Irina Tsukerman
Irina Tsukerman

The Good Jews

The latest two discussions in the ubiquitous world of Jewish activists consists of:

First, where are the American Jews who are all too eager to criticize Israel on the latest unprovoked Hamas attacks to the tune of nearly 200 rockets? (and the continuous border skirmishes following the signing of the Egypt-brokered ceasefire with Hamas)

Second, how should the Jewish world react to IfNotNow invading and taking over Birthright trips? Should the Birthright trips not be more inclusive of the nakba/occupation narrative? Would acknowledging the Palestinian perspective quell the fire fueling the left-wing activists?:

These two questions are not disconnected, because the underlying premise is ultimately the real question that is dividing the community. Who is the Good Jew?

Just how much of the Jewish identity lies in the pro-Israel activism, and how much of it relies on being a good citizen in the countries of the diaspora and the world in general? Do Jews not have the obligation to care for others and to try to make the world a better place? If that is the case, should they not be worried about the Palestinians affected by the conflict at least to some degree? Should they not be concerned about living in peace with the non-Jewish communities that surround them, and that increasingly are swinging towards being critical of the Jewish state?

The right-leading readers will instinctively jump to the conclusion that this post is to bash assimilation, colonialized mindset, and the great tradition of Jewish self-hatred that goes back millenia. Plenty has been written about that already, including by me.  Nor am I about to resolve the question of balancing aspects of one’s individual identity, because there is no right answer for that either – although it is clear to me that even when someone Jewish does not particularly care about that aspect of that identity or thinks it should mean X, it does not preclude the rest of the world from making assumptions about that identity, placing a great deal of value on it, and interpreting it as meaning Y, rather than X. In other words, whether we like to or not, that question will keep coming no matter where or how we live.

I do want to make a curious observation that no other country on earth appears to need the equivalent of Birthright for its diaspora communities to connect to the homeland if they wish to do so. Greeks who were born and raised in the United States frequently travel to Greece to visit family members or to connect to the land. Moroccans living in Europe and the United States, still, to some degree have a sense of national identity as Moroccans even if they are quite happy where they are. There is no sense of urgency to cultivate an ongoing connections between people who have chosen a life elsewhere and their country of origin. Either it naturally occurs through family traditions and connection, or they will have happily assimilated into their new societies and chosen not to care about the country they or their ancestors came from.

Nevertheless, the issue here is that 1. Jews are a small nation overall, and a big chunk of it lives in the United States. Many support Israel financially and  through advocacy. If they cease to care, it will have a negative effect on the country, as well as on their families and friends living in Israel, both in practical and emotional ways. 2.  Israel somehow became an issue by which American Jews identify as Jewish – whether they are supportive or critical, and to what degree.

Not one person will ever agree with the decisions of a foreign government (or even his own government) 100% of the time, nevertheless a lot of the time the criticism of Israel by Jewish groups living abroad goes far beyond the normal level of weigh-in that is accorded by ex-pat communities to their countries of origin. Some American Jews have never been to Israel, and yet maintains strong opinion about. Some justify it as an existential question for world Jewry. If Israel were to cease to exist, where would the Jews go and what would be the guarantee of survival for Jews in diaspora?  Still others share the view that Israel has an inherent connection to any and all Jews wherever they are, which is why the Mossad had been active in operations to rescue and protect Jews in countries other than Israel.

Whatever the reason may be, Jewish relationship with Israel seems to be unique – and expectations from each other likewise appear to be different.

Many of the Jews who have assimilated remain strangely active in issues related to Israel which is not the case for assimilated members of other communities. To some extent, Jews who have assimilated or who consider their cosmopolitan identities and domestic issues of primary value to their sense of self nevertheless still identify Israel as a core issue rather than detach completely. Whether there is some inherent need that is often realized in negative or perverse ways, whether it’s a reaction to the “Jewish guilt” of feeling the need to be doing something on that front while rebelling from the more traditional views of relating to Israel, or whether it is no more than virtue signaling disguised as feel-goodism to appeal to non-Jewish friends who despite all efforts are still judging these assimilated Jews as Jews… it still keeps them ties to Israel and to the rest of the Jewish community, even if the rest us would rather they have all gone away.

The critical Jews who are obsessing with Israel’s every misstep, real or imaginary, yet remain silent when Hamas attacks civilians likely belong to that third category. They cannot bring themselves to be neutral on the issue and to judge Israel the way they would have judged any other country in the same situation. They feel the need to demand more even when they don’t exactly know what that “more” means or why. To some extent, this yearning comes from a place of learned helplessness, where deep inside they realize that no matter what Israel does or does not do, it will never be enough for some people, and in their quest to prove that realization wrong are at the vanguard of making often unreasonable or hypocritical demands. Admitting that there are instances where Israel is completely innocent and its attackers are completely guilty reintroduces them to this place of uncertainty where it is clear that there is nothing more to be done, and yet they continue to be judged by the sort of people they are trying to impress.

