Why Peter Beinart Is Wrong About Pro-BDS, Anti-Zionist Jews Like Me

We fight for BDS precisely because we care deeply about the future of the Jewish people.

Ben Lorber

Three young Jewish activists, including the author, at left, campaigning in favor of BDS at DePaul University in 2014.

This post first appeared at Jewschool.

If we identify as anti-Zionist—which I personally do—it’s because we are proud Jews who believe that Jewish liberation, safety, identity and continuity cannot be guaranteed through ethno-nationalism, through the separation of our destiny and our struggle from that of other peoples, through the colonization of others’ land.

As a pro-BDS Jew­ish mil­len­ni­al, I was sad and angry last week when I learned that the Bernie Sanders cam­paign had sus­pend­ed Simone Zim­mer­man, J Street U leader, anti-occu­pa­tion activist and co-founder of IfNot­Now, from her new posi­tion on the cam­paign as Jew­ish Out­reach Coor­di­na­tor. Jews like me may dis­agree with her polit­i­cal­ly around issues like BDS, but we know what it’s like to be exclud­ed and silenced by the main­stream Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and an attack on her is an attack on all of us.

But when I read Peter Beinart’s defense of Zim­mer­man in Haaretz this week, I was angered once again by what he said about Jews like me. Like Zim­mer­man, Beinart is solid­ly pro-Israel, but sharply crit­i­cal of Israel’s occu­pa­tion, set­tle­ment build­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tion against Pales­tini­ans. And like Zim­mer­man, Beinart usu­al­ly argues that young Jews like me should not be demo­nized and pushed away from the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, but should be respect­ed, and argued with, as equals.

That’s why I was dis­mayed to see that even as he defend­ed Jews like Zim­mer­man, Beinart threw Jews like me under the bus. In his piece, Beinart claims that, when it comes to Israel, Amer­i­can Jew­ish mil­len­ni­als can be divid­ed into four groups: the apa­thet­ic and assim­i­lat­ed, the staunch­ly pro-Israel, the lib­er­al Zion­ist, and the pro-BDS, some­times anti-Zion­ist Jews like myself.

Accord­ing to Beinart, of the lat­ter two groups, it is the lib­er­al Zion­ists — his pre­ferred camp — who grew up solid­ly with­in the folds of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, where they were con­di­tioned to check their lib­er­al­ism at Zionism’s door” when talk­ing about Israel. In Beinart’s world, it is these lib­er­al Zion­ists who, hav­ing today seen the real­i­ty of Pales­tin­ian suf­fer­ing, are crit­i­cal of Israel’s occu­pa­tion, but still main­tain a strong alle­giance to the Jew­ish peo­ple — an alle­giance that caus­es them not to jump ship but to engage, to become rab­bis and to form inde­pen­dent minyan­im, to change the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty from within.

And then, for Beinart, there’s my com­mu­ni­ty, the small­er but grow­ing” group of

younger Amer­i­can Jews who see Israel pri­mar­i­ly through Pales­tin­ian eyes. They reject Zion­ism and sup­port the Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment because, for them, being Jew­ish is not about the bonds of peo­ple­hood. It’s about stand­ing with the oppressed. They care lit­tle about the main­stream Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Their com­mu­ni­ty is the activist left.

Here and through­out the rest of the arti­cle, Beinart claims, implic­it­ly and direct­ly, that pro-BDS and anti-Zion­ist Jews like me have checked our Jew­ish­ness at BDS’s door. He is dan­ger­ous­ly wrong.

In my role as Cam­pus Coor­di­na­tor with Jew­ish Voice for Peace — a pro-BDS orga­ni­za­tion that does not take a posi­tion on Zion­ism — I work day after day with hun­dreds of young Jew­ish pro-BDS and, in some cas­es, anti-Zion­ist col­lege stu­dents and mil­len­ni­als across the coun­try who are pas­sion­ate­ly ded­i­cat­ed to liv­ing Jew­ish lives, and chang­ing a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that we want to call home.

