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Looking Past Bibi: A Letter to College Students from a Young, Jewish-American WASP

04/15/2015 01:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

For many college-age Jewish-Americans, last month's unexpectedly strong reelection victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu was not a unique catastrophe that pitted our progressive values against the ultra-conservative, maximalist brand of Netanyahu's Zionism. It was instead the latest link in a chain of heartache and disappointment that now spans the entirety of our adult lives. In the last six years of the Netanyahu Administration, we've watched helplessly as Israel's once-and-future Prime Minister blindsided our President and our government, made us choose between our liberalism and our Zionism, and co-opted our Judaism for his politicking. That is what these election results hurt so much. We thought this could end.

In the mild-mannered Isaac Herzog, the leader of the center-left Zionist Union and the main challenger to Netanyahu, progressive Jewish-Americans had perhaps found their answer to Bibi's bombast. Herzog, for the first time, articulated a vision of Israel that belonged unapologetically to those whom Ari Shavit, in his bestseller My Promised Land, humorously calls WASPs: White Ashkenazi Supporters of Peace. This WASPish Zionism is as fervent and genuine as the Zionism of Netanyahu or of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. It embraces Israel's breathtaking history -- both in the context of the Jewish people and of Western Civilization writ large -- and hopes that its future will be equally awe-inspiring. But it also holds that the Jewish State cannot be anything but a robust democracy, and that such a democracy cannot shrink from its place in the world simply because it lives in a "bad neighborhood."

In the United States, WASPs predominate the Jewish population: Ashkenazi [European] Jews who flooded New York at the turn of the twentieth century and who have, ever since, been an integral part of liberal and Democratic coalitions: from FDR's to MLK's to Barack Obama's. In Israel, however, the power of the WASP has waned since the founding days of the Polish-born David Ben Gurion, and this most recent failure of the Israeli left proves that secular peaceniks will not likely stand at the helm of Jewish State for a very long time.

The failure of the Israeli elections to provide a Shakespearean end to Netanyahu's astoundingly hubristic political career leaves college-age, Jewish-American WASPs grappling with some very tough questions. We must ensure that our generational definition of Zionism does not become so inflexible that those who refuse to stand with Bibi are intimidated into thinking that they do not "stand with Israel." This will be a nearly impossible, because the allure of Benjamin Netanyahu has, in recent years, been made almost mystical: the Jewish establishment within the United States, aided by dominant Israeli conservatives, have made support for Netanyahu's policies seem a natural and necessary outgrowth of Jewish identity. One need only look at the rightward shift of AIPAC on Iranian negotiations, or the ostracization of the anti-Netanyahu J Street, to see this playing out. Our elders have allowed Netanyahu to style himself as a world-historic guardian of Jews and of the West, and they will seek to link his dramatic crusade against the Obama Administration to his equally dramatic reelection. Young Jewish-Americans must reject that link, and we must be unafraid to disentangle Bibi's paleolithic, paranoid politics from our Jewishness and our Zionism -- before it is too late.

Let us be clear: Benjamin Netanyahu remains Prime Minister not because he successfully anointed himself an Israeli Winston Churchill, but because he allowed himself to devolve into an Israeli George Wallace. All the drama over his speech to Congress, all the division he sowed among American lawmakers and American Jews, did nothing to arrest his slide in the polls. What saved him, in the end, were his race-baiting comments about Arab Israelis and his inflammatory rejection of a two-state solution. He has already walked back these remarks, but they cannot be unsaid and they must not be forgotten. When push came to shove, Netanyahu's pitch was not a heroic defense of a Jewish homeland or of Western values; it was a tribal amalgam of fears and of hatreds that exist in every society but ought to be exploited in none. It was cowardly, cynical, and toxic to American Zionism and American Jewishness.

