(first published at Jewschool)
As a pro-BDS Jewish millennial, I was sad and angry last week when I learned that the Bernie Sanders campaign had suspended Simone Zimmerman, J Street U leader, anti-occupation activist and co-founder of IfNotNow, from her new position on the campaign as Jewish Outreach Coordinator. Jews like me may disagree with her politically around issues like BDS, but we know what it’s like to be excluded and silenced by the mainstream Jewish community, and an attack on her is an attack on all of us.
But when I read Peter Beinart’s defense of Zimmerman in Haaretz yesterday, I was angered once again by what he said about Jews like me. Like Zimmerman, Beinart is solidly pro-Israel, but sharply critical of Israel’s occupation, settlement building, and discrimination against Palestinians. And like Zimmerman, Beinart usually argues that young Jews like me should not be demonized and pushed away from the Jewish community, but should be respected, and argued with, as equals.
That’s why I was dismayed to see that, even as he defended Jews like Zimmerman, Beinart threw Jews like me under the bus. In his piece, Beinart claims that, when it comes to Israel, American Jewish millennials can be divided into four groups- the apathetic and assimilated, the staunchly pro-Israel, the liberal Zionist, and the pro-BDS, sometimes anti-Zionist Jews like myself. According to Beinart, of the latter two groups, it is the liberal Zionists- his preferred camp- who grew up solidly within the folds of the American Jewish community, where they were conditioned to ‘check their liberalism at Zionism’s door’ when talking about Israel. In Beinart’s world, it is these liberal Zionists who, having today seen the reality of Palestinian suffering, are critical of Israel’s occupation, but still maintain a strong allegiance to the Jewish people, an allegiance that causes them not to jump ship but to engage, to become rabbis and to form independent minyanim, to change the Jewish community from within.
And then, for Beinart, there’s my community- the ‘smaller but growing’ group of
“younger American Jews who see Israel primarily through Palestinian eyes. They reject Zionism and support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement because, for them, being Jewish is not about the bonds of peoplehood. It’s about standing with the oppressed. They care little about the mainstream Jewish community. Their community is the activist left.”
Here and throughout the rest of the article, Beinart claims, implicitly and directly, that pro-BDS and anti-Zionist Jews like me have checked our Jewishness at BDS’s door. He is dangerously wrong. In my role as Campus Coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace- a pro-BDS organization that does not take a position on Zionism- I work day after day with hundreds of young Jewish pro-BDS and, in some cases, anti-Zionist college students and millennials across the country who are passionately dedicated to living Jewish lives, and changing a Jewish community that we want to call home.
For most of us, Jewish identity is front and center in our lives, our communities and our activism. Maybe our families were totally secular, and we built our Jewish identities and communities later in college. Or maybe we went to shul and Jewish day school, became b’nai mitzvah, went to Jewish summer camp, were raised in Jewish youth movements and, like Zimmerman, were trained in Israel advocacy before college. Or maybe we didn’t, because we couldn’t. While Beinart proudly displayed a list of institutions like these to show Jewish readers that Zimmerman is ‘one of us’, those of us from interfaith families, from families of color, from non-Ashkenazi families, from working-class families, or from queer families, to name but a few marginalized groups within the Jewish community, may never have had much access to these Jewish institutions at all. There is something inherently problematic, in fact, in using participation in the often inaccessible mainstream institutions of American Jewish life as a yardstick to measure the ‘kosherness’ of Jews, millenial or otherwise.
But nearly all of us, affiliated or not, anti-Zionist or not, strongly reject the claim that for us, ‘being Jewish is not about the bonds of peoplehood’, that we are leftists before we are Jews, that we choose BDS over Jewish community, or that we check our Jewish selves at the door when we join the movement for BDS and Palestinian rights. We fight for BDS because we, in fact, are pained deeply by the present, and care deeply about the future, of the Jewish people. We are pained to see our families, and the synagogues we grew up in, circle their wagons, dig their trenches and hitch their lot to a regime of occupation and apartheid.
We study our history of suffering and resistance, and we are pained to see occupation and state violence committed in our names, and in the name of persecuted Jews who came before us. If we identify as anti-Zionist- which I personally do- it’s because we are proud Jews who believe that Jewish liberation, safety, identity and continuity cannot be guaranteed through ethno-nationalism, through the separation of our destiny and our struggle from that of other peoples, through the colonization of others’ land. We are pained to see Beinart, and nearly everyone else to the right of him, excommunicate us from the Jewish communal tent with the tired excuse that it is we who, in our embrace of BDS, have chosen to sever the ‘bonds of Jewish peoplehood’.
