Sheik Jarrah, East Jerusalem 5/21/10
Peter Beinart I’m here–I’m that “uncomfortable Zionist” you called for in your recent essay in the New York Review of Books. And while some may think that the “two-minutes-to-midnight urgency” tone in your essay is too much, I’ve been waiting for an American-Jewish leader like yourself to make just this kind of call for quite some time.
I have always been a politically passionate liberal American-Jew. Now 23, I grew up in the time of George W. Bush. My junior year of high school was marked by the War in Afghanistan and my senior year by the War in Iraq. Outraged by these wars, I enrolled in college and started studying politics and the Middle East.
While I always identified as Jewish, my first two years of college were marked by a disengagement with Judaism. Yom Kippur was off my radar and Passover passed right over me. When Israel came up in my Middle Eastern studies classes I didn’t feel any connection to Israel–neither connected nor disconnected. Like most American-Jews my age, in a soft way, I was rebelling against Judaism in my 20s and had resigned to revisit the topic when I started making life choices like who to marry and how to raise my family.
Then one day, a Jewish student approached me in the cafeteria of my school. She had just been on Birthright and now she wanted to sign me up so that I could have “the experience of a lifetime”. It was the most evangelical Jewish experience I’ve ever had. She was trying to convert me to Zionism — “Zionism?” I thought. Like most non-orthodox American-Jews, I really had no idea what that was. But once she told me that after 10 days of Zionist rhetoric I could extend my trip and visit Egypt and Jordon, I agreed to sign-up.
This ten day trip was my turning point–my first encounter with Israel and Zionism. In these ten days everything changed for me and a whole new dialogue started to unfold between Judaism, Zionism, Israel and I. When I returned to the United States, I had a whole lot of questions about my identity to answer and a new community of people to converse with. For the first time, I was able to engage other Jewish youth about their connection to Israel and grapple with several conservative and orthodox Jews about how they could be liberal and support a state that implemented racist policies and violated human rights on a daily basis.
While I am not surprised that Luntz’s study found that “Jewish youth used the word ‘they‘ rather than ‘us‘ to describe [their relationship to Israel],” I am surprised that your essay and the responses written to your article haven’t articulated the impact that Birthright is having on American Jews. Even though Birthright may not profess a type of Zionism that is healthy for the Jewish people or the State of Israel, it most certainly has put Zionism into young Jews vocabulary and encouraged young liberal Jews like myself to grapple with Zionism and their connection to Israel — an essential part of growing up Jewish, and undoubtedly the reason that I’ve come to identify as a liberal Zionist.
I have been living in Israel now for three years and made aliyah in 2007. While Birthright surely counts me as one of their success stories, I didn’t make aliyah because I believe that this is my homeland or that I have the Right of Return. Like many young Jewish-American immigrants here, I came because I recognize that there is no “us” and “them”. I understand that for thousands of years, Jewish people just like me dreamed of having a state of their own, and that if liberal democracy is being threatened in the only Jewish state on earth I have no choice but to try to save it.
At the same time, as you noted, the current political climate in Israel is very disturbing. The right is increasingly powerful and extremist and the next generation of leaders, my Israeli peers, are falling in line with this hostile right-wing Zionism. While I am hesitant to draw comparisons between my short lived experience in the United States and Israel, I do remember a time when the American left was in crisis (after George Bush was elected a second time), a time when we realized that the seeds for the rightest revolution had been planted years in advance and that right wing youth had been given every opportunity to grow and prosper, while the left wing youth had been left to flounder.
The situation in Israel isn’t far from that. The majority of opportunities to become influential in Israeli politics exist for right wing Jews, while leftist Israeli youth (Jews and Arabs alike) lack the funding and institutional support that they need in order to become a strong, powerful minority. In addition, many of the avenues for leftist Israeli youth that do exist come from NGOs focused on the conflict, while an institution focused on building the next generation of leftist politicians and organizers seems to be missing.
Yesterday, almost four years after my first trip to Israel, I was in Sheik Jarrah protesting the illegal removal of Palestinian families from their homes. There I met Yoav Peck, an American-Israeli Jew who has lived in Israel for 38 years and Jerusalem for 28. Since 1979 he has been active in the anti-war movement in Israel because he believes that “if we can get it right [here], we can get it right anywhere”. The one thing he mentioned that makes Sheik Jarrah unique, aside from the fact that it is a liberal Zionist struggle, is that the movement is being led by a large group of young leftist — the first group of progressive youngsters he’s seen in years — and this, this is giving him hope.
While your article and organizations like J Street are giving us hope here in Israel, we also need the support of the older generation of Israeli left, funding and an institution (like the New Organizing Institute in the US) that can give the young courageous liberal youth in Israel a chance to win seats in the Knesset and influence Israel’s national political climate as well.
If you haven’t been following Peter Beinart’s article or the lively debate that it inspired you can read some of the responses here: