Understanding My Voice as a Jewish American in Conversations about the Israeli Palestinian Conflict

By Zaidie Long.

“Some among my mother’s friends rejoice in violent attacks on Palestinians who seek to harm Israel, while my friends cringe at the initiation of bloodshed by Jews. We see their aggressive stance as zealotry and paranoia; they see our discomfort as abandonment and naiveté.” (Daniel Cluchey, “Generation Why: Young American Jews and Israeli Exceptionalism,” Huffington Post, 8 June 2010.)

In the decade or more it took me to define my own relationship with Judaism, to validate the parts of my upbringing that made that identity feel like my own despite feeling lost among my practicing Jewish peers, little did I know I was part of a nationwide trend. While the American Jewish population continues to grow—albeit at a pace that can’t keep up with overall American population growth—a greater and greater part of this population define themselves as Jewish only in a cultural or ethnic sense. Furthermore, following a large trend towards interfaith marriage in the ‘80s and ‘90s, today’s young Jewish population is made up of more children of interfaith marriages than ever before, an important differentiation as it turns out when it comes to attitudes towards Judaism and Israel. As the child of a Jewish mother and a Protestant father who grew up practicing religion only with extended family or for the holidays, it took me a while to convince myself that I even had a place in the Jewish community. Ultimately within the last year or two, although I have been able to understand it in more technical terms—terms like “generational memory” or imposed association in ways I’ll explain later—only recently, I had the sense that I could not escape my Jewishness, so I might as well embrace it. 

Despite the article you are about to read, I am the first to take issue with the constant association of Judaism and the Israeli Palestinian issue. Growing up, I felt most staunchly Jewish when listening to the news, hearing right-wing, non-Jewish politicians shut down statements by progressives criticizing the Israeli government by calling them antisemitic. In this way, the entirety of the Jewish population was called to the table, already assigned a position in a political conversation that they do not necessarily have any connection to. I can foresee the point that criticism of Israel can be antisemitic, to which I would of course agree, but clarify that that is only the case when there is a criticism of Jewish people in the guise of a criticism of Israel. Still, this is far from always the case. What it comes down to is the non-consensual exploitation of the Jewish diaspora or the legitimate issue of antisemitism by politicians who often do not otherwise represent the interests of the majority left-leaning Jewish population. It was this frustrating reality that gave me a sense of responsibility to be educated and have an opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict. I was confident that implying any malevolence towards my own Jewish identity, ie. calling me anti-semitic, would be so offensive as to call into question this false association. Therefore, I felt that being Jewish was an unfair but unavoidable privilege that I needed to take advantage of. For other young Jews, this “attachment” to Israel, even if critical, comes about in other ways: for many, Israel has been given cultural significance and been highlighted as a part of the Judaism they have grown up with. For others the association came when they weren’t expecting it, later on in life. According to a survey taken by applicants to the Birthright program, a quarter of respondents felt blamed for the actions of the Israeli government as Jews on their college campuses. The change in the cultural attachment to Israel and the Israeli state, especially in non-Orthodox Jews, can be understood through the context of historic and modern events. But while there is a perception that attachment to Israel among young Jewish Americans has decreased, recent surveys by the Pew Research Center show that this is not the case, as long as one accepts that engagement with Israel is more critical and support less automatic. However, I would again point to what feels like the constant conflation of Jewish interests with Israeli interests, both from the American administration and of course from the Israeli state, programs like Birthright, and the very idea that Israeli actions are founded in Zionism. With this in mind, I would argue that this “attachment” when created by external forces, can hardly be automatically associated with caring or concern for the state in the way it has typically been interpreted, even as it remains an emotional issue for many.

So finally, the question we arrive at with this brief background in mind: What is the role of non-Israeli Jews (most of the background given is specific to American Jews) in conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Without descending into what those opinions are, what legitimacy and what privilege do we have in this conversation with which some of us have no familial connection? For many non-Orthodox Jews, the way even the more moderate among us think about Israel has changed significantly since our parents’ generation. Although Israel may still carry a cultural or religious significance for some that it does not for others, it is the sacredness of the land itself that is so meaningful and not the sanctity of the state. More for our generation than even the past two or three, it is hard to justify the image of Jews as a modernly oppressed people or Israel as a fledgling state in need of protection. Even as late as the ‘60s and ‘70s, the surprise attack of the Yom Kippur War and the concern for the oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union supported for many Jewish Americans the image of Israel and the Jewish people as underdogs with an uncertain future, in need of zealous defense. This is not to justify the US support to Israel which was encouraged by the political position of most Jewish Americans. Instead it is to understand how that context fit into the greater narrative of the historic oppression of the Jewish people. Not that I question that narrative: how could I, after growing up celebrating holiday after holiday which essentially recount the suffering and resiliance of the Jewish people, finding instances of anti-semitism in the footnotes of nearly every chapter of history where Jews were present, or being fortunate to have grandparents who still remember the Holocaust, or at least its aftermath? But for young Jews today it is the intifadas or the 2014 war in Gaza which are freshest in our mind and we have only ever known Israel as a major military force. Therefore, the Israeli state, which once seemed like a necessary protective force, is now often seen instead as a discredit to, or even a source of shame for the Jewish people. 

