Young American Jews: Time to take a side

Many Americans have had considerable trouble condemning Israel for killing at least 60 Palestinians at the border with Gaza. That should upset no one more than American Jews.

It’s hard to separate Judaism from Israel, and of course, that’s the point. Israel exists because Jews who tried to assimilate into Gentile society were rewarded with centuries of oppression and then the Holocaust, so they separated themselves instead. And rather than relegate their religion to the margins of daily life, they made their Jewish identity central to their burgeoning state. That state’s success depended, and still depends, on outside support; an essential way to earn it was for Jews who lived elsewhere to view Israel as their home, too.

So Hebrew schools in the United States teach students about how Israel once belonged to our ancestors, and how it now belongs to people just like us. And even if someday these children stop going to temple on the high holidays, and even if we never make aliyah, the lesson sticks with us, just as it sticks with children who never really went to temple in the first place but whose parents told them stories of their own childhoods. When the memory threatens to fade, anti-Semitism rears up to remind American Jews that plenty of people still see us as less-than.

That’s why there has always been an uneasiness among many progressive Jews here to identify as anything but Zionist, even if we’re not sure what the word means anymore. Even if the empathy for the marginalized that’s central to our faith seems to run up against our support for a country that marginalizes Palestinians every day in the occupied territories where they’re treated as second-class citizens, or in Gaza where they’re blockaded away with scant access to potable water or electricity.

Pew has found that younger Americans feel more distance from Israel than our parents and our parents’ parents, but for many, the answer to the dissonance between the Jewish state and Jewish values has been to avoid taking much of a stance at all. Though some have spoken up, and even founded organizations to counter older, more conservative forces like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), others have stayed quiet. It has been easy enough to say we’re pro-Israel but not pro-occupation, or to use the truth that there’s no simple solution as an excuse to avoid unpleasant complexity.

It’s not easy anymore.

There is, of course, the catastrophe of this week. Israel mowed down Gaza residents with live ammunition, whether they were carrying rocks or tires or makeshift kite bombs or nothing at all. Israel says many of the protesters were militants. But many others were just frustrated young men and women who have never left a strip of land 25 miles long and three to seven miles wide all their lives. They were willing to rush toward the fence even though they knew that the best thing they’d find on the other side was a free ride to prison — because the society they’re living in feels like a prison already. That Hamas exploited their desperation can’t justify their needless deaths.

But gratuitous violence from Israel is not new. What is newer is the United States’ repudiation of years of efforts to move toward a two-state solution. Already, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had made it obvious that Israel had little intention of offering Palestinians even a semblance of a state of their own. Now, the Trump administration has begun to tread the same track, its embassy move a first step.

It is difficult to keep saying we’re pro-Israel but not pro-occupation when our own government seems to have conflated the two, and when that conflation has emboldened Israel’s leaders to act with impunity. It’s more difficult still when our president, most of our representatives and many older Jews refuse to speak out even against acts as atrocious as Monday’s slaughter.

As the U.S. government draws closer to Israel, the rising generation of Jewish Americans has already started to push further away. Weeks such as this one will only hasten the shift.

By Molly Roberts
May 16, 2018