A strange, even if carefully staged, political theater played itself out at the AAA conference. Many young supporters of the Boycott campaign, organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, were wearing shirts proclaiming “Another Jew Supporting the Academic Boycott.” At the business meeting, these – along with young people of Arab descent – were foregrounded in bringing motions and offering comments. Notwithstanding the selectively choreographed identity politics, I do believe this moment dramatized something quite different than the intended script, namely the vastness of the gap between Israel and the mainstream organized Jewish community on the one hand, and a very large segment of young Americans of Jewish heritage.
I think mainstream Jewish voices who denounce – as self-loathing Jews – Jewish Voice for Peace and activists who only seem to recall their Jewish heritage when tactically advantageous to invoke this otherwise dormant identity miss the point entirely. I don’t think they are self-loathing Jews in the least. But I do not think that many of any of them have any positive associations with organized Judaism, and most certainly not with Israel. I don’t they are much different than any other American who are committed to universalist values of dignity, social justice, and protection of the oppressed, and see Israel, not as a beleaguered middle eastern democracy trying to survive in a really bad neighborhood, but as the last and anachronistic vestige of Western Imperialism and Colonialism. In a sense then, they overidentify with Israel as part of and an artifice of unjust Western policies, and – as Americans – therefore see it as their noblesse oblige, as their burden of privilege, to attack this potent symbol of American domination by aligning themselves with its victims. Although most do not have any particularly deep sense of Jewish identity, I do think most lift from the rich Jewish heritage a vague sense of a tradition of universalist-oriented commitment to social justice and progressive causes. In this sense, and perhaps this sense alone, they see this vague Jewish identity something cool, cosmopolitan, urban, progressive, and inclusive, and organized Jewish community is just too particularistic and anchored. But much more than that, Israel stands as the single biggest challenge to this self-conception. The very things that made older generations embrace Israel, that enabled Israel to survive, and that continues to inspire non-Jewish conservatives, namely an unapologetic, muscular nationalism that is Western-oriented, is anathema to them, and likely mobilize them even stronger to oppose Israel and align themselves with the Palestinian cause.
I think it is a misreading to see this as self-loathing. It’s a very thin identification with Judaism perhaps, and much more an American progressive alignment that tries to confront their own sense of privilege, while finding a space for doing good and making a difference for social justice. And in that sense, nothing can be a more potent symbol than Israel, not as a Jewish symbol, but as an American one. This is an over-identification with Israel as “the ugly part of us”, where “us” is Western and American colonial power, and not at all as an Other that needs to be understood and translated. It is also a repudiation of both Israeli and Jewish organized insistence that Israel is necessary for the Jews, or that a robust and deep Jewish identity is needed. It also, I think, reveals a confidence that anti-semitism is a non-issue for them. It neither haunts them, restricts their sense of opportunities and social relations, nor targets them – as long as they remain committed to the Palestinian cause.
I don’t think Israel has an answer for these kids. Successive governments have done their best to eradicate the charismatic progressive movements on the left, leaving only settler Zionism as the remaining charismatic movement engaged with building something from a value-based perspective. To mobilize these kids would require something quite painful for Israeli leaders, namely legitimating the very progressive forces and projects in Israel they consider enemies and draw them into something that would appeal to their progressive energies.
And the organized Jewish communities too have no answers. The knee-jerk reactions to exclude all those who are remotely critical of Israel, such as J-Street, and banishing boycott-friendly events and activism from campus Hillels, has only served to shrink the space for engagement that doesn’t simply consist of rejection. And I don’t think Jewish organizations have noticed the way that their own identification with Israel has become part and parcel of an American cultural political landscape and dialectic, and increasingly aligned them with conservative political forces that embrace Israel for the very reasons young activist reject it, namely as an overidentified extension of Western civilization, democracy, and entrepreneurship, and an unapologetic robust nationalism.
Israelis of course overidentify too with America and the West, assuming that no cultural translation is necessary in engaging with Americans and American Jews. The result is an almost humorous bilateral misrecognition where they speak completely past each other even as they assume they are speaking the same cultural language.