Coping with anti-Israel rhetoric and activism on college campuses

“Many Jews in America remain unreservedly supportive of Israel and its government. Still, the events of recent weeks have left some families struggling to navigate both the crisis abroad and the wide-ranging response from American Jews at home. What is at stake is not just geopolitical, but deeply personal. Fractures are intensifying along lines of age, observance and partisan affiliation.” (NYT, May 19, 2021)

The 2021 Pew Research Center study of the American Jewish community reported that half of Jewish adults under 30 describe themselves as emotionally connected to Israel compared with two-thirds of Jews over age 64.

There are likely many reasons for this diminishing attachment to Israel among young American Jews. Of one group, progressive Jews, I wrote earlier this month on this blog:

“Being an American progressive Jew legitimately can be confusing. Historically, Jews have experienced oppression, and now Israel has become an oppressor in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories Israel occupied after the 1967 war.” (“Young Progressive Jews and Israel” – June 6, 2021)

Many disaffected young Jews have never been exposed directly to Israel. Only 20% of the liberal American Jewish community has visited Israel even once, so most young American Jews have little personal connection to the Jewish State. Add to this the fact that most young Jews are frequent visitors to social media sites where attacks against Israel are common. Many liberal Jewish college students report that when they have tried to become active with social justice and anti-racism groups on campus and said they were supporters of Israel they were heavily criticized and made to feel unwelcome.

What can be done to support our young people in coping with and addressing the onslaught of negativity they confront in relationship to Israel? More specifically, how ought Diaspora day schools, synagogue religious schools, Jewish summer camps, and families teach young American Jews about Israel in a way that affirms Israel’s historic importance to the Jewish people and extols the State’s many accomplishments and contributions to the world, but does not ignore or deny its imperfections specifically regarding its unequal treatment of Israeli-Palestinian citizens and its violation of Palestinian human rights living under occupation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank?

First, it’s important to create safe spaces where questioning Israeli policies can occur without the questioner being accused of treachery against Israel and disloyalty to the Jewish people.

Second, our young people need to understand that there is only one resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that can address most of the core issues, and that is two states for two peoples that assure both people’s security and justice for the Palestinians. Those who argue that Israel is illegitimate as a state are not only anti-Israel, they are antisemitic because they deny the right of the Jewish people to that which all other nations in the world have by right – a state of our own. With this understanding, one can be critical of Israeli policies and still be pro-Israel. One can be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine at the same time.

Third, we Jews living outside of Israel need to remember when criticizing undemocratic Israeli policies that we are not Israeli citizens, do not pay Israeli taxes, and do not serve in or send our children to the military. Only Israeli citizens can take the decisions necessary to maintain Israel’s security, democracy, and Jewish character. A measure of humility is therefore necessary for Diaspora Jews when debating the very difficult issues confronting Israel and the Palestinians who are all on the front lines.

Fourth, we Diaspora Jews have the right to be part of the conversation about Israel because our identity and security as Jews are dependent on Israel being a secure, free, and democratic state.

Fifth, when teaching young people, it’s important to remind them that Jews have lived in the Land of Israel continuously for three thousand years, and that our people there have made many laudable and positive accomplishments: the establishment of farms, cities, and institutions of a state; the revival of Hebrew as a modern language; the development of an advanced economy; the absorption of millions of Jews; the promotion of a democratic government, a free press, and freedom of religion; the founding of world-class universities and hospitals; the growth of hundreds of NGOs addressing every conceivable social need and human rights concern; the advancement of agriculture, water conservation, science, bio-technology, and cyber; the protection of the environment; the nurturing of Jewish culture; the promotion of peaceful international alliances; and the defense of its people.

Sixth, educators ought not to ignore the imperfections in Israeli democracy vis a vis Palestinian-Israel citizens and minorities, the deleterious impact of the occupation on the Palestinians, and the effect of the occupation on the moral character of Israeli citizens and the moral profile of the State of Israel in the international community.

Seventh, no nation is perfect – not ours in America, not in any democracy, and not in Israel. Just as America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution strove to create “a more perfect union” but in which injustices remained and must be addressed, so too did the framers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence strive to create a free Jewish society founded upon principles of justice and equality in which injustices remained that must be addressed.

Dr. Tal Becker, senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, suggested that world Jewry ought to embrace what he called “Aspirational Zionism” in which the central question is how Israel needs to be grounded in liberal democratic values and in the values of the Biblical Prophets. Other important questions needing active consideration include:

  • How do our liberal Jewish values augment Israel’s democratic, diverse, and pluralistic society?
  • How do we bring the moral aspirations of the Biblical prophets and the compassion of rabbinic tradition into Israel’s relationship with its Arab-Israeli citizens and the Palestinians living and suffering under Israel’s military occupation?
  • How do we join our fellow Jews around the world in fighting our enemies and assuring Israel’s security without sacrificing our moral and democratic values?
  • How do we pursue peace as a moral and Jewish imperative despite the threats of terror and war?
  • How do we support Israelis while advocating on behalf of democracy and the equal rights and dignity of Israel’s minorities?
  • How do we oppose oppressive Israeli policies without turning our opponents into the “other” and losing the possibility of reaching the common ground of peace with the Palestinians based in justice, mutual respect, and security?
  • How do we preserve a Jewish majority in Israel while supporting social justice, a shared society with Arab-Israeli citizens, and the human rights of all?

These questions strive to make compatible, as far as possible, our core beliefs with a liberal, progressive, and democratic Jewish nationalism.

Voltaire famously said: “Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It’s important to remind our young people that even with Israel’s flaws and weaknesses, for the first time in two millennia Israel not only has offered refuge for the Jewish people and become a center for the blossoming of Jewish culture and the Jewish spirit, but is an arena in our historic homeland in which Judaism’s highest ethical and moral principles can be tested and debated within the context of power and sovereignty.

Lest we not squander arguably the greatest accomplishment of the Jewish people in two millennia, we owe it to ourselves and to the generations to come to preserve that safe space in which Jews of all ages, backgrounds, and proclivities can identify positively with the Jewish people and State of Israel, and to ask those probing, provocative, and disturbing questions the responses to which will help determine a robust Jewish future in the Land of Israel and throughout the Jewish Diaspora.

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and a past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of 3 books - "From the West to the East - A Memoir of a Liberal American Rabbi" (2024), "Why Israel Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to the Next Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Revised edition 2023), and “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (2017). All are available at John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has two grandchildren and he lives in Los Angeles.