When our family stumbled upon an encampment

My daughter looked at me with fear in her eyes and whispered, 'Isn’t Ann Arbor a liberal city?'
(via Facebook)
(via Facebook)

Back in my hometown of Ann Arbor for Passover, I made the mistake on Monday, April 22nd of taking the family to see the University of Michigan’s campus. While I expected we might encounter some signs about the war in Gaza, I was unprepared for an encampment that had taken over the center of campus.

The banner that caught my daughter’s attention was one that said, “Jewish Students Say: Zionism is Racism.”

During my time on campus in the late ’90s/early 2000s, I had several uncomfortable encounters where fellow students upon learning I was Jewish pressed me on my stance on the plight of the Palestinians. When I refused to agree to a simple good vs evil narrative, they demanded to know how I could turn a blind eye to oppression. I did not respond well, either surprising them with how quickly I got defensive or shutting down.

People believing they can openly ask you for your opinion on Israel is a unique feature of being Jewish. It’s generally understood that it’s not appropriate to ask any other member of an ethno-religious group where they stand on a conflict half a world away.

I’m not Israeli. My family history is a familiar Jewish tale. European persecution, murder and desperate refuge in an unknown country. Pre-World War II, all the branches of my family escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe or forced consignment in the Czar’s army and made new lives in the United States.

While I have no direct ties to Israel, for some reason it’s ok for others to establish where I stand on Israel. They need to determine whether I’m the good kind of Jew or the bad kind of Jew.

Representative Ilhan Omar summed this dichotomy with her pseudo-denunciation of antisemitism, “I think it is really unfortunate that people don’t care about the fact that all Jewish kids should be kept safe and that we should not have to tolerate antisemitism or bigotry for all Jewish students, whether they are pro-genocide or anti-genocide.”

You’re either the good kind of anti-Zionist Jew who hates genocide or the wicked kind of Jew.

If you must impose that binary, I guess that makes me the wicked kind.

I believe in the importance of a Jewish state. I believe that Israel would have respected the territorial boundaries assigned to it in 1947 by the United Nations had its neighboring nations not invaded when it declared its independence. I take pride in the story of Jews in the shadow the Holocaust protecting and establishing a nation, despite overwhelming odds. I believe there’s no greater example of Israel’s importance to the Jewish world than when it absorbed the Jewish communities forcefully expelled by their Arab and Persian neighbors in response to its creation.

I also believe you can’t tell the story of the formation of the State of Israel without the creation of Palestinian refugees in the wake of the War of Independence, a cultural trauma referred to as the Nakba. I believe that the only pragmatic long-term solution is one involving two states for two peoples. I believe there have been so many heartbreaking failures between the Israelis and Palestinians that any conversation (even pre-October 7th) should avoid getting bogged in grievances and look towards what are the obstacles standing in the way of peace. I believe it’s a shame that there aren’t more attempts to envision a pragmatic path forward, such as Micah Goodman’s book, Catch ‘67.

I am a Zionist. It doesn’t mean I stand blindly with Israel nor that the state is above criticism. It also doesn’t mean that I callously disregard the rights and humanity of Palestinians.

I couldn’t think of a response to my 10-year-old daughter’s reaction to seeing a sign declaring her a racist in the center of the university she dreams of attending.

As my wife and I were trying to skirt the family away from the protests, my 8-year-old son put on his kippah. He goes to a Jewish school – so he always has a spare one in his coat pocket. It was a sunny day and he was trying to angle the large yarmulke on his forehead so shaded his eyes.

“Take that off!” I hissed with the urgency I’d use to pull him back from a busy intersection he’d wandered into. 

It took a moment to process the full implications of what I’d said. One of the unconscious safety alarms I’d developed as a parent had gone off.  Not wanting to attract a scene, I’d reacted instinctively and told my son to hide a symbol of our Judaism.  Of course, I didn’t want my son to know this.  I can’t remember what lame excuse I made up for why he had to put away the sunshade he’d engineered.

My first thought was of the Marranos, Jews in medieval Spain who pretended to convert to Christianity and practiced in secret. Never before had I felt an urgency to hide our Judaism. It occurred in the heart of central campus of the beloved university I attended for a bachelors and masters over six years. Our kind of Jews were not welcome here.

Thankfully we witnessed the encampment in the early stages before the giant banner went up that read, “Long live the Intifada (pictured above — not my picture.  It has been circulating on Facebook).”

My formative years were a time of hope. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Fatah leader Yasser Arafat both seemed sincere about the promise of two states for two people and (naively) it seemed like a matter of time.

It seemed reminiscent of the 1979 peace deal between Israel and Egypt, agreed to by leaders who months earlier would’ve considered themselves bitter enemies: Hardliner Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1979 — who in 1973 nearly succeeded in his surprise attack to destroy Israel on Yom Kippur.

It was a chance to put aside grievances and allow statesmanship to prevail.

Alas. Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist. Hamas, with the goal of a Caliphate across a Greater Palestine from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, began a campaign of suicide bombings and terror that erased much of the Israeli public’s belief in the peace process.

In 2000, at a peace summit at Camp David, Arafat refused to agree to a two-state solution (I’ve always believed it was because he was worried about being assassinated by his own people the way Rabin and Sadat were).

Following the failure of the peace summit, there were demonstrations, protests and then all hell broke loose. Suicide bombers began targeting Israeli civilians. They hit large Passover Seders, buses, dance clubs and restaurants. Israeli army and police became embroiled in active combat with Palestinians. There are multiple perspectives about whether the Israeli response was too harsh or necessary to protect the state. But, at the end of the day, a lot of lives were lost. Many Israelis lost faith in peace and opted to vote for a government they believed provided security. The left-wing parties with dreams of a two-state solution effectively disappeared with security barriers separating Israeli land from Palestinian territories, a physical symbol of how far both sides were from peace. That was the result of what’s known as the Second Intifada.

