; his surrogate Nikki Haley was bathed in love. AIPAC shut its doors to any possible critics and even the journalists who got in complained that the most interesting sessions were off the record. The conference sought to signal to political Washington that sanctifying Israel remains a bipartisan project; Nancy Pelosi cooperated by saying that the US aid to Israel is “sacred… sacred.”
The decadence of the affair, the sense that all this could crumble in a second, was evident in the biggest news out of the event: Israeli strongman Benjamin Netanyahu is apparently dyeing his hair.
A few days after the conference, the mainstream organization that is trying to muscle AIPAC offstage as being unrepresentative of the American Jewish community — J Street, which loves Israel but does so critically — shot itself in the foot when its youth branch, J Street U, joined a rightwing conference against BDS, the Boycott campaign aimed at Israel. J Street did so with the faith that its adherence to Zionism could resolve its fierce opposition to the Israeli occupation with all the rightwing organizers that can’t get enough of occupation; but J Street judged wrong. Its Zionism cut no ice. Its idealistic young representatives were smeared as anti-Semites, and J Street has been trying to cover its ass ever since for breaking bread with Netanyahu-loving, Islamophobic, Trumpist, intolerants.
Why did it go in the first place? The message to all young idealistic people was clear: J Street is afraid of the progressive camp, because progressives are increasingly anti-Zionist. But in the era of Trump, progressives are the only game in town. Hmmm, who can lead?!
Those were the soulcrushers. Now for the Vivaldi.
A week ago the young Jewish resistance movement IfNotNow demonstrated at the AIPAC conference, and hundreds of young Jews came to see a speech by Cornel West and a chained-arms action at the gates of the conference in opposition to the occupation. The fact that the biggest news from the demonstration was the beating of a Palestinian teacher by the Jewish Defense League, the troglodytes who felt called to oppose the demo, only highlighted the purity and innocence of this movement.
As the occupation enters its 50th year, we are reclaiming our Jewish values by taking action to support freedom and dignity for all. And we will do this in bold and beautiful ways, rooted in Jewish Resistance. We will be the leaders that the establishment refuses to be.
They want to lead! The signal element of IfNotNow is their complete and utter loss of faith in the older generation because it gave us the occupation and Trump. They are not taking any instruction from their elders. They are trying to find their own way, Jewishly; and this has so far meant an openness to anti-Zionists, if not a rejection of the idea of a Jewish state.
The last event was the Jewish Voice for Peace conference I just attended in Chicago. A thousand people were there, and all of them intentionally (AIPAC papers its hall with donations from the cadavers); and the spontaneous liberations of the event were often staggering. Music in the halls; a striptease for BDS; prayer and yoga in the morning; ceaseless invocations of the intersectionality of fighting white supremacy in the U.S. and Jewish supremacy in Israel and Palestine; a roster of speakers that was itself a challenge to the white Ashkenazi male rosters that dominate other Jewish communal gatherings; and most important for me, an unblinkered view of the dangers of Zionism for Jews and Palestinians (and Americans too, BTW). The theme of the conference was All In; and there was huge applause when Stefanie Fox said that JVP was undertaking a review of its position on Zionism, a signal that the organization will adopt a strongly anti-Zionist stance in the months to come. (It has kept the door open to liberal Zionists through the years by not being too harsh on Zionism.)
Zionism is “not about the protection of Jews but the protection of a violent state,” Fox said, and at that moment I noticed Cindy and Craig Corrie sitting a few seats away, with their habitual grace. Honoring Rachel; patiently awaiting even a gesture of justice.
The IfNotNow demonstration and the JVP conference are momentous because they are so independent of one another, so completely unorchestrated (as opposed to the soulcrushing events). They show deep stirrings inside the Jewish community in defiance of older donors, and a desperate need on the part of Jews for a universalist language and message to overcome the damage of Zionism, and Trump too. These Jews are choosing intersectionality as a vehicle to smash the “What’s-good-for-the-Jews” ethos of their parents and grandparents; they are making alliances with people of color and Muslims and other marginalized communities to break up unjust orders here and in Israel too. While I see myself as a liberal, and am uncomfortable with identity politics, I’m putting my own p-o-v to the side here, to point out the political ramifications of what I witnessed.
We must all recognize Trump’s disruptive power. He has radicalized a large segment of blue state progressives. That radicalization is accelerated inside the Jewish community, by the undeniable evidence of apartheid and proto-fascism in Netanyahu’s Israel. Even centrist Zionists in the Jewish establishment are quietly ashamed and hopeless these days. And something huge has been unleashed in the next generation. Call it utopian or prophetic, but there’s no going back: these forces are sure to convulse the Jewish community ala other countercultural upheavals in American history. Alan Solow (who is the Jewish establishment personified) even said so at J Street last month when he predicted that the 50th anniversary of the occupation was potentially explosive inside Jewish life.
Seven years ago Peter Beinart wrote his piece “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” and the Jewish establishment didn’t catch a clue and change. J Street tried to organize an army of young people behind Beinart, but it was t-shirts not a movement; there was never a prophetic energy, the leaders couldn’t offer a transcendent or idealistic message. Beinart himself rationalized Israeli discrimination against Palestinians. But young people who believe however naively in their ability to remake the world on new terms cannot accept such a reservation, certainly not in this intersectional age, when minority communities are granted such moral authority.
When I asked Ethan Miller of IfNotNow why intersectionality is important to his group, his answer made the point: Israel has corrupted everything in Jewish life. Miller wrote:
We’ve found that many Jewish institutions use their support for the occupation as excuses for not taking the bold, moral stances that our time demands. Take the Movement for Black Lives policy platform as an example. Jewish institutions who often raise up their history of working on civil rights issues all of a sudden were condemning this groundbreaking platform because it included a criticism of the Israeli government and the occupation.We know that many Jewish organizations’ unwillingness to directly and explicitly oppose many actions of the Trump administration (such as the appointment of Steve Bannon) comes from their desire to maintain a close relationship and ensure the administration’s continued support for the occupation. We can’t let them continue to sell so many threatened communities down the river for the sake of their pro-Israel at any cost politics.
Beinart also warned that if Israel fails, the Jewish community will be tromping through the rubble for generations ala the momentous failure of Shabbtai Zvi in the 16th century; for this failure implicates an edifice of thinkers, journalists, leaders, activists, university presidents, financiers, movie execs, and CEOs too, all of whom bought in.
That is happening right now. The project of the one-and-only Jewish state has failed inasmuch as it has not become the light unto the world it kept promising it would be. This is obvious to anyone who saw the racial beating outside AIPAC, to silence from the Jewish establishment, or who sees Israel’s latest settlement announcement in the wake of the UN Security Council making clear that settlements are a “flagrant violation” of international law. For a long time, anti-Zionists were lonely voices in the wilderness. No longer. Taking a critical position on Zionism is the only cool/interesting/generative place for intelligent young people to be; and they are willing to sacrifice a lot to be there. The suspense now is just what that revolution will produce, in Jewish and American life.