Vassar, according to one conservative website, is among the ten most anti-Semitic colleges in America. Last month, an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal declared that, “Anti-Israel sentiment mixed with age-old anti-Semitism has reached a fever pitch” there. So it was with some anxiety that I travelled last week to the 155-year old former women’s college at the invitation of the local chapter of J Street U.
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I went looking for anti-Semitism. What I found was more interesting.
I asked roughly a dozen Jewish students whether they thought anti-Semitism was prevalent on campus. They all said no, but admitted that they sometimes feel uncomfortable. When I asked what made them uncomfortable, they cited the intensely anti-Zionist climate. (At Vassar, J Street represents the right edge of the Israel debate).
Last December, for instance, the Vassar Student Council delayed approving a J Street U request for funds to attend the HaaretzQ conference in New York because some anti-Israel activists argued that even the left-leaning Haaretz, being a Zionist newspaper, supports a racist ideology. This February, a Rutgers Professor named Jasbir Puar gave a speech on campus in which she repeated absurd and incendiary claims that in late 2015 Israel had kept the bodies of dead Palestinians so they could be “mined for organs for scientific research.”
For establishment Jewish organizations, this kind of anti-Zionism is prima facie evidence of bigotry. As former Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman declared in 2014, “Anti-Zionism 99 percent of the time is a euphemism for anti-Semitism.”
But the J Street U students I interviewed disagreed. Many admitted that they found the anti-Zionist atmosphere on campus disquieting, which wasn’t surprising given that many either had Israeli parents, had attended Jewish day school or had participated in Zionist youth movements. But they were reluctant to equate Vassar’s anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. One big reason: Many of the loudest anti-Zionists at Vassar are other Jews.
At Vassar, the movement to boycott Israel is not led by Palestinian or even Arab or Muslim students. It is led by a group of left-wing activists, several of whom are Jewish. One of the most prominent BDS student activists sits on the board of Vassar’s Jewish Student Union.
This isn’t unique to Vassar. Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told me that in recent years he has seen striking growth in the number of Jewish students involved in the BDS movement.
According to its media coordinator, Naomi Dann, Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS, has established 14 new campus chapters in the last two years. Jews don’t dominate the BDS movement on America’s campuses but they have become an indispensable part of it. Which helps explain why the Jewish students I talked to at Vassar described the campus struggle over Zionism less as an anti-Semitic assault than an intra-Jewish civil war.
The intra-Jewish debate over Israel at Vassar looks very different than the debate among older American Jews. Older American Jews are divided too, sometimes bitterly. But what divides them is the propriety of publicly criticizing Israel, not Zionism itself. Older American Jews largely take Zionism for granted, as did their parents, because they believe the lesson of the Holocaust is that the world needs a Jewish state of refuge in case parts of the Diaspora ever become unsafe again.
American Jewish millennials, however, have never seen any large-scale migration by Jews fleeing anti-Semitic persecution. Even the Soviet and Ethiopian exoduses of the 1980s occurred before they were born. They have grown up taking for granted that the vast majority of Diaspora Jews live in liberal democracies where they enjoy equality under the law. And they themselves have generally experienced little anti-Semitism. So when they grow alienated from Israel’s policies, they are more willing to challenge the very notion of a state created along religious and ethnic lines. A 2007 study by the Bronfman philanthropies found that American Jews under the age of 35 were 27 points less likely than American Jews over the age of 65 to declare themselves “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish State.”
To be sure, there are still plenty of young American Jews who agree with AIPAC, especially in the Orthodox community. But since Orthodox Jews tend to cluster in a few campuses, that leaves plenty of secular, liberal arts colleges like Vassar where the intra-Jewish debate isn’t about the legitimacy of criticizing Israel. It’s about the legitimacy of a Jewish state.
To the degree that establishment Jewish leaders acknowledge this rising Jewish anti-Zionism, they chalk it up to self-hatred. But when you talk to Jewish students in the BDS movement, as I have at campuses across the country, you quickly discover that being Jewish is precious to them. What they consider precious, however, is their conception of Jewish ethical ideals, ideals that they conflate with their left-wing politics. What they generally lack is the tribal allegiance that might make them compromise those ideals in the name of Jewish solidarity. The liberal Zionists at a place like Vassar are torn between Jewishness as universal morality and Jewishness as communal loyalty. The anti-Zionists see the latter as something to disdain.
The millions of dollars currently being spent to fight BDS will prove useless against these kids. They will prove useless because the Israeli government and the American Jewish establishment see anti-Zionism as merely a political challenge. But what the rising generation of Jewish anti-Zionists really pose is an intellectual challenge, an intellectual challenge that American Jews haven’t faced since the days when Jewish intellectuals like Hannah Arendt, Judah Magnes and Henrietta Szold championed a bi-national state.
There are answers to this challenge. They can be found in books like Chaim Gans' A Just Zionism and Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein’s Israel and the Family of Nations. But formulating the answers requires taking anti-Zionist arguments seriously. And that’s difficult for an American Jewish establishment that, while financially and politically strong, is intellectually weak.
The American Jewish establishment does not want to rebut anti-Zionist arguments. It would rather call them anti-Semitic and thus shut the entire discussion down. But, as I saw at Vassar, the debate is coming, not only within the United States at large, but within American Jewry. It’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. Yet the longer American Jewish leaders evade it, the more likely they’ll ultimately lose.