Symposium: Sarah Leonard

Symposium: Sarah Leonard

I was raised enough of a Jew to take some things for granted: certain blessings rolling off the tongue; instinctual skepticism of pork chops; good deeds ringing in my mind as “mitzvot”; a general support for Israel. I attended a Conservative Hebrew school as a child, lost my faith in God to Holocaust education, and have not voluntarily attended services since the seventh grade. Still, as many a secular, cultural, or spiritual Jew will tell you, you do not escape a Jewish upbringing by skipping services. I know well enough that the feelings toward Judaism and Israel instilled through my upbringing stalk my rational disinterest. These deep-rooted feelings give rise to such impossible desires as that the Jewish state should be different—more just, more compassionate, more understanding of oppression and tragedy—than any other. No amount of conscious secularization can uproot my concern for Israel’s fate or waive the feeling that we owe a special empathy to oppressed peoples.

I was not wholly conscious of these loyalties until recently. Yes, one might talk to Jewish parents or grandparents about, say, the Gaza bombings of 2008-2009 and know that they would shut down. Israel does no wrong. Israel doesn’t mean to do wrong. Hamas wants to annihilate the Jews, sweep Israel into the sea, and don’t we have a right to protect ourselves? Peter Beinart, in his June 2010 essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” projected this experience beyond familial discussions and into the realm of power and policy. Why, he asked, were young Jews ceasing to care about Israel? “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

My connection to Israel throughout high school and into college waned. I despised the united front, the idea of all Jews versus all critics. I would have liked to think that I fit the pollster Frank Luntz’s findings about my generation, as summarized very well by Beinart:

First, “they reserve the right to question the Israeli position.” These young Jews, Luntz explained, “resist anything they see as ‘group think.’” They want an “open and frank” discussion of Israel and its flaws. Second, “young Jews desperately want peace.”….Third, “some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.”

This describes thousands of young Jews on college campuses, but it does not describe the young people most active regarding Israel. Those people, notes Beinart, are increasingly both religious and conservative. They replicate instead of question the strategies of their elders in the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee)-fortified trenches of Zionist politics, the furiously defensive Zionism that needn’t dominate on college campuses but does. To return to the Gaza ...

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