What must now be said to college campuses across America is that Benjamin Netanyahu is not the standard-bearer for Zionism, much less for Jews. This means that his tragic reelection does not make the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement any less of a Trojan Horse for unproductive anti-Israelism and, indeed, anti-Semitism. The ugliness that has followed in the wake of BDS -- from UCLA to UC Berkeley all the way to my own Cornell campus -- proves that the movement, while having minimal impact on the economy of Israel, hardens the hearts and narrows the minds of all the students involved. Thoughtless attacks on the Jewish state will only lead to thoughtless defenses of the Jewish State. Rational actors cannot expect chants of "five, six, seven, eight, Israel is an apartheid state" to be met with anything more nuanced than "wherever I stand, I stand with Israel." Those all-too-familiar catchphrases embolden anti-Israel arguments, which depend on the assumption that all American Zionists have an uncritical and unconditional commitment to the Israeli status quo. They also strengthen the power of men like Sheldon Adelson and Netanyahu himself, who would prefer young Jewish-Americans to think themselves isolated, antagonized, and in need of a guardian like Bibi. Anti-Zionist groups like Students for Justice in Palestine might expect to thrive in an environment when Israeli policy is mired in the past, but they should not be allowed to gain even a facade of centrism because the government it opposes has lost its own. What we need now more than ever is an environment in which young Americans can rediscover the promise and purpose of Israel without being menaced by the shadows of either Netanyahu or of BDS.

The new, rightist coalition in the Knesset will anger fair-minded college students dozens of times during its time in power, but voices of protest need to nuanced enough to distinguish between that coalition and the myriad Israeli and American Jews who detest everything for which it stands. I am filled with dread imagining what will happen if Jewish-American students feel that they must choose between supporting BDS or supporting the prime minister who spat in the face of their President, who revels in anti-Arab fear-mongering, and who entrenches the Israeli-Palestinian status quo.

But the greatest burden lies not with college students who have been marginally engaged in the discussion of Israel and Palestine, nor even with the students who have supported BDS resolutions in the past and might be more now be eager to do so again. It certainly does not lie with small-minded anti-Semites; the swastikas they draw are only a distraction from all the work we have to do. The students facing the greatest challenge after Netanyahu's atrocious victory are the Jewish-American students, WASPs and otherwise, who form the backbone of their generations' support for Israel. While students associated with BDS have to realize that Netanyahu's government is not synonymous with Zionism or Jewishness, Hillels and Israel advocacy groups across the nation must take great steps to distance themselves from Bibi. Their task will be complicated by the prevailing brand of campus Zionism, which manifests itself on campus through anodyne celebrations of Israeli tech startups, medical innovations, Birthright, camels, and hummus. Hillel and other umbrella organizations tout this camels-and-hummus vision of Israel without acknowledging the inherently political implications of presenting such an uncomplicated, happy-go-lucky version of Zionism. To challenge this exultant extravaganza would mean to rise up against the cultural safe-haven that is the reason Hillel exists in the first place. Despite being underwritten by right-wing groups like StandWithUs and CAMERA, this brand of Zionism can present itself as mainstream because of its almost visceral affiliation with campus Jewishness. By papering over the escalating ugliness of the Netanyahu regime, it in effect endorses the Israeli status quo simply because it is Israeli. Dissidents, therefore, are made to feel not only like political outsiders, but cultural outsiders as well. For Jewish college students in search of familiarity and friendship, this is an agonizing and nearly impossible thing to do, whatever their political preferences.

This ossified institutional structure of campus Jewish life will, in Bibi's benighted age, have catastrophic implications not only for collegiate Zionism, but also for collegiate Jewishness. The rise of camels-and-hummus Zionism is not a malicious phenomenon -- what is the point of having a Jewish State if Jews worldwide cannot celebrate its beauty? -- but it now risks associating Jewish life on campus with the new, rightist coalition in the Knesset, which will spend the next months challenging beliefs held by many young Americans If we allow Netanyahu's genteel, post-election doublespeak to excuse his heinous, pre-election tirades, his government will return once more to its supra-political perch atop Jewish campus life. But now, since his reelection has earned him such ill will among Americans and others, even more conservative pro-Israel students have to realize that the implicit politicalization of Jewish life on campus will isolate Jewish students from their non-Jewish peers, who might think that a harmless "I Love Israel" sticker is an endorsement of anti-Arabism and Revisionist Zionism (though it is not). It will also cause splinters within Jewish communities, as Jewish-American WASPs struggle to stay connected to a cultural organization in which profoundly regressive politics are presented as harmless, mainstream, and paradoxically apolitical. Once upon a time, perhaps standing with an Israeli government was apolitical, palatable to conservatives and liberals alike, but we cannot pretend that this longed-for past exists any longer. If these young Jewish discontents are not allowed to raise their voices, and to make it clear to the greater community that support of Israel is not implicit, even grudging, support of Netanyahu, then collegiate Jewishness itself will wither away, until only those comfortable with hardline Likudnik politics remain. That tragedy can only be averted if organizations like Hillel recognize the dark times ahead require an active disentanglement from Netanyahu and his politics, not a passive expectation that Jews and non-Jews alike will look forgivingly upon the default appearance of partisanship.

