American Jewish Millennials Aren't Disengaged From Israel, We're Angry

We don’t need any more multi-million dollar ventures, like the 'Jewish Peace Corps' Ari Shavit suggests, to save us. We need the Jewish community to wake up to the disastrous reality of the occupation.

Simone Zimmerman
Simone Zimmerman
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Simone Zimmerman.
Simone Zimmerman.Credit: Facebook / JTA
Simone Zimmerman
Simone Zimmerman

The anxiety in the American Jewish establishment over “what is happening to our young people” is reaching a fever pitch of absurdity, as communal leaders and spokespeople frantically try to remedy the symptoms while refusing to acknowledge the true root of the problem: We're not disengaging from Israel, in fact we're paying attention to what's happening in Israel - and we are angry.

The latest edition in this ongoing category error is Ari Shavit’s epiphany ('Only a 'Jewish Peace Corps' Can Save Zionism From Its Millennial Crisis') that, to save the Jewish future and Israel’s public image, we need a “Jewish Peace Corps" which would be "a joint venture between Israel and the Diaspora,” that will engage young people in “universal do-gooding,” from Yerucham to Rahat to Ferguson.

Shavit dreams for the day that Israel will be identified with human rights and “the effort to make the world a better place,” instead of with, “occupation, oppression, settlements, fanaticism and reactionary-ism.”

The hypocrisy of expecting feel-good social justice projects to offset millennials’ deep outrage at the grave injustices committed by the Jewish state is almost too much to bear.

Shavit blames the Israeli government because it, “refuses to understand and internalize,” the crisis among Jewish millennials. Yet, it is Shavit himself, and every Jewish establishment leader peddling similar arguments, who refuse to understand and internalize this crisis.

My peers and I don’t need any more multi-million dollar ventures to save us. What we need is for the community to wake up.

What we need is for the community to stop willfully blinding itself to the disastrous reality of holding millions of Palestinians under military occupation.

We need the community to stop justifying policies that deny Palestinians the ability to move freely, to sleep safely in their homes without the fear of a military raid, to access water and resources, to live without terror that their homes could be bombed to rubble, and to protest the unjust conditions of their lives nonviolently. None of these policies are moral, and none of these policies make Jews safer.

Moreover, we need the community to stop policing and demonizing those of us who say these truths in public and are fighting for change. We need the community to stop holing itself up behind walls and tanks and guns, as well as behind redlines and standards of partnership.

We are not too naive to understand what is going on or so selfish as to be lured away by more free programming. Listen to us when we say that the status quo is unbearable and untenable. The community as it stands today is a community we refuse to participate in.

No public relations trick can save Israel’s image. The problem isn’t with the hasbara. The problem is nearly 50 years of occupation. The problem is rampant racism in Israeli society. The problem is attacks on human rights defenders by extremists and by the state. The problem is a Jewish establishment that ignores or justifies all of this.

Sending young, mostly Ashkenazi Jews to do volunteer work with Bedouins in Rahat or African Americans in Ferguson to demonstrate solidarity with people of color is completely missing the point. We hear those people saying the same thing we hear from Palestinians: that band aids and kind words won’t end state-sponsored racism and violence.

It is insulting to young Jews’ intelligence, and to communities leading their own struggles against oppression, to expect that another “do-gooding” program can mask the violent abuse Israel inflicts upon the human beings living under its rule every day. No amount of so-called “social justice activism” around the world can distract or make us care less about that. Nothing, except actually addressing it.

Despite the panic about the disengagement of young people from the community, across the country I see principled, courageous, loving, and yes, incredibly angry young people calling on the establishment to change course, to actually do something to end the occupation instead of simply paying lip service to it.

I see J Street U demanding transparency from Jewish Federations to ensure their funding is not further entrenching the occupation. I see Open Hillel insisting Hillel allow a vibrant debate about Zionism and BDS inside its walls. I see Jewish Voice for Peace calling on international corporations to stop profiting off human rights abuses.

I see the Center for Jewish Nonviolence bringing American Jews to do civil resistance work in solidarity with West Bank Palestinians. I see IfNotNow building a mass movement to challenge our community to genuinely stand for freedom and dignity for all in Israel/Palestine.

We millennials have one simple question for our community’s leaders: do you support equal rights for all people and if so, what are you going to do about it?

We are doing this out of love for our community and love for our neighbors. We know that Jewish liberation is inextricably tied to the liberation of all people.

My generation isn’t disaffected; we’re passionate and we’re mobilizing. The question is not whether my generation will remain Jewish; it’s whether our parents and grandparents will follow our lead as we build the kind of Jewish community that celebrates universal values and struggles for justice.

Those who truly want to help young Jews connect to the Jewish world should live out the values they profess. Fight for an end to the occupation and for freedom and dignity for all in Israel/Palestine. Commit to restoring the moral soul of the Jewish community. Prove to young people that this is a community worth believing in.

You have a choice.

Simone Zimmerman is an activist and organizer based in Brooklyn NY. She is a leader of IfNotNow, an emerging movement of young American Jews working to end their community's support for the occupation. Follow her on Twitter: @simonerzim

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