Solomon Schechter alumni do not typically spend a night in the “Tombs” (the macabre but fitting nickname for Manhattan’s central booking detention facility). But last month, I was arrested along with eight others in an act of civil disobedience at the Headquarters of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
We were there to demand that Malcolm Hoenlein and his colleagues join our call to stop the war in Gaza and end the occupation. As members of the community organizations for which Mr. Hoenlein speaks, we requested a meeting with him. Before we had the chance to present ourselves, that request was denied.
I joined the protest planned by #IfNotNow because I could no longer remain silently complicit in my community’s blind support for an unjust and avoidable war. I was there to hold accountable the American Jewish organizations that provide financial backing and political legitimacy to the use of violence against civilians in Gaza, martial law for millions in the West Bank, and racist incitement in Israel’s streets. I was there to show the organized Jewish community’s self-appointed leadership that they do not speak for a growing number of young progressive Jews and what they stand to lose if they ignore us.
My Jewish education was a Zionist education. I attended conservative Jewish day school for eight years, where I prayed every morning and sang HaTikva before the start of class. I marched in Yom HaAtzmaut parades and observed Yom HaZikaron with my Israeli teachers. I identified with Israel’s symbols: the star of David, the blue and white flag, and even the IDF’s particular shade of green. For years after I left day school, I hardly differentiated between my religious identity and my relation to Israel. I spent the summer before my senior year of high school on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. And prior to enrolling in college, I studied at a pre-army program in South Tel Aviv.
Though I was raised with a strong connection to Israel, the community that fostered this connection expected it to be a static and uncritical stance of support. But three military operations in the Gaza Strip over the past five years and an occupation that grows more intractable each day have made that kind of unquestioning support impossible.
I cannot forget my deeply Jewish background or ignore the lessons from my Jewish education. But I am outraged by the American Jewish community’s leaders’ response to the most recent war. I am outraged that they speak as though Palestinian children’s lives are worth less than those of the young Israelis who have been killed. I am outraged that rabid and vehement vilification and dehumanization of Palestinians has become an acceptable kind of rhetoric in a community that once prided itself on its commitments to civil rights and social justice. I am outraged that the teachers who taught me to find meaning in the tradition and its texts have become willing apologists for perpetual occupation and unending violence.
I opposed the war and oppose the occupation because I believe in the fundamental equality of all human life. It pains me deeply to see so many Israeli soldiers, many of them my age, dying in a war that could have been avoided and that has ended without any major strategic accomplishments. And it pains me equally to see the destruction wrought by Israeli forces in Gaza that has left a catastrophic number of civilians dead and tens of thousands of Gazans homeless. American Jewish leaders’ support for the war condemned both Israelis and Palestinians to death. I cannot help but find it sickening that American Jewish leaders call so quickly for wars given how few of their own children will have to face the dreadful consequences.
Malcolm Hoenlein called the protest during which I was arrested “very insignificant.” And compared to the jingoistic, pro-war rally held the same day, the protest in front of the Conference of Presidents was indeed small. But Mr. Hoenlein missed the larger significance of our protest that could not be seen merely in the number of protests: that there is a growing number of Jews who no longer feel that the Jewish community’s leadership speaks for them, a growing number of Jews who demand an end to the occupation and freedom and dignity for all. And if Mr. Hoenlein and his colleagues continue to dismiss our protests, we will find alternatives to the sclerotic organizations of our parents’ generation. If we feel something is missing, we will build it. Jewish community leaders’ greatest fears about our alienation and disaffection, as evidenced by the innumerable studies and polls they commission to find out what we think, will come true as long as they continue to support unjust wars and a brutal occupation.
The American Jewish organizations that supported the war and bankroll the occupation are better connected, better funded, and better organized than the young progressive Jews they exclude. But we, those young progressive Jews, have one crucial advantage: the major Jewish organizations cannot survive without us. They need our money and our futures to remain standing. If the Jewish community’s leaders continue to reject critical and nuanced approaches to the issues of Israel/Palestine as beyond the pale of acceptability, they will eventually find themselves defeated.