If there was one moment that conveys the crisis that the J Street conference this week revealed inside the official American Jewish community, it was when a young Jewish foreign policy professional who works at an Obama thinktank said she had avoided the Israel question all her life out of disgust at what she saw in news stories, before finally going on a semi-official delegation early this year because it included Palestine.
“I am still highly disturbed and unsettled, and I don’t know if that will ever go away,” Brett Rosenberg said quietly. She continued:
Foreign policy thinkers tend to sit at a distance from the object of their study and their practice. This becomes impossible to do when you’re walking through the sterilized city of Hebron. Or finding a tear gas canister on the roof of a school in the Jalazone refugee camp right across the street from an Israeli settlement whose patron is the American ambassador. I was not the only member of my delegation who became furious. Who saw this not as a chessboard with pieces that can be maneuvered in different ways to get different outcomes, but as a real human tragedy that is being enabled through American tax dollars and policy.
Rosenberg told of the moment she left Hebron and got back on the bus. The delegation, led by J Street, was divided into two camps. One group sat in utter silence trying to process what they’d seen. The other was “yelling and swearing and trying to let out the agony of what we had seen.”
We are told that the issue is “complicated” as a reason not to take action, Rosenberg said, but she saw the simplicity of the conflict.
Seeing the conflict up close also shows that some things aren’t complex at all. Israel’s occupation is a moral wrong and participating in it pushes Israel ever more to an oppressive one-state reality…
Rosenberg’s epiphany was similar to many others expressed at J Street this year by young Jews, almost all women, describing shattering experiences of seeing conditions in Palestine.
There was clearly an element of Jewish handwringing in these testimonies: young people facing a reality that Palestinians have long been telling the world about. But you must consider that J Street is a power space. Rosenberg is a former Rhodes Scholar lately of Kamala Harris’s staff, now working under Jake Sullivan and Rob Malley and Wendy Sherman. We have long said that the persecution of Palestine is something that the Jewish community must come to terms with politically and spiritually; and many Jews at the conference are obviously doing just that.
That crisis was facilitated by the presence at the conference of Palestinians, some of whom said they had resisted a call from the BDS campaign not to show up, in part because Ehud Barak, the former Israeli defense minister who supervised the massacre of Cast Lead in ’08-’09, spoke at the conference. My sense from Palestinians who did speak was that they thought it important to be near the corridors of power.
Tawfik Abu Wael, a co-creator of the wrenching HBO series “Our Boys,” about the 2014 murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, ended his remarks by calling for one democratic state.
“There is a hope– if the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem have a right to vote in Israel– that’s a hope,” Abu Wael said. He got wild applause from young people in the audience.
But I am focusing on the Jewish crisis and will quote several statements made on stages at the conference. The cat really is out of the bag. These young people understand that Palestinians are being persecuted in their name.
Emily Mayer of the young Jewish group IfNotNow, formed during the Israeli slaughter of 2014, explained that her group was inspired by the work of Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street to seize on the Palestine issue on social media and shift “the public narrative.”
Young Jews will walk away from the Jewish community over the occupation question, she said.
This is not just some other issue in the Jewish community that we do work around. This is the central moral question of our time, and if we don’t move, the future generation will not want to call itself Jewish anymore. I think that’s the quandary we’re in and the truth we have to recognize.
The young Jewish organization often seemed to be driving the discussion at J Street– notwithstanding the fact that the lobby group is a center-left-Zionist organization. NY City Councilman Brad Lander heaped praise on IfNotNow, so did Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street. While some panels at the conference were straight out of AIPAC, serving up the old demon Zionist rum, three IfNotNow members or former members were also on panels.
The reality is that IfNotNow is the only movement inside progressive official Jewish life today, and J Street knows it. J Street leadership seems to me to be terrified of IfNotNow. That if they don’t get on the right side of these young people, IfNotNow will demonstrate at J Street and embarrass them.
While I did not hear frank anti-Zionist statements from young Jews, they are openly questioning Zionism. Abi Weber, a rabbinical student at the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), told of visiting the Negev community of umm-al-Hiran that Israel is ethnically cleansing so as to replace it with a Jewish settlement. Weber asked a Palestinian, why is Israel doing this?
