A letter to my daughters in college
To My Daughters:
We didn’t mean to lie to you — it just happened.
We raised you with a rich sense of Jewish life. We sent you to Jewish schools, to Jewish camps, to Israel. We helped found a synagogue in L.A., in no small measure because of you. We wanted to give you the Jewish literacy that we were deprived of as children. We wanted you to experience Judaism both as a source of joy and also as a call to action.
We taught you about the horrors of the Holocaust and the miracle of 1948. We also demanded that you remember that the history of the Jews, your history, compels you to understand that the story of the Exodus is, sadly, never ending, for Jews and non-Jews alike. We boasted of the role of the Jews in the great civil rights movements of the last century and shared the stories of the young Jews who worked to tear down Jim Crow. We proudly showed you pictures of our Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with the great Martin Luther King Jr.
We taught you that you should not be embarrassed by your privilege, but that your privilege calls on you to understand and act on the suffering of others. We taught you to honor your heritage, but we demanded that you avoid the dangers of parochialism and tribalism, of reflexively preferring the interests of your own to the exclusion of the interests of others, especially those less fortunate than you. …
We told you that anti-Semitism exists, but that you should not look for anti-Semitism under every rock.
We taught you of the importance of Israel and to love Israel with all of your heart, while, at the same time, decrying the immorality of the occupation. We taught you that to be constructively critical of Israel is not anti-Semitic, but is rather, an act of chesed, loving kindness, for the people and country of Israel, our people. We told you that if you seek to heal the world, you would be joined by like-minded individuals finding common cause in righting the wrongs of the world — that only through joining forces across religious, national and ethnic lines could the world be restored.
You listened and have focused your passion and intellect on understanding and addressing oppression, in all of its forms. However, despite the best of our intentions, we have let you down.
We’ve recently seen a spate of incidents on college campuses and elsewhere attacking Israel. The tenor of these attacks, whether the anti-Semitic rantings of an Oberlin professor or the pink-washing allegations in Chicago, has fundamentally altered the liberal landscape. It does not matter whether you are supportive of the occupation or opposed to it with all of your heart, if you support and love Israel, according to the logic of these protesters, you’re on the side of the oppressors. Indeed, the mere fact of being Jewish makes you suspect to many of the dominant voices on the far left today. We’ve told you to dismiss such behavior as anti-Semitic. But you’re smart enough to see that as reductive, as some of the criticism of Israel is manifestly justified and some of those people leveling such attacks are Jewish, and not just born Jewish, but feel their Judaism in much the same way you feel it. They, you tell me, feel the same moral imperative of the Exodus story to make the world a better place.
We’ve told you that there are organizations where you can find your people, people who don’t see any contradiction between a commitment to social justice and a commitment to Israel. However, joining organizations such as J Street or New Israel Fund is viewed in some pro-Israel circles as an act of treason. Yet, perversely, membership in such groups does not pass muster with the more extreme elements on the left, where anything short of calling for the destruction of Israel constitutes a rejection of Palestinian rights.
The once-concentric circles of your Jewish community and your social justice community are now more like Venn diagrams with an ever-receding area of commonality. Yet, mercifully, you have not changed — you’re still the living manifestation of our greatest hopes and aspirations, galvanized by the Jewish spirit and imperative of narrowing the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it should be.
I wish I had an easy answer for you. The easiest path would be to pick one of the circles and forget the other. That’s the path that many would take and will take. However, you must not allow yourselves to be bullied into giving up a part of yourself for the sake of ease or social comfort. Such an outcome would be a tragic capitulation to a false choice and a rejection of your birthright. Instead you must join with others in forging a new path — a path that honors the singularity of your Judaism, love and concern for Israel, and the ethical and moral imperatives that guide you. Only by following that path do we have a chance of bringing the once concentric circles back into alignment.
Adam F. Wergeles is a Los Angeles technology lawyer and a co-founder of IKAR.