I think it’s safe to say that another Intifada would result in more cycles of bloodshed, death and make the prospect of a lasting peace that much more unlikely. It’s hard for me to read “Long Live the Intifada” without seeing it as a celebration of violence.

I haven’t mentioned October 7th or the war in Gaza, because that’s not what the signs and a lot of the problematic language being used at these protests are really about.

They are directed towards any of the “bad kind” of Jews who support Israel and are romanticizing horrific violence against civilians.

Yet, it doesn’t seem that complaints about the language in the protests has been taken seriously from the far left. Going back to Representative Omar’s remark about pro-genocide and anti-genocide Jews, she gave an example by posting an article about a student chanting, “Kill All Arabs” and harassing Arabs at UMass Amherst. Even if the unnamed student was Jewish, it’s quite the offensive leap to use this incident as a justification for labeling a group of Jews as pro-genocide. This nonsensical response is almost certainly a deflection. I can’t parse her original comment any other way without seeing her calling any Jew who has some level of support for Israel today as pro-genocide.

Senator Bernie Sanders, when asked whether Omar’s comments were wrong – defended her remarks about pro-genocide Jews with a deflection of his own, “The essential point that Ilhan made is that we do not want to see antisemitism in this country.”

Whatever one may think about the belief that Israel needs to terminate its military campaign in Gaza immediately, there’s nothing inherently antisemitic or hateful about that opinion. While the far-left politicians have repeatedly praised and encouraged the protests, they’ve denied that some of the messaging is hateful. What’s the harm in asking the protestors to tone it down?

Maybe it’s because the protests are working.

This is a movement that has galvanized young people across the country and brought their wing of the Democratic Party into the spotlight. If you’re a far-left politician, do you really want to be on the one to say, “Hey protestors – you might want to take the Jewish hate out of that message and maybe read a little about what that actually means.”

Why stand up to these righteous protestors and risk their disapproval when they love you? Besides, you can always gaslight the Jews and claim they’re being hysterical and the language isn’t hateful because some protesters have Jewish friends standing with them.

The city of Chicago, where I live, passed a ceasefire resolution at the end of January with mayor Brandon Johnson booting out two aldermen so he could cast a tie-breaking vote.

Debra Silverstein, the only Jewish alderman, was heckled before the meeting started with chants of “Zionist money.” Representative led the legislative effort against the resolution, requesting it be modified to also include language about releasing the hostages and condemning Hamas. Apparently expressing sympathy for hostages and condemnations of a terrorist group is enough to get one labeled as the bad kind of Zionist Jew.

Alderman, Byron Sigcho Lopez, cited a Russian publication claiming that the sexual violence reported by the New York Times did not occur on October 7th. Mayor Brandon Johnson did not correct the record. He needed Lopez’s vote.

Mayor Johnson used a lot of political capital for this symbolic resolution. He must have felt that it was critical politically to signal to his people where he stood – regardless of what antisemitism and misinformation came out.

My daughter was spot on when she noted that the sign calling her a racist Zionist for being a Jew who supports Israel didn’t jive with what it means to be liberal.

I won’t wade much in the current conflict. President Biden called the actions of October 7th “Pure, unadulterated evil.” I still worry I’ll have nightmares about the horrors I read about that day. While I strongly believe Israel needed to respond, I have grave concerns about the humanitarian impact of its response and whether its long-term goal of wiping out Hamas is actually achievable. Whatever one thinks of this take, on college campuses right now, it’d get me labeled as a pro-genocide Zionist.

I hope I’ve at least managed to outline how complicated and tangled it all is and why some of this messaging is so hurtful. I can confidently say I know I don’t have it right. With each brief historical summary I gave, I knew how much I was leaving out and I see so many ways to find flaws in so many sentences in what I left in or out. It’s imperfect and I’m a far, far cry from an expert. If you’re looking for a simple history with a clear and obvious answers, I recommend you consider another region of the world.

The reality is, The United States of America is not a great place to be Jewish today. That’s not something I would’ve imagined thinking a decade ago. Between Jewish schools and our synagogue, I pay a significant amount of money each year to fund security guards. A tax on being a practicing Jew in America.

In the past year hundreds of synagogues and Jewish schools in this country were targeted with fake bomb threats or swatted.

While the far left has conveniently decided to be the arbiter of what is and isn’t antisemitism based on what helps them politically, the far right has continued to stoke the Great Replacement Theory (illegal immigrants are being brought in by Jews who want to replace the “native” whites). I worry in ways I haven’t before about a hateful incident when I’m inside a Jewish space.

My daughter frets about whether she’ll have the grades to get into the University of Michigan, much the same as I did when I was her age. I fret about whether eight years from now Michigan will be a safe place for Jews like us. We might have to look overseas for her in the hopes of finding a liberal space that supports nuance.

In the early part of the 20th century, my family made a brave and desperate bet on a foreign land an ocean away. While we have a comfortable life today and have no plans to leave it, at what point does it get too hard to live our lives as Jews in America?

I don’t know the answer to that – and I hope it’s not a question I have to seriously ponder. But if it comes to it, I’m grateful for the land of Zion, where all Jews are welcomed with open arms.

About the Author
Jonah Shifrin is a software developer in Chicago Illinois. He is married with three children.
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