By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
I’ve been very interested in the debate about Bernie Sanders, Israel and Jewish Americans in the last few days. In a recent post by Jacob Bacharach, the title was “Sanders backs the Jewish values we millenials believe in – and Israel isn’t one of them.” He writes,
I did plant plenty of trees in Israel by dropping my parents’ money at Hebrew School. These projects, meant to tie young American Jews to the Israeli state with bonds of nostalgic affection, had the opposite effect: in making Israel just one more destination, they made Israel just another ordinary country, not the mystical homeland we appeal to in prayer, but a real, grotty, compromised place, a country whose frankly disastrous politics and shameful treatment of the Palestinians has made it increasingly unsupportable…[Sanders], the only Jewish candidate, calls back to an earlier era of Jewish politics, before the almost complete integration of Jews into white, affluent America and before the notion that the most important thing for Jews in America was support for a foreign county thousands of miles away.” He makes a good point, noting that that BDS movement is “often led by Jews” and that those activists support Sanders.
Then there is Simone Zimmerman who was appointed by Sanders to deal with “Jewish outreach”. Instead of the Bacharan concept of “we don’t care about Israel,” she has burnished her credentials as deeply caring. “One of the leaders of a group of young Jews that held regular protest vigils outside the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, reading the names of Palestinians and Israelis killed in the conflict,” reads the JTA report. A J Street campus leader, JTA boasts of Zimmerman’s Jewish community connections: “great granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor”, went to “Jewish day school” and “Jewish camp” and was involved in her synagogue. She went to Israel, and was on an “Israel Action Committee” at Berkeley.
In one article she wrote: “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…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.” She argued for “civil resistance” side by side with Palestinians.
For many in the pro-Israel crowd, this is radical anti-Israel behavior. For the believers that “Anti-Zionism is anti-semitism“, it might be “anti-semitic.” One Israeli MK said Bernie Sanders had committed a “blood libel” by inflating the number of Palestinians killed in the 2014 Gaza war.
They doth protest too much?
A friend of mine sent me a text upon learning of the new Jewish outreach efforts. He was happy that Bernie is ignoring the major organizations, such as AIPAC, that dominate Jewish discussions. He was happy that finally someone was saying basically “we won’t apologize for who we are” and won’t go kow-tow to Israel. Sanders isn’t out of touch, in this narrative, with the younger crowd which supports him at 80% numbers in some Democratic primaries.
For these voices Sanders is a major shift and is a product of the politisizing of the pro-Israel crowd that took place due to the Iran deal and also Netanyahu’s perceived alliance with Mitt Romney. The increasingly rightward tilt of support for Israel, has made some democrats uncomfortable. Hillary Clinton isn’t one of them. But the new generation is saying “we have had enough.” This has been a long time in coming and is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many of those aligned with J Street or Peter Beinart or other voices feel the ‘establishment’ is out of touch. There is an argument that Israel’s values don’t represent US Jewish values and that Jews will not longer sacrifice those values.
That all makes perfect sense. American Jews are American, Israel doesn’t represent them and is not like America. But what’s interesting is that many of these voices are not actually saying “let’s just ignore Israel,” but rather have an Israelocentric worldview. It is the mirror image of the pro-Israel worldview, for many of them focusing on Israel, and it’s abuses, is central. They want to read the names of Gazan children who were killed, to support African migrants and refugees in Israel, to fight for Bedouin land rights. It is about making Israel into an image of America. They may say “not in our name” but in fact some of these views are deeply obsessed with Israel, and the concept is to turn Israel into an ‘Or LaGoyim’ or “light unto the nations.’
In this view the Millenials sometimes combine an old American view of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism with Israel exceptionalism and a need for Israel to embody their Tikkun Olam spirit. More than anything they want Israel to be a kind of social justice experiment for them. In many cases actually the need to improve the lives of minorities in Israel surpasses the need to improve lives of minorities in the US.
So it is true that being pro-Israel is not a value of this group, but Israel is a value actually. There are many Jews who fully assimilated and integrated into America and for whome Israel was never interesting. For them it was just one state among many, less interesting than Ireland is to Irish Americans. But for another group, Israel is the priority but in an anti-hasbara way. Unlike Irish Americans, who generally don’t think Ireland needs to symbolize their values, many of these young Jewish activists want Israel to represent their values. They don’t live in Israel or ever want to live in Israel mostly. Their view has a tinge of colonial and mission civilsatrice to it. They know what is best for Israel, and they believe they have a right and a requirement to struggle to make it better. In a sense they are not exactly anti-Zionists. Tony Judt was an anti-nationalist and it made him an anti-Zionist. But these voices don’t exactly want to do away with nationalism. Other nationalisms are ok. They want Zionism to embody their values. It’s extreme Zionism, in a sense.
It is also, sometimes, an unhealthy obsession and unhealthy relationship.