For some, the mistreatment of Palestinians on the land of Israel is itself a disgrace to the values of the Jewish people. While I don’t share the feeling of connection to the land of Israel, the values I have taken away from all of the stories of suffering I’ve grown up with, especially those from the Holocaust, directly contradict many of the actions perpetrated by the Israeli state and some of its citizens in the name of Zionism. White Jewish Americans now associate more with racial privelege than with religious opression, are on average financially better off than the general population, and face antisemitism which is on its face less systemic than other forms of discrimination in the US, and until a recent spike under the Trump administration was at a relative low. Many young Jewish Americans view themselves less than ever as religiously oppressed, and to me continuing to call upon a historic truth to justify a modern situation has always felt somewhat disingenuous. Having a role on either side of the Israel-Palestine conflict, even an association with either the oppressed or the oppressor, would give non-Israeli Jews a more legitimate position in the conversation. But for non-Israeli Jews who are against Zionism, two key parts of their argument are to say that they are not, in this instance, the oppressed, and that being Jewish should not automatically associate them with the oppressor. It is harder to comment on where Jewish Americans who are Zionists would place themselves in this equation, and it is possible the terms “oppressed” and “oppressor” would not be so explicitly used. Therefore, to comment only on my own experience, I find myself questioning where exactly this sense of a responsibility or even a right to have a voice on this issue comes from, and whether it is justified.

One argument is that the consequence that Jewish Americans have on the situation necessitates their involvement in discussions about it. Even as such a small part of the American population, Jewish Americans are vocal in advocating for issues that are important to them, and since the creation of the state of Israel, military and public support for it have held high spots on that list. Following the end of the Second World War, the adoption of Jewish Americans into the White majority elevated Jewish political interests. At least it meant Jewish leadership, not necessarily representative of all Jewish people, had a uniquely direct relationship with the President. Maintaining ties with the Jewish community and the various organizations which claimed to represent it became a priority for many American and European leaders. Groups like the Israel and Jewish advocacy organization the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and perhaps most famously the bipartisan lobby group for US Israeli relations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have been around since the early to mid-20th century. While the fight against anti-semitism has remained a priority for these groups, it is the protection of Israel which has motivated advocacy for US military engagement, for example in the Gulf war, and for the disproportionate military and financial support the US has historically given the relatively small country of Israel. Throughout this history, progressive Jewish groups have advocated against the right-wing agenda, promoting peace and bemoaning the “manipulation of Jewish memories and fears”. However, the results speak to the overwhelming influence that pro-Israel lobby groups had and continue to have.

On the other hand, powerful Jewish lobby groups and the Americans who support them are hardly the only community which has influenced US foreign policy on Israel. Yes, the US takes into account political strategy and support from the general public in making foreign policy decisions. But these only count for so much given that the White Evangelical Christian community, which makes up a whopping 26% of voters according to 2016 National Election Pool exit polls, has made the protection of Israel one of its key issues. Although the importance of the state of Israel has religious origins for both Christians and Jews, religion tends to be more pronounced and more consistently represented by the politics of Evangelical Christians. Thus in the Trump era it is the ardent pro-Israel rhetoric and advocacy of this religious community that were likely integral to some of Trump’s major moves on Israel— relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem to name a major one. So if the position of Jewish Americans in conversations about Israel is determined by the role they have played in making the state what it is today, do Evangelical Christians have a somehow similarly legitimate position? The same televangelists who set the political tone for a quarter of the American population and make major financial contributions to the establishment of Israeli settlements have been known to refer to the Holocaust as retrebution for the Jews’ disobediance of God (ahem John Hagee). Similarly, they make no secret that their support for the state of Israel and for the prophesied return of the Jews to the land of Israel is mostly to serve their own interests by allowing for the coming of the Messiah and the end times. So one could say that their support is begrudged and their presence generally unwelcome even by most pro-Israel Jews.

Of course, there is the argument made plainly by the statistics about  Jewish Americans—that association with Israel is expected, imposed by precedent, and inescapable. That whether they like it or not, Jewish people are pro-Israel until proven otherwise, and that they are therefore responsible for making their opinions known. While I disagree on principle that anyone should be born into an obligation to speak about a certain issue, I acknowledge that it is a reality faced by so many others, including by other groups with a stake in this same issue. Furthermore, it clarifies that for me and other non-Israeli Jews, being vocal about Israel, no matter the position, comes from a place of perceived necessity and often holds great personal significance. Finally, as a recent panel discussion organized by the Union des Etudiants Juifs de France demonstrated to me, no matter the justification, Jewish people do have a unique voice in this debate. Because when someone makes a claim on the feelings of all Jewish people, defines anti-semitism as something more than discrimination towards Jewish people, and makes a value judgement dismissing any Jews whose beliefs don’t align with their own, it is only other Jews themselves who can step in and say, “you don’t speak for me”.  While I am the first to admit that I could always be more educated on the Israeli Palestinian conflict, the position I personally take on Zionism and on Israel is based on significant primary source research and a high quality education that I’m privileged to have. In the case of the conference with guest speaker Rudy Rochman, there was ultimately no disagreement about the facts. Ultimately, any disagreement was only about definitions, about the justification of certain actions, and about the appropriate way to move forward. It should not have come down to the proper understanding of the concept of Zionism—which for me, no matter it’s original meaning, is corrupted by over sixty years of being used by a major military entity as grounds for human rights abuses. What it truly came down to was not the word, but a value judgement: is statehood for the Jewish people in Israel worth the violence and expulsions it has apparently required? In this I find the conclusive answer: because the other side of the narrative is vocal, explicit, and targets young and socially engaged people with unformed opinions, it is the responsibility of anyone who disagrees to be similarly outspoken. To say to both Jews and non-Jews that taking a position that represents one’s values does make one antisemitic or discredit one’s own identity. And finally, that whatever exposure one has had to the issue is valid, but also that continuing to educate oneself is the best way to be prepared to truly represent those values and that identity.

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