Black Lives Matter vs. Israel: Jewish Millennials Starting to Realize Values Come at a Price

Young U.S. Jews lamenting the challenges of supporting Israel and other progressive causes on campus seem to have forgotten what real politics, not just superficial labels, is all about.

Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
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An anti-Israel protest at Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh.
An anti-Israel protest at Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh.Credit: AP
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

Judging by recent reports and opinion pieces in Jewish and Israeli media, the main obstacle facing Jewish-American millennials who support Israel is not the occupation or the settlements or even the divisive and complex debate regarding a boycott of Israel (partial or otherwise) — it’s the hostility and political purism of other young American progressives.

“You support Israel, so you cannot also support us,” Lauren Sonnenberg, one Jewish-American activist, said she was told upon attempting to join a Black Lives Matter march organized at a U.S. college campus this year. Progressive campus activists, she lamented in an opinion piece in Haaretz, “have determined that mere support of Israel disqualifies admission into the groups that support blacks, immigrants and members of the LGBT community.”

Young American Jews who want to be progressive allies are seemingly forced to choose: renounce Israel and blindly support BDS or stay away.

To be sure, radical progressive activism has embraced aggressive rhetoric against Israel in recent years, the latest example of which is the Movement for Black Lives platform using “genocide” to describe Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – language that even some Jews who are highly critical of Israel can’t subscribe to. In U.S. campus parlance: it is no longer a “safe space” for American Jews.

Protesters vent anger at a shooting by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 6, 2016. Credit: Gerald Herbert/AP

The only problem is that politics isn’t about safe spaces, and activism isn’t about acceptance or being coddled — they’re about making choices and willingly paying a price for them, despite the desire to fit in.

Politics, by definition, is about navigating moral complexities and social realities to create a real force of change.

As many liberal Israeli leftists will tell you, it’s not easy to support the Palestinian struggle for statehood while also backing an increasingly unpopular form of political Zionism, one that puts you at odds with both the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli crowds.

As many Israeli anti-occupation activists will testify, it is close to impossible to fight the violence of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank while demanding non-violence from the Palestinians who live there.

As many white South Africans who fought apartheid will tell you, it was no simple feat dissenting against their racist regime while supporting popular black politics, which was often openly hostile toward liberal whites.

As the Republicans vocally refusing to endorse Donald Trump now know, crossing political fault lines can be thankless and even dangerous, but sometimes not following your conscience can be just as perilous.

Paying a social price for one’s politics is not akin to being disenfranchised; it is in many respects the essence of engaging in politics.

So why do some young American Jews think politics should be any different for them? Why do they feel entitled to enjoy the privilege of politics without a price? After all, that privilege rarely extends to the downtrodden they fight for, be it the Palestinian, African American or LGBT communities.

Putting aside cases of anti-Semitic campus violence or hate speech, U.S. Jews are free to voice their (complex or simplistic) support for Israel in any number of venues and organizations without fear of insult or injury. Hillel houses are active on campuses around America, as are many other organizations from Open Hillel to JStreet to Stand With Us to Jewish Voice for Peace. The only difference is that now these spaces are no longer clean and safe, they no longer offer a moral sanctuary.

Thanks to the settlement enterprise and the seemingly immutable entrenchment of the occupation, gone are the days where support for Israel meant having a moral upper hand, like that enjoyed by those who fought for the freedom of Jewish Soviet refuseniks or those who marched on Selma with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for civil rights.

So-called intersectionality and identity politics have further complicated the situation by conflating progressivism with blind support for BDS, creating an impossible dilemma for liberal Jews who want to be supportive of Israel.

Still, there is an opportunity here for millennials to abandon superficial labels and find their own political voice, free from the false dichotomies of pro-/ anti-Israel/Palestinians.

Much like some in Israel’s Arab minority struggle to identify as Palestinians while also demanding their civil rights as Israeli Arabs, so too must young liberal American Jews engage with those who refuse to accept them.

Much like the anti-occupation activists who demonstrate with Palestinians in the West Bank, so too must American Jews be willing to put themselves in harm’s way, not despite any cost they might be forced to pay, but precisely because their solidarity might come at a cost.

And much like the religious Jews who marched in this year’s gay pride parade in Jerusalem because they refuse to allow hatred to represent their faith, young Jews in the U.S. should march — invited or uninvited — with Black Lives Matter activists.

March under a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter in America, Israel and Palestine.” Reach out to Israel’s own black communities — Ethiopian Israelis and African asylum-seekers, each victims of police brutality and systemic racism — and help give them a voice in the U.S., much like some Palestinians did when Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the States.

Demand the same complex debate regarding activism in the U.S. that you rightfully demand for your political views on Israel. Hold your fellow college students to their own standards: openly condemn settlements and Jewish terror, slam Netanyahu’s implicit support for them and voice your support for a boycott on settlements if you are so inclined, but don’t be afraid to call out your classmates’ hypocrisies. Point out the fact that the U.S. also occupies territories and that some of its inhabitants are barred from voting; remind them that not far from the purported “genocide” of Palestinians taking place in Israel there is an actual genocide occurring — of the Syrian people — and those are just two examples.

To be sure, a rich social life is the cornerstone of full college experience, and being ostracized for any reason, especially a political one, can be a heavy price to pay — a price many are understandably not keen on paying for an increasingly hostile Israel.

Despite this, not being accepted as an ally does not actually prevent one from being an ally. Craving acceptance as a “true” or “full” or “real” liberal, however, might.

Supporting Israel in a complex manner is no longer cool or simple, but if its future is important to you, then overcome your desire for symbolic acceptance and find real ways to help. After all, that’s what real politics, not just labels, is all about.

Omer Benjakob is a news editor at Haaretz. He was born in New York and raised in Tel Aviv. He holds a B.A. in political science and philosophy and is pursuing an M.A. in philosophy of science. Follow him on Twitter.

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