The way that this leader of the community expressed it to me, the reason the Israeli government is doing this is it is necessary to preserve the Jewish state. It really hit me hard. In his view– “Oh I understand why the Israeli government is doing this to me and to my city. It’s necessary to preserve the Jewish state.”
Weber held out the hope that the Jewish culture she found magical in her neighborhood in Jerusalem could somehow be redeemed from this type of persecution, but she also observed that the Jewish community is undergoing a “sea change” on Israel. And Weber goes to JTS in New York. Ten years ago I met students from JTS who were anonymously organizing to question Israeli practices. They are no longer in the shadows.
The Jewish community is going to resist these questions by any means. Eliana Fischel, a Reform rabbi in Washington, told of giving a sermon as an intern at a congregation in New York at which she reflected on how divided the Jewish community is on Israel and observed that during an AIPAC conference, her Facebook page contained posts from professors and mentors and rabbis inside the conference and other posts from Jewish classmates demonstrating outside the conference. Even that was too much to say in a New York synagogue.
I got completely railroaded from the congregation. I was told that I was putting down AIPAC, that I was clearly showing my political tendencies. And a lot of congregants came out and were really angry that they felt like I was taking a political side on Israel.
Fischel said older congregants are so angry over the question that one might say, “I couldn’t come to you now for my mother’s funeral because we disagree so intensely about this issue.”
While we have freedom of the pulpit…[to take] stands that what we feel are real moral stands– we can do it– and there’s a huge repercussion to that too.
Even more disturbing was the anecdote related by Anna Schwartz, a special assistant to J Street’s director who said she had learned values of “equality” and “justice” during 11 years as a camper at a Jewish summer camp. Schwartz was in her first year on staff at the camp as the Israeli onslaught on Gaza in 2014 escalated– ultimately killing 2200 people, including 500 children.
We were pulled into the camp auditorium that night, and we had an all staff meeting and the summer camp staff told us, “There is a conflict right now happening in Israel. With your children, your campers [if they] ask you about it, we want you to read them this one line. And if you speak more, if you decide to tell them more about what is happening, You will be faced with disciplinary consequences.”
I can’t even begin to tell you how challenging that was in the place where I felt most Jewish, I felt the most connected to Judaism and to my Jewish community…. and I had been raised to love Israel. And to call myself and to feel truly I was a Zionist.
I later asked Schwartz what the line was. She said it was something like, “Israel is going through a difficult time right now, and we need to stand by Israel.”
As Ayelet Cohen, a rabbi with the New Israel Fund, said, lying to smart young Jews has backfired spectacularly inside the Jewish community. Young people are expressing rage of the sort that caused David Harris of the American Jewish Committee to cry out two years ago, “Where did we go wrong in our homes and schools?” Well, the kids are waking up to apartheid, and are not going to be quiet.
The causes of these awakenings are political and communal. The Trump administration’s rightwing politicization of Israel has allowed Democrats to at last break out of the rigid establishment consensus support for Israel and speak up about the occupation. Obama types are finally letting their hair down. Brett Rosenberg works for an establishment thinktank; and she said she is speaking out because the two-state solution is about to die.
Today anyone who calls themself progressive is under pressure from the left. New York City Councilman Lander, a former lockstep supporter of Israel, praised Bernie Sanders, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for their criticisms of Israel.
IfNotNow is driving the communal Jewish discussion. Heretofore, J Street has sought to marginalize anti-Zionist Jews such as those of Jewish Voice for Peace as heretics, or anyway, Not Communal Jews. It can’t do that with IfNotNow. They are family of J Street and they are demanding action on the occupation; and because of the central role of the Jewish community in this political discussion, IfNotNow has been able to force the issue of conditioning aid to Israel inside the Democratic Party in a way that Palestinian solidarity groups have not been able– though BDS has certainly driven the question at the grassroots.
Does this go beyond handwringing? Will anything come of this Jewish agony? I’m an optimist so I say yes, because the Jewish community is the discursive/political gatekeeper in the United States on this question. And there is enormous pressure now inside the Democratic Party for real action. Of course people have a right to be cynical given the long history of broken Jewish insurgencies on Zionism. And action will not revive the two-state solution. Nonetheless, these voices reflect real progress inside the Jewish community, and they are only getting louder.