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Generational shift: Young Jews come out as anti-Zionist without fearing parents’ wrath

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This past May, something remarkable happened in the senior issue of the Evanston Township High School newspaper, the Evanstonian: two Jewish seniors published essays unburdened of the anxiety and baggage that typically accompany such essays critical of the Jewish State.  Rachel Krumholz and Abe Frolichstein-Appel, both anti-Zionist teens, wrote pieces that oppose Israel and Zionism without apology.

Rachel’s article,  “A Reclamation of My Jewish Identity,” boldly stresses the importance of separating antisemitism from anti-Zionism:

Conflating antisemitism and anti-Zionism perpetuates the narrative that Israel embodies Judaism and the Jewish people. A government cannot represent any specific religion and still serve all citizens equally.

Similarly, Abe Frolichstein-Appel’s piece, Reevaluating Antisemitism,” deconstructs the Zionist rhetoric that claims criticism of Israel is antisemitic:

The separation between the word “antisemitism” and the phenomenon it once described is used to defend the State of Israel under the guise of defending Jews.

Additionally, last December in the Evanstonian, Joe Whitcomb, a non-Jew raised culturally Christian, called Israel out for the killings of Palestinians in his essay, “Right Wing Politics is an Ideological Threat to a Functioning America”:

In Gaza, three boys younger than 14 were flattened by an Israeli airstrike. In the last eight months at that border, IDF troops have murdered 168 people and wounded 15,000 more.

These three seniors publicly condemned Israel. Their pieces negate the liberal Zionist rhetoric that silences criticism of Israel and conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

Most of all, their essays were without the emotional angst and malaise that have characterized so many renunciations of the Zionist obligation.

In June, I met the three students at Siam Paragon, a sushi restaurant a few blocks from Lake Michigan. Rachel arrived first. She has red hair and a tiny nose ring.  Abe has long, curly brown hair and talks with his hands. Joe is clean cut and tall. Rachel and I, the two vegetarians at the table, ordered sesame noodles with peanut sauce. Abe and Joe ate a lot of sushi.

I wondered who might overhear us, but the students didn’t seem to care.  Clearly, the angst was my own.  Years ago, when a Palestinian friend was visiting, I brought her to the same sushi restaurant.  At one point, she said, “Zionism is racism,” just as a mother and daughter walked by.  The mother turned around and looked horrified.

The three teenagers were eager to eat and converse, and I didn’t bother explaining the neurotic moment I had about who might hear our conversation.  Besides, they wouldn’t have cared who heard them.  They had published their essays in an award-winning student-run newspaper (the paper has been in existence since 1916) sponsored by a school that serves around 4000 students.  ETHS is the largest high school under one roof in the U.S. and, fun fact, has over four miles of hallway.

We talked for almost two hours.  I asked each of them to share with me how they developed their opinions about Israel/Palestine and where their views came from.  All three told me they identify as anti-Zionists.

Abe said his parents helped “form my values, and then I applied these values to Israel.”  Rachel grew up seeing Israeli flags on lawns of synagogues.  “I believed that supporting Israel and Judaism were synonymous,” she said. “But I don’t anymore.”

Joe gave one of the best descriptions of liberal Zionism I’ve heard.  “Liberal Zionists think the Israeli government is bad, but the idea of Israel is still good.”

Both of Joe’s parents are anti-poverty lawyers in Chicago, so he grew up in a politically left-wing household.  “In fourth grade, I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States,” he said, explaining what his childhood looked like:

From a young age I established a political consciousness that was very to the left.  I was primed to read anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist literature…I was reading the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times and I noticed how different Israel was represented in the newspapers from the literature I was reading.

The critical lens through which these three teens view Israel was impressive, of course, but as they were talking, I realized it wasn’t only because they oppose Zionism.  Anti-Zionist teens exist all over the country; it’s not as though these teens are the first.

I noticed something larger: a generational shift, a new iteration of teenage suburban life. These teens don’t fear their parents when it comes to their views on Israel/Palestine and Zionism.  They’re supported by their families.

This is vastly different from what I have experienced in my generation. The anti-Zionist awakenings I have witnessed in the last fifteen years in people who grew up in liberal Zionist homes  have been against considerable resistance from their parents and the older generation–Jews in their 60s and 70s who were raised with the religion of Zionism.  We had to rebel against our families and, for some of us, the political awakening came at a great cost.

Joe Whitcomb

But these teenagers’ parents are in their 40s and 50s now, and these teens are empowered to criticize Israel.  These families don’t feel betrayed; their love of Judaism isn’t called into question when their kids oppose Zionism.  There isn’t a risk of alienation when these teens speak up.

Their essays weren’t charged in a way that the pieces of my generation were.  Many of us undid it alone. When we had a paradigm shift about Israel, a change in our worldview, we provided disclaimers and apologies.  We stuttered and prevaricated.  Some of us lost family and friends and communities.  We became defensive as we tried to explain our position.  “Judaism and Zionism are totally synonymous!” my mother told me many times, when I tried to talk with her about the shift I was going through.