For most of us, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is front and cen­ter in our lives, our com­mu­ni­ties and our activism. Maybe our fam­i­lies were total­ly sec­u­lar, and we built our Jew­ish iden­ti­ties and com­mu­ni­ties lat­er in col­lege. Or maybe we went to shul and Jew­ish day school, became b’nai mitz­vah, went to Jew­ish sum­mer camp, were raised in Jew­ish youth move­ments and, like Zim­mer­man, were trained in Israel advo­ca­cy before college.

Or maybe we didn’t, because we couldn’t. While Beinart proud­ly dis­played a list of insti­tu­tions like these to show Jew­ish read­ers that Zim­mer­man is one of us,” those of us from inter­faith fam­i­lies, from fam­i­lies of col­or, from non-Ashke­nazi fam­i­lies, from work­ing-class fam­i­lies, or from queer fam­i­lies, to name but a few mar­gin­al­ized groups with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, may nev­er have had much access to these Jew­ish insti­tu­tions at all. There is some­thing inher­ent­ly prob­lem­at­ic, in fact, in using par­tic­i­pa­tion in the often inac­ces­si­ble main­stream insti­tu­tions of Amer­i­can Jew­ish life as a yard­stick to mea­sure the kosher­ness” of Jews, mil­lenial or otherwise.

But near­ly all of us, affil­i­at­ed or not, anti-Zion­ist or not, strong­ly reject the claim that for us, being Jew­ish is not about the bonds of peo­ple­hood,” that we are left­ists before we are Jews, that we choose BDS over Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, or that we check our Jew­ish selves at the door when we join the move­ment for BDS and Pales­tin­ian rights. We fight for BDS because we, in fact, are pained deeply by the present, and care deeply about the future, of the Jew­ish peo­ple. We are pained to see our fam­i­lies, and the syn­a­gogues we grew up in, cir­cle their wag­ons, dig their trench­es and hitch their lot to a régime of occu­pa­tion and apartheid.

We study our his­to­ry of suf­fer­ing and resis­tance, and we are pained to see occu­pa­tion and state vio­lence com­mit­ted in our names and in the name of per­se­cut­ed Jews who came before us. If we iden­ti­fy as anti-Zion­ist — which I per­son­al­ly do — it’s because we are proud Jews who believe that Jew­ish lib­er­a­tion, safe­ty, iden­ti­ty and con­ti­nu­ity can­not be guar­an­teed through eth­no-nation­al­ism, through the sep­a­ra­tion of our des­tiny and our strug­gle from that of oth­er peo­ples, through the col­o­niza­tion of oth­ers’ land. We are pained to see Beinart, and near­ly every­one else to the right of him, excom­mu­ni­cate us from the Jew­ish com­mu­nal tent with the tired excuse that it is we who, in our embrace of BDS, have cho­sen to sev­er the bonds of Jew­ish peoplehood.”

Con­trary to Beinart’s claims, being on the Left is not a suf­fi­cient Jew­ish iden­ti­ty” for most of us. Many of us found a home in main­stream Jew­ish spaces like Hil­lel, until we were painful­ly exclud­ed for our polit­i­cal beliefs. Many of us still stay in Hil­lel, and have to hide our full Jew­ish selves in those hos­tile anti-BDS spaces. Many of us build our own Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties at the mar­gins, in spaces like JVP and con­gre­ga­tions like Tzedek Chica­go, in inde­pen­dent minyan­im, queer chavrusas and rad­i­cal Shab­bat potlucks across the coun­try. For some of us, it is our par­tic­i­pa­tion in the BDS move­ment, in fact, that first leads us to begin to pay atten­tion to our Jew­ish her­itage, and to devel­op last­ing and com­mit­ted Jew­ish identities.

The choic­es Beinart and oth­ers force upon us — between feel­ing the bonds of Jew­ish peo­ple­hood” and feel­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty with the oppressed,” between see­ing the con­flict through Pales­tin­ian eyes” and car­ing about the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty” — are choic­es we reject as false and shame­ful dichotomies. 

