The Universalism of Jewish Americans Is What Drives Their Israel Activism

Jewish universalists are passionate activists around Israel/Palestine because they care about both who the Jewish state hurts and who it helps.

Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon
Participants at a J Street conference in 2012.
Participants at a J Street conference in 2012.Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya
Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon

In an article published by Haaretz earlier this month, Peter Beinart asserts that the universalism of young Jews causes them to place other issues before Israel, which in turn damages the Jewish left’s chances of success at guiding American policy toward Israel. While Beinart is absolutely right to point out the prevalence of universalistic values among young American Jews, he failed to realize a crucial point: it’s that same universalism that galvanizes students around Israel/Palestine.

I myself am on of them: a young, Jewish-American student whose Universalist values are what brought me to Israel activism.

Beinart changed the way I think about Judaism and the Middle East. His article “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” was the catalyst behind my college activism; I bring up his essay “The American Jewish Cocoon” constantly in conversations; and I regularly cite him in blog posts about how U.S. Jews engage with the issue. This evidences the appeal of liberal Zionist ideas to young American Jews that Beinart so incisively captures. But his latest piece, by playing down the substantial growth and growing power of J Street U and similar groups, misconstrues how progressive Americans connect to Israel.

Beinart’s central thesis is that because liberal Jews have a more Universalist mindset, they’re less likely to make Israel their primary issue. That means they won’t be single-issue voters on Israel, and don’t have the luxury of voting Republican if a Democrat doesn’t fit their mold of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” That might be true, but it’s important to separate the political ramifications of a universalistic outlook from how it manifests in activism.

After all, tribalism and pride in one’s identity don’t have to be the same thing. Young Jews can simultaneously vote on issues besides Israel and have a strong stake in the country’s future. Wanting the national iteration of Judaism to live up to universalistic values has actually compelled hundreds of young Jewish activists to get involved with J Street. Despite a deep appreciation for other issues and other problems, leaders at over 60 campuses of U.S. universities and colleges have decided to make Israel “their issue.” Between J Street U’s substantial student conference numbers and growth across the country, it’s fair to say that plenty of young people – Jews, non-Jews, Universalists and tribalists – alike, have found reasons to make progressive activism around Israel/Palestine a priority.

There are a few explanations. The first is that many young, universalistic Jews – and really, many non-Jews - are passionate about Israel precisely because it’s not a singularly Jewish issue. Foreign policy wonks care because they recognize Israel’s unique regional role. Israel’s role in American politics and global markets is equally fascinating to others. But many Jewish Universalists are passionate about Israel because its actions, especially with regard to the Palestinians, challenge their values - the same values to which they hold any self-defined democratic state.

And that challenge is an impetus to action. Recognizing that Israel’s occupation has ramifications well beyond the Jewish people is what motivates, at least in my experience, a huge amount of the progressive Jewish activism around Israel in the United States. The Universalist passion for human rights and social justice is exactly what compels young American Jews to recognize the importance of engaging with Israel precisely because in Israel, those issues don't exclusively, or even primarily, affect Jews. Caring about who the Jews impact and who impacts the Jews, who the Jewish state hurts and who it helps, is the essence of a Universalist value set.

What’s more, Jewish identity isn’t binary. I can place equal value on all human life and still say, as a Jew, that it’s important for Israel to live up to a certain ethical standard. I can believe that economic inequality and immigration reform are just as pressing as Israel/Palestine, but still recognize that the best contribution I can make is working toward a two-state solution and ending the occupation. Focusing my energy on a particular issue doesn’t chain me to a particularist worldview, and organizing around Israel/Palestine doesn’t make me a tribalist; it makes me an activist with a strong cosmopolitan Jewish identity.

But at a certain point the labels aren’t relevant. After all, J Street U is a coalition between progressive activists of many stripes. We have shared passions and values, and we’re applying them, for all kinds of reasons, to our work. Many J Street activists, myself included, turned away from “traditional” Israel activism because our communities discuss the conflict myopically: only insofar as it related to Jews. In some ways, Universalist engagement with Israel is a reaction to that type of rhetoric. But that doesn’t make it any weaker, or any less likely to get people to care. In fact, the humanistic passions of Universalists are some of the greatest antidotes to apathy I’ve witnessed.

Benjy Cannon studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is deeply involved in collegiate Jewish life at Maryland Hillel, where he sits on the Board of Directors, and is a J Street U communications co-chair. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at

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