These students are not apologizing, even as they experience backlash for their views. After Rachel was accepted to the George Washington University (GW), which she will attend this fall, she enthusiastically joined the GW Jewish Facebook group.  As she explains in her essay, she immediately experienced bullying from other Jewish students when she criticized Israel:

One person instantly replied to my comment saying ‘I wish I could dislike this.’ Another person went out of their way to find my Snapchat, add me and bombard me with accusations, falsities, and invalidations of my Jewishness. They said that they had never met a pro-Palestine Jew, that I ‘needed to do my research’ and that all Palestinians hated Jews (a racist, yet uncomfortably prevalent sentiment).

Despite the vitriol she received from the Facebook group, Rachel nonetheless feels empowered to decide what kind of Jew she wants to be.  Criticism of Israel makes her no less of a Jew, she writes, but a better one.  “What Jewish leaders in Israel often do is place limitations on Jewishness,” Rachel declares, “claiming that one must support Israel in order to be a real Jew.”  At the restaurant, Rachel said proudly, “I consider myself a pro-Palestinian Jew.”

When his piece came out in December, Joe told me some students said they were boycotting the Evanstonian because he had written about the murders in Gaza.  But he did not waver.  “Liberal Zionists don’t want to have serious discussions about how nationalism and imperialism can take root in many different forms,” Joe said.  “I find that they want to avoid the conflict, or feel the conflict doesn’t serve them in any real way.”

Abe Frolichstein-Appel

Similarly unapologetic in his essay, Abe decoded the rhetoric used against Jews like him who oppose Zionism:

My Judaism compels me to fight for justice and prosperity, which means taking a decisive and strong stance against the Israeli government, which, to many, means I am an antisemite, which to them means I hate Jews. Or, put simply, my Judaism (as I embrace it) is the reason (as they explain it) that I hate Jews. A fabricated contradiction, one which deflates my credibility to identify bigotry and to condemn bigotry against other people under the guise of fighting for my own people.

When I asked Abe how he reconciles being anti-Zionist with having a strong Jewish identity, he said firmly, “I’m anti-Zionist because I have a very strong Jewish identity.”

(It was incredible, and admittedly a bit strange, to hear these students speak so freely.  Years ago, I received death threats at the school where I taught when I published my first couple essays opposing Zionism.  The threats were from a Jewish Zionist in Chicago.  Now I write under a pseudonym.)

Of course, I’m not the only one who asks for anonymity. When the teenagers’ pieces came out in the Evanstonian, an older math teacher at ETHS who had read the teens’ essays confided in me that he also identifies as anti-Zionist.  For fear of retribution, he chose to remain unidentified when I told him I was writing this article.  He said to me, “The school administrators should feel good that they helped to create a space where students can express opinions that are vilified in most institutions in the U.S.  It’s one of the biggest freedom movements of our lifetime, and students can’t be cowed in their opinions by a sleight of hand rhetoric about Zionism.  It shows courage to stand up to Zionism.”

Anti-Zionist teachers like the math teacher and me are careful.  We work in liberal institutions where Zionism is the dominant standard.  Ongoing efforts are being made to further silence such discourse in public schools.  Sometimes our teaching includes talking with students about Palestine, and sometimes it doesn’t, but we’re always building relationships with students to create the conditions to talk about power and privilege and oppression.

But things are different for these teenagers.  They have family support, and hopefully they will have institutional support, too.  Joe, who will be attending New York University (NYU), is excited to join the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter. Abe will be going to Oberlin, and wants to help build bridges with the liberal Zionist community.

When I left the restaurant with the teenagers, I was thinking about when I was their age.  I remembered a letter I wrote to my Shakespeare professor, Standish Henning, when I was a 19-year-old college freshman in 1989.  I sent him a note telling him I had been overwhelmed by his sad lecture on King Lear.  I received a letter in the mail a few weeks later.

“I was a lot older than you when King Lear began to get to me,” Professor Henning wrote. “You have preceded me by decades, and will have to weep longer.”

Liz Rose

Liz Rose is a Chicago teacher.

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15 Responses

  1. annie on July 23, 2019, 3:58 pm

    As always, very entertaining Liz.

  2. Talkback on July 23, 2019, 6:37 pm

    Great article

  3. Elizabeth Block on July 24, 2019, 8:53 am

    More than entertaining. Heartening. And worth quoting.

  4. Marnie on July 24, 2019, 1:08 pm

    Very smart kids, go forth and multiply!

  5. Nathan on July 24, 2019, 8:20 pm

    This article tries to leave the impression that being anti-Israel is some sort of heroism (“it shows courage to stand up to Zionism)”. In the restaurant scene, the atmosphere is one of fear (“I wondered who might overhear us”) as if it might be dangerous to raise an anti-Israel argument in public. And why so? Well, once upon a time our author had a conversation with a Palestinian in the very same restaurant, and someone “turned around and looked horrified”. That surely must have been a cliff-hanger!

    I think our author can take a deep breath and calm down. Anti-Israel activism is not so uncommon. Perhaps it gives her a feeling of drama (as if she’s part of some secretive underground movement), but really it’s all quite silly.

