Israel Advocacy in a Complicated Time

In June, an interesting and controversial essay appeared in the New York Review of Books. Peter Beinart, a professor of Journalism and Political Science at CUNY. It examined trends in Zionism and the American Jewish community in frank language that opened the eyes of the community to trends and issues that have been brought up internally and rarely externally.

The essay starts with the clear divides based on generations (older and younger Jews) and affiliation (Orthodox) in regards to support (or even caring) about Israel. Basically, American Jews in each younger age group have less interest in Israel than the generations that proceed them. The article starts with a description of research conducted by prominent Republican pollster Frank Luntz (whose framing of politics and culture have informed debate in the US for the last two decades). In the groupings of young Jews, Israel often did not come up until it was specifically asked about, with language of "they" instead of "us." Beinart views this divide as having a number of causes: the liberal values American Jews raised their children on, the less liberal stances (especially regarding Israel) of the American Jewish establishment, and the divisions in Israeli society which have led to resurgence of right-wing parties. (I did not do it justice, please read the article and see the response between Beinart and the ADL's Foxman that followed in the next issue. See also this article in Commentary and this one in New Republic). Here is a report of the latest views of American Jews on Israel.

The last few years have seen anti-Israel activism reach levels rarely seen in my lifetime. I started college during the First Intifada (1987-1993) but anti-Israel sentiment at the time was not that bad (or at least not in retrospect). My first full-time job on campus coincided with the Second Intifada (2000-2005). I worked at Duke at the time, where we faced anti-Israel activists. I remember clearly Ronit, a pro-Israel student, coming to talk to me after the first few anti-Israel protests in September. She was a progressive student leader on campus, involved in all of the issues of that community. Now, her fellow progressive students were standing across from her with hateful, anti-Israel signs. Since Israel was a strong part of Ronit's identity, she read the signs as being anti-Ronit. This personifies some of what Beinart writes about. We also faced a Palestinian leadership that was better organized and more aggressive than anything seen on campus before (An interesting aside appears below)

The past few years, anti-Israel sentiment on campus has been much more pronounced than anything I faced as a student or in my first few years as a professional.
The Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement does not mince words and is well-organized, web savvy, and compelling. This article from Hillel describes the training and approach Israel's campus advocates are taking to face the new threats.

While I despise the language, approach, and message of the BDS movement--which is based on antisemitic ideas even though many of its proponents deny it--I fear that Beinart is correct in describing the generational disillusionment with Israel even if his analysis is flawed. I wonder what the new school year will bring. While I hope for peace, I doubt that we will see much progress this fall on the political front. I hope we can at least advance talks between the two sides on campus.

Rabbi Bruce
The aside I mentioned above: The leader of the Palestinian student group is the son of Sami Al-Arian who was prosecuted for support of terrorism in a notorious case. Al-Arian pleaded guilty after he was acquitted on 9 charges and deadlocked on the other 8. The Wikipedia article about Al-Arian case demonstrates the complexities of anything on the web about Palestine and Israel. See the talk section for details about the case and the Wikipedia entry. I often tell students about a conversation I had with his son Abdullah Al-Arian in which he demonstrated familiarity with any pro-Israel source I had studied. I had far less familarity with the Palestinian sources he mentioned.)

1 comment:

Dean Rosenthal said...

Count me in as one of Peter Beinart's thoughtful supporters - the government of Israel can do little more to increase anti-semitism as the days go by it seems - regardless of the troubles and dangers she faces.

The current government puts Jews all over the world in danger, in my eyes, everyday, and the myopic hysteria of Israel and her staunch supporters is alarming. An entire generation of Jewish American and Israeli leaders has ruined the goodwill of many peoples, including American Jews of any age all over the planet, and sadly so.

What can we do to change the situation? How can we support Israel and at the same time refuse to settle for anything less than what our ideals are?