Contrary to Beinart’s claims, being on the left is not a ‘sufficient Jewish identity’ for most of us. Many of us found a home in mainstream Jewish spaces like Hillel, until we were painfully excluded for our political beliefs. Many of us still stay in Hillel, and have to hide our full Jewish selves in those hostile anti-BDS spaces. Many of us build our own Jewish communities at the margins, in spaces like JVP and congregations like Tzedek Chicago, in independent minyanim, queer chavrusas and radical Shabbat potlucks across the country. For some of us, it is our participation in the BDS movement, in fact, that first leads us to begin to pay attention to our Jewish heritage, and to develop lasting and committed Jewish identities. The choices Beinart and others force upon us- between ‘feeling the bonds of Jewish peoplehood’ and ‘feeling solidarity with the oppressed’, between seeing the conflict ‘through Palestinian eyes’ and ‘caring about the Jewish community’- are choices we reject as false and shameful dichotomies.
What Beinart fails to grasp is that for those of us who remain committed to Jewish life, we do not have to choose between strong Jewish communities on the one hand, and strong multi-faith, multi-cultural and multi-people communities on the other. Our lives are expansive enough to cultivate Jewish spaces (which are themselves racially and culturally diverse), and to remain deeply embedded in the culturally, racially and religiously diverse spaces that Beinart calls the ‘activist left’. Our Jewish identity is informed by, but is not equivalent to our leftism, and vice versa. You will sometimes find non-Jews in our ritual spaces, and you will find us in theirs. Our distinct identities are multiple and overlapping, and we reject both assimilation and isolationism. Our Jewish communities are porous, open, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and in close relationships of accountability with other peoples. In a world divided by many oppressions, we cannot afford anything less.
To be fair, a few of the students I work with do fit Beinart’s mold. Like many Jewish activists of our parents’ generation, Jewish identity for some pro-BDS Jewish millennials is something personal but not necessarily communal, often deeply felt but sometimes an afterthought, lurking in the background as their primary identity and community remains, as Beinart describes, the activist left. Some of these folks grew up with a strong family affiliation to mainstream Jewish institutions, but many did not. Their Jewish identity is often strong for them, but Beinart is right to observe that, for these Jews, it is not how they principally define themselves, and does not drive them to seek out Jewish communities.
Why does Beinart paint Jewish pro-BDS millenials like me as detached from Jewish communal life and identity? Maybe he wants to portray liberal Zionists like Simone Zimmerman as the ‘good Jews’ who still care about the Jewish people, and so, as a foil, he needs to characterize us as the ‘non-Jewish Jews’ who don’t. But not only is that inaccurate and offensive, it makes a mockery of the very values of inclusion he claims to cherish and admire. The power and promise of IfNotNow, the anti-occupation movement started by Zimmerman and other former J Street U students, is that, so far at least, it brings pro- and anti-BDS Jews, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews together in a broad community of prayer and song, resistance and struggle against communal complicity in the occupation. By placing Jews like me outside the ‘bonds of Jewish peoplehood’ and claiming we are post-Jewish universalists who don’t care about the Jewish community, Beinart reinforces the very divisions and exclusions he praises millennials like Zimmerman for breaking down.
We’re not asking or waiting for Peter Beinart, or anyone across the spectrum of the organized pro-Israel American Jewish community, to certify us as kosher. With each passing day pro-BDS Jewish millennials like me are organizing new independent Jewish spaces of learning and worship, inventing new ritual, and acting Jewishly with JVP, IfNotNow, Open Hillel and other movements. We are in rabbinical school, and we are rabbis. We are teachers in Hebrew School, and counselors in Jewish summer camp. We too recite Kaddish outside of, and sometimes occupy, Jewish Federation buildings- in fact, we’ve been doing it for years- because we care deeply about our collective Jewish future. This Pesach, we’ll put olives and oranges on our Seder plates, and drink to our collective liberation.
And Peter Beinart is right that, as the BDS movement accelerates in the larger world, our movement of young pro-BDS Jews is growing in the American Jewish community. We’re not going anywhere, and we’re here to stay. And there are more of us than he may think.