One Thursday this winter, I stayed late after teaching Hebrew school, sitting in the sanctuary of the synagogue. Slowly but surely, a group of young Jews filtered in. At 20, I’d say I was the youngest of the group. There was an excited atmosphere, and everyone was friendly and chatting away. I even met another woman with the same exact name as me — Elana Kravitz. We reminisced about our Jewish camp experiences with joy and nostalgia, and then someone stood up in the front of the sanctuary and directed us in a popular camp song.
Are you scared yet? This group of excited, passionate, and nostalgic Jews were all alumni of Camp Ramah and part of the “militant” group IfNotNow. Terrifying, I know. This is the group that is now being labeled enemy number one of the Jewish community in every Jewish newspaper and opinion piece. They want us to hate Israel, the opinion pieces warn. They want us to ruin our Jewish camping experience by recognizing that Israel isn’t perfect, we’re told. They want us to read blasphemous authors like Benny Morris and Amos Oz. They want us to change Birthright programming, to listen to Linda Sarsour, and to stop funding the Israeli settler movement. How could a self-respecting Conservative shul let these terrifying hoodlums in?
But, despite the forecasts of alarmist Jewish columnists, donors, and leaders, the shul didn’t implode. I wasn’t indoctrinated into a militant, anti-Israel ideology. Instead, we sang Jewish songs with camp-style ruach. People told personal stories of visits to Israel, brimming over with both love for Israel and the heartbreak they experienced while realizing the horrible things that happen there. A few leaders stood on the bimah and debriefed everyone about a meeting they’d just had with Mitch Cohen, the national director of Ramah. They’d told him their personal stories and passionately agitated him to both alter Israel education at Ramah and give counselors more ability to share their personal and political stories and experiences with campers.
Unlike what you might have heard, they weren’t trying to force Ramah to teach all campers that Israel is an apartheid state that must be destroyed; they just want the camp would open more opportunities for campers to see a fuller political picture of the state that included sympathetic and humanized Palestinian figures. I felt a lot of love for the Jewish community, and even for Israel, in that room. They don’t want to destroy Israel. What they are really targeting is the Israeli occupation, and the American Jewish community’s support (or lack of opposition) thereto. I know that in a lot of Jewish circles, “occupation” is a dirty word. But it’s time for us to stop arguing over semantics and recognize what is really happening in Israel and the West Bank: Palestinians in the West Bank are non-citizens kept under military law or given temporary residency that can easily be revoked. They are subject to arbitrary searches and arrests by soldiers. Bedouin Palestinians, once forced out of Israel, are now being evicted from their land once again. You might not think this qualifies as an occupation, but it sure isn’t pretty.
So, what can American Jews do, when faced with this ugly situation? Many have made a conscious decision to hide it from view, keep supporting Israel unconditionally, and just go on eating falafel and telling kids that Israel is the perfect democracy amid the messed up Middle East. This is the approach that many Jewish institutions favor, and what birthed IfNotNow’s #YouNeverToldMe campaign, aimed at Jewish summer camps and schools, and the new #NotJustAFreeTrip campaign, aimed at Taglit-Birthright.
I can speak from experience that IfNotNow is getting at an important topic. The sense of “you never told me” betrayal, outrage, and disbelief is real, and it affects a lot of young Jews, especially those well-versed in Israel education and its predictable hasbara platitudes. Once released from the bubbles of Jewish day schools, summer camps, and other institutions, many young Jews become staunch defenders of Israel incapable of even contemplating Palestinian humanity and national aspirations, or deeply confused by the news stories about and protests against Israel that they become exposed to in college. Many of these confused Jews turn against Israel, convinced that it is an apartheid state worthy of boycott. Some of them double down on their love of Israel, but try to better the state instead of blindly defending it; these are the IfNotNow-ers, the J Street-ers, the people simply sick of spouting hasbara and eating falafel.
It’s time for the Jewish community to stop stigmatizing and fearing these young, idealistic Jews, the ones who question unconditional support for Israel’s policies, oppose the occupation, and maintain a strong love for Judaism all the while. They may have ideas or tactics with which you and I disagree, but they’re clearly not trying to destroy Israel or the Jewish community. They’re not defectors or traitors; they’re the products of one-sided, white-washed Israel education that didn’t allow them to understand Israel outside the confines of their respective Jewish bubbles. They just want to build a stronger, better Jewish community that dares to confront Israel in all its complexity. I also promise that they’re not scary.