What Beinart fails to grasp is that for those of us who remain com­mit­ted to Jew­ish life, we do not have to choose between strong Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties on the one hand, and strong mul­ti-faith, mul­ti-cul­tur­al and mul­ti-peo­ple com­mu­ni­ties on the oth­er. Our lives are expan­sive enough to cul­ti­vate Jew­ish spaces (which are them­selves racial­ly and cul­tur­al­ly diverse) and to remain deeply embed­ded in the cul­tur­al­ly, racial­ly and reli­gious­ly diverse spaces that Beinart calls the activist left.” Our Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is informed by, but is not equiv­a­lent to, our left­ism, and vice ver­sa. You will some­times find non-Jews in our rit­u­al spaces, and you will find us in theirs. Our dis­tinct iden­ti­ties are mul­ti­ple and over­lap­ping, and we reject both assim­i­la­tion and iso­la­tion­ism. Our Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties are porous, open, mul­ti-racial, mul­ti-eth­nic and in close rela­tion­ships of account­abil­i­ty with oth­er peo­ples. In a world divid­ed by many oppres­sions, we can­not afford any­thing less.

To be fair, a few of the stu­dents I work with do fit Beinart’s mold. Like many Jew­ish activists of our par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty for some pro-BDS Jew­ish mil­len­ni­als is some­thing per­son­al but not nec­es­sar­i­ly com­mu­nal, often deeply felt but some­times an after­thought, lurk­ing in the back­ground as their pri­ma­ry iden­ti­ty and com­mu­ni­ty remains, as Beinart describes, the activist left. Some of these folks grew up with a strong fam­i­ly affil­i­a­tion to main­stream Jew­ish insti­tu­tions, but many did not. Their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is often strong for them, but Beinart is right to observe that, for these Jews, it is not how they prin­ci­pal­ly define them­selves, and does not dri­ve them to seek out Jew­ish communities.

Why does Beinart paint Jew­ish pro-BDS mil­lenials like me as detached from Jew­ish com­mu­nal life and iden­ti­ty? Maybe he wants to por­tray lib­er­al Zion­ists like Simone Zim­mer­man as the good Jews” who still care about the Jew­ish peo­ple and so, as a foil, he needs to char­ac­ter­ize us as the non-Jew­ish Jews” who don’t. But not only is that inac­cu­rate and offen­sive, it makes a mock­ery of the very val­ues of inclu­sion he claims to cher­ish and admire. The pow­er and promise of IfNot­Now, the anti-occu­pa­tion move­ment start­ed by Zim­mer­man and oth­er for­mer J Street U stu­dents, is that, so far at least, it brings pro- and anti-BDS Jews, Zion­ist and anti-Zion­ist Jews togeth­er in a broad com­mu­ni­ty of prayer and song, resis­tance and strug­gle against com­mu­nal com­plic­i­ty in the occu­pa­tion. By plac­ing Jews like me out­side the bonds of Jew­ish peo­ple­hood” and claim­ing we are post-Jew­ish uni­ver­sal­ists who don’t care about the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, Beinart rein­forces the very divi­sions and exclu­sions he prais­es mil­len­ni­als like Zim­mer­man for break­ing down.

We’re not ask­ing or wait­ing for Peter Beinart, or any­one across the spec­trum of the orga­nized pro-Israel Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, to cer­ti­fy us as kosher. With each pass­ing day pro-BDS Jew­ish mil­len­ni­als like me are orga­niz­ing new inde­pen­dent Jew­ish spaces of learn­ing and wor­ship, invent­ing new rit­u­al and act­ing Jew­ish­ly with JVP, IfNot­Now, Open Hil­lel and oth­er move­ments. We are in rab­bini­cal school, and we are rab­bis. We are teach­ers in Hebrew School and coun­selors in Jew­ish sum­mer camp. We too recite Kad­dish out­side of, and some­times occu­py, Jew­ish Fed­er­a­tion build­ings — in fact, we’ve been doing it for years — because we care deeply about our col­lec­tive Jew­ish future. This Pesach, we’ll put olives and oranges on our Seder plates and drink to our col­lec­tive liberation.

And Peter Beinart is right that, as the BDS move­ment accel­er­ates in the larg­er world, our move­ment of young pro-BDS Jews is grow­ing in the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. We’re not going any­where, and we’re here to stay. And there are more of us than he may think.

Ben Lor­ber is Cam­pus Coor­di­na­tor for Jew­ish Voice for Peace.
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