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.
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.
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.”
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.”