July 18, 2019

The New Jewish Temper Tantrum

There’s a new specter haunting liberal rabbis, educators and parents. A decade ago it was J-Street — until Jewish Voices for Peace’s (JVP) anti-Israel venom made J-Street look tame. For about five minutes it was JVP until it became clear how unhinged — and marginal — that organization is. But now, what organization strikes fear in the hearts of baby boomer Jews — IfNotNow (INN)!

INN has mastered the reverse guilt trip — from kids to grown-ups. The organization’s “You Never Told Me” campaign has idealistic young people saying, “We were never told the honest truth about the Occupation.”

An angry frontal assault, JVP-style, is easiest to resist — your muscles tense and you push back. But this… These are graduates of our finest day schools and summer camps. These are insiders who spent their Memorial Day Weekend running “Camp Counselor Training on the Occupation” — for counselors preparing to lead this summer in at least “eight Reform, Conservative and liberal Zionist camps,” according to JTA.  

These ideologues are spreading Jewish guilt. They kill the conversation — and three-dimensional, truly critical thought — with apparent kindness, but often mask the harsh, one-sided political agenda they push.

The historian’s favorite text is context. INN distorts context repeatedly, starting with its name. “If not now” is the last of Hillel’s three phrases in “Ethics of the Fathers” 1:14, generating a three-dimensional vision, not a Johnny-one-note slogan. 

These ideologues are spreading Jewish guilt. They kill the conversation — and three-dimensional, truly critical thought — with apparent kindness, but often mask the harsh, one-sided political agenda they push.

Hillel starts, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That suggests that the Zionism 101 you necessarily first encounter in school and camp must establish your fundamental identity, your core loyalties. Jews who teach Jewish identity through a Palestinian lens or start Zionist history with the Palestinian problem are as foolish and confused as Palestinians who teach Palestinian identity through Zionism (but, alas, far more prevalent — not many Palestinians are “you-never-told-me-ing” their parents).

Hillel’s sayings suggest a values hierarchy. Identity comes before altruism. And self-preservation comes first; if people threaten you, defend yourself. Once you’re safe, only then do you process others’ motives, your enemies’ troubles.

The second teaching INN neglects is also challenging. “But if I am only for myself,” Hillel asks, “who am I?” We all know America too well to accept the smugness of those who reduce Israel to “the Occupation,” without addressing America’s ills. I’m not talking President Donald Trump here. Wander around those areas you dare not visit in any major American city — as I did in Atlanta recently, visiting Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached. Welcome to the desolation. Note the epidemic of broken buildings and broken lives. Note that the once-racially loaded term “the underclass” now includes Blacks and whites crushed by the opioid epidemic and America’s deindustrialization. Millions of Americans aren’t enjoying most INN Jews’ happy-dappy upper-middle-class bubble.

If these INNers consider not being “only for myself,” why not scrutinize neighborhoods mere miles from them, rather than caricaturing a target 6,000 miles away?

Do these students confront their parents, saying, “You never told me our wealth comes from Mommy or Daddy stripping working-class people of jobs by exporting them abroad or leveraging them out of existence”? … “You never told me about your creative tax deductions that helped finance our grand house and lavish lifestyle”? …  … “You never told me how monstrous our ecological footprint is — no matter how many newspapers we recycle”? … “You never told me our full-time nannies have to leave their kids before dawn and come back way after dusk so we can lead our cushy lives and you can enjoy your dual careers”? 

Of course, if INNers ever stop being offended by me for daring to disagree with them (although when they bash Israel they insist we need to learn to criticize one another), they’ll probably respond defensively. They’ll say: “It’s complicated” … “America’s more than the desolation” … “My family’s philanthropic, we give back to the community” … “The situation has improved, but of course there’s still work to do.”

And I’ll respond: “Gotcha!”

Of course it’s complicated. So is Israel’s position, surrounded by Palestinians seeking Israel’s extermination, who have used Israel’s land withdrawals as opportunities for more violence. Israel is much more than “the Occupation.” The rest of Israel is what they were being educated about, in age-appropriate ways. And Israel contributes to the world. But, of course, there’s still work to do, and big mistakes are occasionally made.

But here’s our Trumportunity. Liberal critics of America’s president are showing how to criticize our leaders or their policies without abandoning the nation. No country’s legitimacy hinges on it being perfect — except, apparently, Israel’s.

INN calls itself “a movement led by young Jews to end the American Jewish community’s support for the Occupation.” Oversimplification alert! Most American Jews, like most Americans, support Israel. Most Jews, including most Israelis, wish they could wish the occupation away just like Americans want to wish the desolation away. But good smart people, trying hard, have failed for decades. Maybe the problem’s more complicated. And maybe we also have to scrutinize the Palestinians, assessing their hostility to Israel’s existence.

Moreover, beware categorical statements. The sweeping, self-righteous claim that INNers didn’t receive “an honest Israel education” invites defensiveness. I know some of the accused counselors and teachers can specify moments when they addressed complexity, including discussing the Palestinian narrative — which these students didn’t absorb. Perhaps they were tired. Perhaps it wasn’t age-appropriate. Admittedly, things taught to kids are more simplistic than what they now need to hear as 20-somethings.

Nevertheless, the INNers have a point: all-too-often Israel education is simplistic. Seventeen years ago, I sat on a committee in Montreal and we developed a plan to work complexity into the Jewish day schools’ Israel narrative, grade-by-grade, gradually, sensitively. For 17 years that plan has sat on a shelf.

Israel education often is all-or-nothing. Some leftists only teach through the conflict, while some rightists only teach through a sense of crisis. Both unwittingly make our multidimensional story pivot around the Palestinians. Others teach Israel as this perfect, blue-and-white, fragile glass bowl. The first time a friend or professor challenges that narrative, the whole illusion shatters.

I don’t fear the tough questions. Israel has done much more right than wrong, and far better than most fellow democracies faced with similar enemies. I named my new book “The Zionist Ideas,” not “The Zionist Idea,” to open up the conversation. But INN must decide. Is it going to be a genuinely “honest” constructive, educational force that teaches all three dimensions of Hillel’s verse, or is it actually a politicized attempt to turn Jewish schools and summer camps into Palestinian indoctrination camps, replacing one political theology with another?

Moreover, is INN ready to deal with the moral challenges of Israel education in an age of delegitimization, when Palestinians have created the poisonous context surrounding us?

I know how hard many of us in Zionist and Israel education are working to get it right. Let’s hope these young zealots will realize they are just reinforcing the bad-faith narrative of the pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist left.

Gil Troy, a distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University, is the author of “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow,” published by The Jewish Publication Society.