    It’s not at all convincing that one of those interviewed really “believed that supporting Israel and Judaism were synonymous”, nor is it credible that “Jews in their 60s and 70s were raised with the religion of Zionism”. What we have here in this article is an updated version of the very boring propaganda of the American Council for Judaism since the 1940’s.

    It’s true that for many Jews identification with Israel is an important component of their Jewish identity. And, quite obviously, the opposition to Israel of the anti-Israel Jews is also a very important component of their Jewish identity. Both cases are examples of a longing for expressing Jewishness in the realm of politics (certainly not religion).

    Most importantly it should be noted that both the pro-Israel and the anti-Israel points of view are an indication that Israel really is “the only show in town” in contemporary Jewish history. Jewish life in the Diaspora would really be terribly boring if Israel weren’t around. The Jewish public is not too concerned with any issue of theology, but they are interested in expressing a continuity of Jewish peoplehood. Israel is the only tool of this expression (and it doesn’t make any difference if you’re for or against).

    • wondering jew on July 25, 2019, 2:29 am

      I guess I’d call it Post-Torah Judaism. There is no religious discussion that we find here, purely politics.
      Israel is a reality, in many ways an exciting vibrant Jewish reality, but in many ways a reality of oppression. Whether Palestinians blame their leaders as well, for them certainly 1897 Herzl in Basel or 1917 Balfour and 1947 partition plan are all dates marking the damage done to them as individuals and as a group.
      The Jewish claims on the land were well known to people who read the Koran and the New Testament. They either dismissed these claims as silly or took them seriously. In the court of public opinion it seems this “silliness” approach is still being used. Instead they should have taken the claims seriously. It is feasible that the unpredictable course of events of Europe emerging from antiquity into modernity for some anomalous quirk of the system, involved a type of xenophobia which resulted in the “silly” claim turning into a world movement. The success of this movement depended to a large extent on the world powers and their manipulation of world events in order to control resources, so maybe the essence of what the Palestinians needed to fear was the western greed for power. But the Jewish people did exist and does exist and will continue to exist and it need not be the entirety of the population that calls itself Jewish, there is a large enough group of Jews who view group continuity as their priority and Israel is the foremost (by far) method of continuity. That the army and leadership of our mode of continuity could view with such callousness towards the Palestinians and disregard for their basic human impulses is a horrible flaw that paints the urge to survive and thrive as a zero sum game and we need to get past the zero sum game point of view if it takes decades or centuries that point of view will have to become a thing of the past.

      • Marnie on July 25, 2019, 11:21 pm

        @yonah

        ‘Israel is a reality, in many ways an exciting vibrant Jewish reality, but in many ways a reality of oppression.’

        Germany is a reality, in many ways an exciting vibrant Aryan reality, but in many ways a reality of oppression. Wow, that works too.

        yonah, you and so many of your compadres here, either accidentally or deliberate, manage to exemplify the banality of evil Hannah Arendt wrote about.

        I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

        So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Revelation 3:15-16

        ‘The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.’ Hannah Arendt

      • Mooser on July 26, 2019, 12:21 pm

        Shorter “Yonah”: ‘Jews are white now.’

    • JWalters on July 25, 2019, 4:16 am

      “Israel really is ‘the only show in town’ in contemporary Jewish history. Jewish life in the Diaspora would really be terribly boring if Israel weren’t around.”

      Why not simply make an entertaining movie about slaughtering Palestinians and stealing their lands? It would be a lot cheaper, and could be made a lot more entertaining. For instance, it could be a comedy. There could be hilarious scenes of Meyer Lanskey and the mob funneling money to the Irgun, with mistaken identities, losing the bag of money, etc. Menachem Begin could lead a bumbling raid on Dir Yassin, his men stumbling around in the dark, almost failing to massacre the villagers. Zionist theoreticians could be sitting in coffee shops debating the morality of slaughtering non-Jews, in an Alice in Wonderland tangle of non-sequiturs and illogic. On the other hand, the movie revenues would probably not rise to the level of the war profits. Ah, there’s the rub!

  6. Jackdaw on July 25, 2019, 3:29 pm

    Great article.

    I laughed, I cried.

    • Mooser on July 25, 2019, 6:39 pm

      Got any plans to counter these generational shifts, and long term trends in Judaism? They don’t bode well for Zionism.

      • Jackdaw on July 26, 2019, 8:57 am

        @moosie

        “Got any plans to counter these generational shifts, and long term trends in Judaism? ”

        Yes. I plan to raise my kids to be proud Jews.

        What’s your plan?

      • Mooser on July 26, 2019, 12:49 pm

        “Yes. I plan to raise my kids to be proud Jews.”

        That’s right. If you have kids, they will never win a battle of will with you!

    • Marnie on July 25, 2019, 11:13 pm

      @jackdaq

      “I laughed, I cried”. Pretty much the response I get from reading your posts.

  7. JoeSmack on July 26, 2019, 10:15 pm

    Yawn. Interview Arabs, stop privileging Jewish voices.

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