I think this is the part of the discussion that is lost on the part of the demographic, which considers itself staunchly and unapologetically pro-Israel. They think that the groups they perceive as anti-Israel or not pro-Israel enough just don’t care. Or that they hate Israel. The reality is, at least some members of these groups strongly believe they are acting in the best interests of Israel, or the Jewish communities, or themselves as Jews. They are able to get away with as much as they do because they genuinely project the image of believing what they do is actually beneficial.  Uncaring people do not act. They at most may grumble, or just turned off the news. Simply countering these perspectives with different information or dismissing them as enemies will do nothing to quell this version of the “resistance” to what they perceive as the “Jewish establishment”, even if the large part of the active Jewish community is anything but established.

To some extent, the question about Birthright is not as silly as it appears to be. First of all, young pro-Israel activists should be trained to know what the other narratives in this space are, if only to be able to respond effectively. That, however, does not mean validating such narratives as equal or accurate or even truthful. That said, I am not sure that Birthright is the right place to delve into discussions about nakba and occupation. The purpose of Birthright is not to engage in thorough understanding of complex geopolitical issues and conflicts, but to form a connection between American Jews and Israel. Should there be other trips focused specifically on exploring the history of Israel and the myths surrounding its creation?

There may be value in that, and there may be value in facilitating more of such discussions among young people. But the original purpose of Birthright trips as such is not a vehicle for groups with agendas other than its original founding purpose to hijack the different sort of conversation that is being held, anymore than any other type of conversation should be allowed to be hijacked by someone with something nearly unrelated to say. These guys and their protests are not geared towards greater engagement or facilitation of conversations, but rather attacks, confrontations, and one-sided brainwashing. That is the reason why such activities are not acceptable, and why Birthright should take active measures to prevent future such incidents – by anyone. If a bunch of pro-Israel nerds decided to take over the trip to blather on about the wonders of Israeli innovation even if the trip is geared towards something else, that likewise should not be acceptable for the same reason.  Conversations, however, challenging should be respectful and engaging.

Snark, permeating the social media, is likewise the opposite of engagement. It is easy to call out and dismiss the silence of the Jews who do not speak out when Hamas attacks Israel, but are the first ones to clamor at the nation-state law, for instance. Such response may be deeply satisfying but it ultimately does not address the problem of such people continuing to exist and to act in the same manner.  How do we invite members of such group into conversation without giving validation to the inherently sinister purposes of these groups? JStreet and other groups back, invite, and fun thoroughly noxious speakers and causes, and benefit from foreign funding designed to have a divisive effect and to breakaway gullible young American Jews from Israel.

Engagement on the organizational level simply will not work, because the very purpose of such organizations is to channel these energies and doubts into something ultimately destructive. The engagement has to happen on an individual level, before these members are too far gone to be made to ask reasonable questions about the cultlike groups they are involved in. There is something cultlike indeed when organizations largely rest upon emotional appeal, fact-free narratives, propagandistic visual imagery, and eschew any sort of critical analysis of their own or the other side’s perspective. Indeed, when the purpose of the group is to combat the other side, rather than to engage as many Jews an Israel supporters as possible in a helpful and productive way, the outcome can only be divisive. To some extent, the Jewish community should consider two ways of combating these proliferating phenomena, aside from being more engaged with young Jews and preparing them for these sort of attacks much earlier: first, be much more aggressive about uncovering and exposing sources of funding of these organizations.

Some BDS groups have been linked to terrorist organizations; they should be investigated, prosecuted, and dismantled. Even the groups lying in the gray area between being openly BDS and traveling in the same circles likely are linked to unsavory characters and unethical practices. Daylight, as always, remains the best disinfectant. At the same time, however, we need to develop an outreach program to individual members of the left-wing brainwashing machine. We should even consider a deprogramming approach to the most violent and far-gone, that would work just as much with any other types of extremism. Prevention is always better, but it’s not always possible; ultimately disaffected or confused people can be reeled into these practices if they do not have a strong family background or friends and community to rely on. Despite the fact that the activities these people are engaged on are damaging and divisive, simply isolating them out just is not working. They are very aggressive about outreach, and left wing campus spaces, media, and overall direction of Western culture props up these agendas, giving such organizations an inherent advantage in getting to hearts, if not minds.

Having more prepared Jews ready to tackle the cultural elements in universities, the media, and popular culture is always a plus, and I encourage more people to go against the unfavorable odds and to fight for the place of more traditional perspectives in the sun. At the same time, however, younger Jews should be trained not only in “shutting down” left-wing trolls but in breaking them away from groupthink. Ultimately, the direction we should be going in is not increasing infighting (because even the beaten groups will look for new ways to persevere) but in showing them that we can’t be beaten, and that they are better off joining them.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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