If there was one clear theme at the J Street conference that just concluded, it’s that young Jews are taking over as the leaders of the Jewish community, while older Jews are often the sources of stale, bigoted, or foolish comments. The generational divide in the Jewish community that I can’t shut up about was on full display.
The highlights of the conference were two statements by Jews in their 20’s, critical of Israel or the Jewish establishment. Zoe Goldblum was the only Jewish speaker I heard criticize the killings of Palestinians at the Gaza fence (along with Bernie Sanders, 76, that is). While Leanne Gale all but endorsed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
The low points included Rep. Jan Schakowsky admitting she’d never used the word occupation till last year and Jewish leader Jeremy Burton declaring that he refused to debate BDS, even among Jews.
And yes, there are exceptions to the generational rule. Bernie Sanders gave one of the best speeches at the conference.
Schakowsky, the liberal Jewish congresswoman from Illinois, reflected on a trip she took to the occupied West Bank last fall with J Street:
I have to tell you that before that trip I never even used the word occupation before. It really sunk in when I saw on the ground what it means. And I am so grateful to all of the students who are trying to bring to the attention of Americans, of the world how unfair this is, how unjust, how inhuman.
And you thought people have trouble getting to “apartheid.” This is reminiscent of NY Rep. Anthony Weiner saying in 2011, there is no occupation. Schakowsky, 73, is considered progressive on foreign policy. And by the way, she addressed the Nation Institute gala back in 2009 and held up a burka she had brought back from Afghanistan, to say, This is what America’s fight against the Taliban is all about.
Leanne Gale, an activist, writer and Yale Law School student, spoke at a panel on boycott, divestment and sanctions, and hinted plainly that she is a supporter of BDS. She laid out the three principles of BDS sympathetically, and expressed the fear that if she spoke her mind, Israel would bar her from entering the country, and then challenged the room:
The BDS movement is the number one nonviolent movement by Palestinians and Palestinian civil society. And so if the Jewish community is not willing to engage with that– there are no Palestinians on this panel– we haven’t created a space where we are able actually to engage with that face to face. If we are not able to engage with the most powerful, consistently non-violent movement in Palestinian society, then how are we ever to get at our vision of more justice, more equality and a solution to this conflict?
Jeremy Burton bridled at Gale’s statement. Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston and a leader in the fight against BDS, said:
At this point a caveat is necessary. And I don’t think I’m the only person up here who shares this [referring to Geri Palast of the Israel Action Network]… I was invited here to discuss the Jewish community’s response to BDS. And I was assured that this was not going to be a debate about whether BDS was bad or good in and of itself, or just or unjust.
My caveat is to say that rightly or wrongly, several mainstream Jewish organizations including my own essentially have a policy to not debate with proponents of BDS in public.
And I’m not trying to suggest that someone on this panel is a proponent of BDS. But it does put me in a complicated position. There is an argument being made, in support of the content or message or outcomes of the BDS movement. Some of us are here on the condition that we would not be debating the topic.
Funny, huh? And P.S. Becca Lubow, a student at the University of Michigan who has worked against BDS, said that nothing advances the movement on college campuses more than the impression students get from authorities that they wish to shut down debate of BDS.
More generational politics. Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister of Israel who is considered to be a left-centrist in Israel, said that in order for there to be equality in Israel, the country must remain majority Jewish.
We need a Jewish majority in the state of Israel. This is a must.
It would of course be career-suicide for an American politician to utter such a statement.
Livni went on to thank American Jews for defending the country from criticism over the shootings in Gaza. If any Israeli soldier did anything wrong he will be punished, she said:
I also know the ethical code of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. So if a soldier breaks that ethical code or violates the law, he is prosecuted and punished and I want you to know that because the state of Israel with the values that it represents does not and should not tolerate it. And I share this with you because i am familiar with the criticize. I know what the pictures that you see here. And I know that it is sometimes difficult to stand with these values and stand with Israel’s security, and I just wanted to share this with you personally.
According to Human Rights Watch, Livni lied.
A few minutes later on the same stage, young Zoe Goldblum, the president of J Street U, didn’t buy a word of Livni’s defense, and praised the protesters in Gaza, and condemned the attacks on them:
Over the summer [of 2014] I was watching as the death toll of civilians in Gaza climbed ever higher, and I was looking around at my community, and I was like– Where is the compassion? Where is the empathy? Why aren’t we speaking out about it? Why don’t we seem to care?… There are over a million people there who don’t have access to consistent water, to electricity, have no freedom of movement. And we consistently turn a blind eye….
I feel that we have a moment to not be hopeless right now because there are nonviolent protests that are being led by people in Gaza that have been happening for the past 3 weeks [applause]. I want to be clear that I know there have been some violent elements of them, but the majority of them have been nonviolent. That’s something to feel hopeful about in a politics between Gaza and Israel that has been dominated by violence for so long– how can we not look at nonviolent protests and be uplifted by that, how can we not grapple with it, even if we don’t agree with the ideology behind it….
I feel horrified personally to know that the Israeli military has been using live fire against these protesters. That over 2 dozen people have been killed. That over 1300 people have been injured by it. I think that we should say something…. As a community, What are we going to do about Gaza? What is our plan?
The several older Jews on the panel, including Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, declined to answer her questions. Though one of them changed the subject to the Parkland FL school shootings, and said the reason the response has been a national mobilization against gun violence is because half that high school is Jewish, and Jews are great at activism. Go Jews!
The conference also featured two establishment Jewish leaders attacking the left for criticizing Israel. One was Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. The other was Senator Brian Shatz of Hawaii, who said there is anti-Semitism “in our own tent,” people who “cross a moral line” in their commentary. Neither of them had a word to say about the morality of killing unarmed protesters. This battle is about to break out inside the Democratic Party and in Jewish institutions; and I’m counting on the next generation.
Correction: I wrote that Bernie Sanders praised IfNotNow in his speech. He didn’t. Husam Zomlot of the PLO did, and so did Leanne Gale.