The key to this re-orientation of Jewish communities on campus is held by the very discontents who now feel uncomfortable with the political leanings of more established Zionists. Progressive Jewish-American students cannot walk away from Israel, just as conservative Jewish-American students must walk away from Netanyahu. It will be hard to remain a liberal Zionist when the Jewish State appears to be careening towards a dismal, one-state nightmare that will explode its racial, democratic, and religious tensions. But it is at precisely this moment that a new generation of American Zionists needs to take center-stage, and we must do so without shame or hesitation. For too long we've been reflexively defensive about our liberal Zionism, as if we've needed to apologize for our concerns about Israeli democracy and a Jewish-American identity that is inextricably bound up with the AIPAC agenda. Our relatives have questioned our intentions, and our friends have assumed our antipathy towards Israel even as they've been willing to accept the theocratic and bellicose rhetoric of Benjamin Netanyahu as "necessary evils" to protect the Jewish State. And, to be frank, we have not done much to help ourselves: monthly appearances by "Breaking the Silence," supplemented by candlelit vigils and fundraisers for the innocents in the Gaza Strip, have only invited accusations that left-leaning groups like J Street U are a sort of Zionist fifth column, happy to remain rebellious provocateurs who are more interested in harping on Israel's imperfections than seeking to contribute meaningfully to its betterment. This, of course, is not true, but its appearance of plausibility has allowed far-right smears like "The J Street Challenge" to gain traction. If Hillels have to realize the implications of their camels-and-hummus Zionism, then liberal Jewish-American students need the self-awareness to admit that their movement needs to mature into something more than a well-intentioned but sometimes tone-deaf protest of the occupation and of Sheldon Adelson.

What left-leaning Jewish-American youth should do now -- what we must do -- is revive the moribund Zionism of Ari Shavit's WASP. Together, we have to reject altogether the conservative paradigm of American Zionism that assumes we are the opposition. When left-leaning students too openly relish their role as a thorn in a politicized Hillel's side, their small victories become pyrrhic, because they are intimating to the larger Jewish community that they are destined to be only the thorn and not, one day, the rose itself. Isaac Herzog so inspired us because he repudiated the core tenets of Bibi's Israel: that liberals will, either in negotiating with Palestinians or thinking rationally about Iran or embracing the enfranchisement of Israeli Arabs, contradict the mission of the Jewish State. That is not true, and we should be shouting that in America more loudly than Herzog did in Israel. The stakes could not be higher. Our generation must reclaim the humanitarian Zionism that had Abraham Joshua Heschel marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the noble Zionism that brought Bill Clinton to tears at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. Ours is not a morally equivocating Zionism, that has lost sight of Herzl's dream and Ben Gurion's reality because of Gaza. Ours is a Zionism that proudly declares that the Israel we love is an Israel that pushes for enfranchisement, equality, and a dignified peace. Ours is a Zionism that wants Israel to be the glory and the envy of the Western World, not simply more just than the terrorists and dictators that surround it. Ours is a Zionism that believes the Jewish State must be our refuge and our star, not a sectarian battlefield dominated by far-right nationalists and ultra-religious traditionalists who seem hell-bent on creating a pariah state, which will be unrecognizable to a generation of Jews whose religious identity is defined more by Einstein, Seinfeld, and Jon Stewart than it is by Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus. This is what we must tell our campuses.

If we are honest, if we are bold, and if we tell our Jewish peers that it is safe and decent to hope for a better Israel without abandoning your affection for Israel, we have a chance of breaking Bibi's spell. He will spend his remaining time in power doing everything he can to convince our generation that Zionism has fallen away from its lofty founding ideals, and we must show them that he is wrong. If we don't -- if we don't sever our campus Jewishness from its unspoken allegiance to the Israeli status quo -- then Bibi's cynicism and blossoming radicalism will cause young Jewish-Americans to flee in droves from a country, a cause, and a culture that they mistakenly think to be too diametrically opposed to their worldview. As we face this widening and dangerous chasm, we must prove to our generation that the mighty partnership between the United States and Israel need not dissolve into a cynical alliance between Netanyahu and his American allies. Because, despite the election results, such a disfigurement of American Zionism is not the victory that Benjamin Netanyahu has earned, much less the one that he deserves.