A New Pro-Israel for Obama’s America

The events of last month were filled with dramatic ups and

downs for young American Jews like myself. First I celebrated the re-

election of Barack Obama, after a campaign during which many of my

friends worked hard on the front lines.  Obama’s victory was a triumph

of a diverse coalition, full of young people coming together to support a

more equitable, tolerant, and just future for our generation and for the

country. We had a lot to be proud of. Yet just two short weeks later, the

celebratory atmosphere had not quite worn off when it was suddenly

cut short by events in Israel and Gaza. My friends and I moved quickly

from the elation of the ballot box to the fear, sadness and frustration of

rockets and bombs as the latest escalation put the lives of thousands of

Israelis and Palestinians in danger.


The powerful sense of agency we had felt during the election

evaporated overnight, replaced by a feeling of helplessness – we were

helpless to protect loved ones, helpless to stop the violence and killing,

helpless in the face of the inevitable polarization among friends and on

our campuses. Solidarity in working for change transformed into

solidarity in assigning blame. My Facebook page and Twitter feed filled

up with loud, repetitive, unyielding statements: “I stand with Israel.”

“Stop the killing in Gaza.” “Palestinians aren’t victims – they are

terrorists.”  Where just days earlier my social networks were filled with

exhortations to vote and work together for a brighter future, now they

were covered in nationalist slogans, declarations of tribal solidarity, and

celebrations of military might.


These events exemplify a startling and unsustainable tension, between

what the American Jewish community wants for our country, and the

rhetoric we resort to when it comes to Israel. Often, the full-throated

defense of Israel is based around a clash of civilizations narrative, the

assumption that Israel’s enemies are fundamentally and uniformly evil,

incomprehensible, and repugnant. This school of thought posits that

Palestinian civilians are accessories to terrorism and that their suffering

is not comparable to Jewish suffering. It has little time for compassion,

dialogue, or peace-making.


In American politics, this clash of civilizations narrative has drawn

support from neo-conservatives, Christian fundamentalists, and older

white voters. All these groups have seen their influence decline over the

last two presidential elections, and on almost all issues other than Israel

economic policy, women’s and gay rights, immigration reform – these

groups have little in common with young American Jews. How long will

we continue to parrot their foreign policy rhetoric? And do we really

expect our progressive political partners to adopt it, or accept it?


The vast majority of our government and our country support Israel’s

right to exist, defend itself, and flourish. But an important, ascending

part of our electorate do not support the continued occupation of the

West Bank, attitudes of racial or national supremacy, or the collective

demonization of millions of Arabs and Muslims. Nor do they support

endless military conflict in the Middle East, when they know that such

conflict tends to put American troops in harm’s way. They may believe it

when they are repeatedly told that “Israel is the only democracy in the

Middle East,” but they will also hold Israel to that standard – and won’t

issue free passes for a never-ending occupation, anti-democratic

legislation, or racist incitement against Palestinians. They cannot be

expected to have much tolerance for a government whose Interior

Minister advocates bombing a highly-populated area “into the Middle

Ages” or whose Foreign Minister considers human rights groups to be

enemies of the state and supporters of terrorism. Nor will young

American Jews continue to have patience with such attitudes, when they

clash so profoundly with the values and goals – tolerance, diversity,

equality – that we work for on our campuses and in our communities.


Israel must face the reality that its greatest ally is becoming younger,

more diverse, more progressive and more broad-minded in its goals for

itself and for the world. The language and attitudes of the neo-

conservative right are destructive in the ways that they influence Israeli

policy, but they also seriously jeopardize Israel’s American support.  For

young American Jews, it is our duty to convey to our Israeli friends and

family the urgent need to avoid a retreat into tribalism and militant

nationalism. The importance of emphasizing and prioritizing

compassion, co-existence, and the pursuit of peace and justice

alongside security. We want a brighter future for the United States and

for Israel;we want our non-Jewish friends and leaders to support Israel

not because they have swallowed talking points but because they

genuinely believe that the country is a force for justice and peace in the

Middle East and the world, despite the many challenges and enemies it

faces. Israel cannot be a cause only for aging conservatives. Instead, it

should become a natural ally for the millions of young people who will

soon lead Obama’s America.


The onus is on Israel’s government to do what it needs to pursue

peace and uphold democracy. But responsibility also falls on American

Jews. We must take the sense of urgency and dedication we have

applied to our domestic politics and put them to use in advocating for

and pursuing a better Israel, and a better Middle East. We cannot get out

the vote in West Philadelphia but say nothing about permanent

disenfranchisement in the West Bank. We cannot speak out for the

rights of Mexican immigrants in Texas but ignore the expulsion of African

refugees in Tel Aviv. We must bring the two communities and countries

we love closer together – or watch as they inevitably drift apart.


About the Author
Logan Bayroff is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, and National Communications Chair of J Street U.