The missing left: Where’s the support for liberal Zionists on campus?



NEW YORK (JTA) — The Forward recently asked college students “to tell us about a college experience that had shaped their Jewish identity in some way.”

Of the six students whose responses it published, five attend American universities. Of those, two are members of Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and rejects Zionism – or what one of the students, Ben Berman of Clark University, calls “the settler-colonial project of Zionism.” A third declares he has “no connection with Israel.”

The remaining two are proudly pro-Israel. One belongs to the campus chapter of Students Supporting Israel, a group that takes a mostly uncritical view of Israel. The other counters the pro-Palestinian propaganda she hears with references to Michael Oren, an Israeli centrist, and Caroline Glick, a journalist on the far-right band of the Israeli political spectrum.

It’s impossible to say whether this small sample is representative of anything, but one thing is conspicuous: There is no pro-Israel left. To engage with Israel, according to these students, means to defend it uncritically or join those who, according to the anti-Zionist principles of SJP, seek an “end to the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.” To be a Jew means either to stand with Israel or, as Berman puts it, “stand against injustice — especially when it’s being committed by some of our own.”

READ: Op-Ed: Mob mentality at Vassar BDS vote typical of school’s Israel climate

You wouldn’t know there is actually a Zionism that can be loving but critical of Israel. Or that within and outside of Israel, there are groups that support Palestinian rights and statehood while defending the Jews’ right to a state and Israelis’ right to security.

The same dichotomy is found in another testimony by a presumed millennial, Jesse Alexander Myerson. In a cover story in the Village Voice titled “The Heresy and Evangelism of Bernie Sanders,” Myerson argues that the “non-Zionist” Sanders appeals to Jews of “my generation” precisely because his socialism represents an alternative to the “militant nationalism” of the Jewish mainstream.

“[N]ext to Bernie Sanders’s dogged agitation for universal equality and justice, decade in and decade out,” writes Myerson, “Zionist chest-thumping looks like a cheap substitute. ”

Calling Sanders “non-Zionist” is wishful thinking by Myerson, who divides Jewish identity neatly between socialism and Zionism. That presumes that a, the two are mutually exclusive (for Israel’s founding generation, that might come as a surprise), and b, there is no way to be a Zionist and stand up for “equality and justice.”

Sanders, who famously spent time on a kibbutz as a young man, doesn’t talk like a “non-Zionist.”

“Israel is one of America’s closest allies,” he said in his first major address on the Middle East, “and we – as a nation – are committed not just to guaranteeing Israel’s survival, but also to make sure that its people have a right to live in peace and security.”

In the same speech, the Democratic presidential candidate spoke about “a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians,” as well as “the unconditional recognition by all people of Israel’s right to exist.” Sanders called for “an end to attacks of all kinds against Israel,” as well asending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory.” He criticized the Netanyahu government for building more settlements, the Palestinian Authority for abrogating the Oslo Accords and Hamas for saying Israel does not have the right to exist.

That’s not non-Zionism – that’s liberal Zionism.

One student leader who understood the distinction was Benjy Cannon, the former president of J Street U. Writing in Haaretz, Cannon praised Sanders for creating “an opening for other candidates, now or in the future, to extend a clear hand in friendship to Palestinians, condemn the occupation and settlement growth, and simultaneously maintain the critical importance of U.S.-Israeli ties and Israel’s right to be free from terror and violence.”

It’s a shame Sanders wouldn’t give his speech in person at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s recent policy conference, or that AIPAC wouldn’t let him deliver his remarks via satellite. It might have signaled to young liberal Zionists that the pro-Israel mainstream is at least willing to air such views, even if they don’t like them.

The demise of liberal or progressive Zionism is in part the result of its own failures, and of historical events out of its control. Israelis themselves are disillusioned with their own left, which hasn’t been a political force for years. Taking their cues from Israel’s hawkish government – and reacting to Palestinian terror and rejectionism — many American pro-Israel organizations and leaders ignore or ostracize liberal Zionists. The vote to block J Street from joining the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was seen by many on the Jewish left as a referendum on its liberal policies, not its tactics.

READ: Bernie Sanders says anti-Semitism is a factor in BDS

The rise of anti-Zionism voices on college campuses – especially among Jews – suggests how this trend might be backfiring. Writing about the BDS movement on his Brooklyn College campus, Eric Alterman noted this week that the “pro-boycott group Jewish Voice for Peace is perhaps the fastest-growing Jewish organization on campuses nationwide.” The BDS movement, he writes, “is filled with young Jews.”

One group seeking to counter this is Ameinu, the former Labor Zionist Alliance. An Ameinu initiative, The Third Narrative, is trying to support those who stand with Israel, criticize its policies and are buffeted from both the right and the left. Significantly, the initiative tries to help liberal Zionists “respond to Israel’s most vitriolic critics.”

Kenneth Bob, Ameinu’s national president, points to a 2010 study by Israel’s centrist Reut Institute. To fight the campaign to delegitimize Israel, according to Reut, pro-Israel groups should “substantively engage liberal and progressive circles. These represent the battleground between Israel and its allies, and the delegitimizers.”

And yet Ameinu hasn’t been able to attract philanthropic support for its campus outreach.

“We’d love to have a campus program, but have great difficult finding funding,” Bob said in an interview. “The community speaks out very vocally on issues like [egalitarian prayer] at the Kotel, but when it comes to the occupation they are very hesitant to support those who use that word.” As a result, said Bob, “there is a huge vacuum” in reaching pro-Israel campus liberals.

Building up liberal Zionism wouldn’t change the minds of students who are predisposed to embrace BDS and other dogmas of the far left. But for the silent or unengaged students who sit out the clash between the non-Zionist left and the uncritical pro-Israel groups, it might provide an authentic alternative.

Recommended from JTA