Is American Jewish Social Justice Inclusive?

My family went through the Islamic Revolution in Iran, where they practically had no safe haven to seek shelter, except Israel. Everyone’s idea of Judaism and Israel is based on their upbringing. My life was not exactly Jewish; extremely secular folks raised me. This upbringing left me isolated from Judaism and its religious practices, except for the State of Israel, the Jewish Homeland. My love for Israel has only grown with me as I have gained more wisdom and new perspectives in my own life, incorporating my unique experiences. I grew up as a Zionist and learned to associate Zionism with social justice. However, I was surprised when I took the opportunity to join the Jewish Service Corps, Avodah – ostensibly a safe space for millennial Jews to share ideas and engage in social justice work. Two days into the year-long program I became aware that the majority of Avodah not only had a strong prejudice towards Israel, but also was associated with BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions), and referred to Israel as “the white occupied colonial territory”. Of course, there were some individuals who had the ability to engage in constructive discourse, but for the majority of my time, I was shut down or judged. It is truly a shame that an organization of millennial progressive Jewish activists that claimed to be committed to social justice seemed unable and unwilling to disagree without being disagreeable.

My outspoken personality motivated me to express my thoughts and stay a proud Zionist, amidst a community that associated Zionism with something dirty and colonial. Avodah, as an organization claims to take no side on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; however, I witnessed otherwise. Most employees of Avodah are associated with some prejudice towards Israel, and those personal views, unfortunately, are brought into their workspace. For me, this space was alienating rather than safe, and none of the staff took a genuine chance at adjusting the tone or to offer a safe space for people like myself.

Despite the biased opinions, I always respected every individual’s view of Israel — even those I disagreed with. The journey of isolation does not end for me in this era as Jews around my age are not in sync on the issues involving Israel. For example, I am now infamous on the Avodah mailing list; Avodah’s mailing list is a listserv with the alumni, current cohorts, and the staff. This listserv usually produces a few emails a day and among those emails, I sometimes come across anti-Israel voices. Nevertheless, those voices do not apply to me, and I do not bother to get engaged. The only two times when I used this service, I was verbally attacked and received zero support from the organization. I am proud to be part of the Avodah community, and I want to maintain my support, but the alumni community makes it very difficult with little to no room for my voice. The staff has let go of the control, allowing the listserv to become a breeding zone for Jewish Voice for Peaceā€¦ and a segment of American Jewry has lost touch with the need for an Israel. We ought to remember that European Jews were murdered, that Mizrahi Jews were expelled, that anti-Semitism remains rampant, that we only have one safe space to seek shelter. For me, I remember that my family is made up of immigrants and that I still remember life on the other side of the ocean. Israel matters because she guarantees the safety of every Jew. Israel guarantees the safety of my family and your family in the event the world turns on its Jewish population again.

This article, in no capacity, is to discourage anyone to join Avodah because the organization does wonderful work around the United States and brings change to local communities every single day. Thus I am forever grateful to have served and connected with some amazing activists. However, be cautious that most peers are disinterested in learning or collaborating with someone who identifies as a Zionist. Avodah must decide to either create room for Zionism or entirely leave the – Israel-Palestine discussion behind since it would be a shame not to have the support of the many people with views similar to mine and want to be a part of the American Jewish social justice community but feel unwelcomed at Avodah.

About the Author
Sheridan Bahar is of Persian Jewish descent who formerly served Avodah, the Jewish Service Corps. Presently, he sits on the A Wider Bridge Metro Council NYC and is a Birthright Israel Fellow.
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