The Israel Conversation American Jewish Leaders Aren't Willing to Have

Don't ignore or demonize the young American Jews flirting with anti-Zionism. Argue with them.

A pro-BDS student attending the first Open Hillel conference in Harvard, Oct., 2014. Illustrative.
Gili Getz

On Sunday I spoke at the inaugural conference of Open Hillel, a new student organization that, as the name implies, wants to open Hillel—which oversees Jewish life on America’s college campuses—to a broader debate about Israel. It was an invigorating experience, and a strange one. When it comes to Israel, I’m not used to being among the most hawkish people in the room.

Open Hillel has no political agenda beyond facilitating a more open discussion about Israel inside the American Jewish community. So why did the conversation—at least the part I witnessed—have such an anti-Zionist feel?

The first reason is generational. For the most part, older American Jews don’t question Zionism, even if they don’t like Israel’s policies, because they don’t question the need for a Jewish state of refuge. Generationally, they are close enough to the Holocaust, to the Soviet and Ethiopian emigrations of the 1980s and '90s, and to personal experiences of anti-Semitism in the United States, to believe that Diaspora Jewish life can be fragile. They may not be able to imagine moving to Israel themselves, but they sleep better knowing it’s there.

For younger American Jews, it’s different. They’ve never seen any significant group of Jews fleeing to Israel to avoid state-sponsored anti-Semitic persecution. And they’ve faced no barriers as a result of being Jewish in the United States. So the Zionism of refuge strikes no chord. As a result, when they grow alienated from Israeli policy—as many of the students at the conference clearly were—they’re more likely to question the entire basis for the state. Unlike their parents, they don’t distinguish between what Israel does and what Israel is.

The second reason the conference leaned so far left is because of Gaza. Among American Jews, this summer’s war was an equal opportunity radicalizer. It pushed hawkish Jews further right and dovish Jews further left. J Street, which opposes Israeli settlement policy but seeks acceptance within the American Jewish mainstream, largely sat the war out. That proved a boon for the pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) group, Jewish Voices for Peace, whose ranks were swelled by American Jews alienated by the war. According to executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP has added 25 new chapters and 60,000 new online supporters since mid-June. That newfound strength was on display at Open Hillel.

But the third reason the conference leaned so far left is the simplest: No one from the right showed up. Conference organizers say that, among others, they invited representatives from AIPAC, Stand With Us, the David Project, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston and, of course, Hillel International—but none came. They almost never do. For years, the American Jewish establishment has dealt with Jews who cross its ideological red lines by either ignoring or vilifying them—but almost never publicly talking to them. To do so, they claim, would legitimize fundamentally illegitimate views.

That decision is growing ever more self-defeating. The young American Jews at Open Hillel who are flirting with anti-Zionism are not anti-Semites. (Although, of course, some anti-Zionists are). They are merely doing what young people always do: Challenging settled assumptions based on a different life experience. They don’t need the American Jewish establishment’s legitimization; that establishment is illegitimate to them. What they need, in the best Jewish tradition, is to be argued with.

But I’m not sure the American Jewish establishment knows how. For years, mainstream American Jewish groups have short-circuited discussions about Zionism by accusing its critics of anti-Semitism. They’ve grown so dependent on that rhetorical crutch that they rarely publicly grapple with how Zionism - a movement that privileges one ethnic and religious group - can be reconciled with the pledge in Israel’s declaration of independence to offer “complete equality of social and political rights irrespective of race, religion or sex.” Unlike some at Open Hillel, I don’t believe this tension requires abandoning Zionism or the belief in a democratic Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one. But the students I met on Sunday are asking hard, important questions, and they deserve a communal leadership that responds with ideas rather than silence or slurs.

They, after all, are the ones who still care enough to ask.

An earlier version of this article called Jewish Voices for Peace "anti-Zionist." Although viewed that way by some, the group takes no official position on Zionism.