From the shock election of Donald Trump in the US to the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, populist rhetoric is sweeping away moderate debate. When it comes to our small Jewish corner of the globe, how can we avoid following a similarly destructive path? Perhaps by following the lead of our students and protecting an agenda-free approach to Jewish life on campus.
“The JPR National Jewish Student Survey in 2011 found that “the seeds of polarisation are evident, with the middle-ground giving way to both the secular and religious ends of the spectrum”. Searching for Community, a just published and more intimate focus group based study, while identifying “a considerable degree of moderation”, elicited some extreme responses including a suggestion that progressive Judaism is “detrimental to the community as a whole” and “it will be, above all, the destruction of the faith”.
Other participants said that “some views towards women are wrong in this day and age” and “my gender, my sexuality, everything that I think about Judaism, I think I get from an egalitarian point of view.” These opposing views of Jewish values highlight the challenges J-Socs face.
At times, the debate surrounding this year’s UJS presidential election felt similarly polarising. On the one hand, people who support Jewish national self-determination with a majority Jewish defining population were accused of being fascists. On the other, Jewish students involved in pro-Palestinian activism based on their interpretation of Jewish values, were labelled “kapos” or “self-hating Jews”.
Against this tendency towards extremes, insights from research with our students suggest how we can build unified, but not uniform, Jewish communities.
The 2011 survey highlighted that 95% agreed their Jewish identity is about belonging to the Jewish people; 80% that it is about having an ethnic identity; and 69% that it is about Jewish culture. This compared with a fraction more than half who stated that their Jewish identity was about prayer or belief in God.
Of course, socialising with other Jewish people and food (kosher, Jewish or even a decent attempt at something resembling cooking from home) are mainly what brings Jewish students together. However, also emerging from the 2016 portrait is a need for “approaches to Jewish learning … that open up questions … without imposing set answers” and “Several students expressed a real affinity with Jewish history.”
Instead of predominantly religious definitions of Judaism, and in place of groups offering fixed ways of Jewish expression, an approach to Jewish identity grounded in peoplehood and history might offer a way forward. Jewish peoplehood can contain those within and beyond denominational affiliation, and may even be able to hold Zionists and Diasporists side-by-side.
UJS and J-Socs are far from perfect and we are working to be more inclusive. Yet, particularly when it comes to agenda-free approaches to Jewish expression, there is something unique and powerful about student-led and cross-communal Jewish life.
For almost 100 years, J-Socs and UJS have brought together Jewish students from diverse religious, cultural and political backgrounds. We never ask people to compromise on a passionate expression of their distinct Judaism. We do produce communities and leaders that moderate our differences and find common causes.
Too often in student activism and community conversations, the loudest voices are those encouraging us to pick sides and denigrate those we are opposing. My hope is that creating cross-communal Jewish life on campus will nurture leaders that might bridge tensions within the Jewish community. Some may even go on to be the reasonable, civic – and far more civil – politicians we so desperately need; politicians who can fight for the pragmatic centre ground to trump the populist hate emerging from those further to the right and left.