This week, I attended the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Lecture at Boston University. The topic of the lecture was “U.S. Jews and Israel: Are We Headed for Divorce?” and was headlined by Peter Beinart. The lecture was followed by a panel discussion with Rachel Fish, Eve Spangler and Dov Waxman, moderated by Lori Hope Lefkovitz. In his introduction, professor Michael Zank stated that it was important to discuss the relationships between American Jews and Israeli politics without devolving into a shouting match. This sentiment, while well meaning, seems like a big ask considering the sensitivity of the topic.
Zank began the lecture by stating that as American Jews, we cannot ignore Israel’s actions, since everything that occurs within the global Jewish community reflects back on all of us. This elicited murmurs of approval from the crowd of 335 attendees. In that moment, every Jewish person in the auditorium was imagining a point in their past where someone, perhaps apropos of nothing, asked them a question regarding Israel. Jewish people are smart, but it’s difficult to parse the intricacies of Zionist theory and then explain them to a stranger in line at Chipotle. However, it felt as if everyone had experienced a moment where they were expected to represent the entire Jewish community and deliver a flawless response. But, as Zank quoted, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?” This aphorism, which comes from Hillel, seems to encompass the complex issue of Israeli politics. The room murmured again.
Peter Beinart began his lecture with a quote from a student: “Israel is what I don’t want America to become.” He described the liberal and conservative approaches to Israel, particularly during the Reagan era. Beinart also described the “code switching” necessary to talk about Israel and its prevalence in “secular tribalist” parents.
Beinart split his argument about the Israel discussion into four points:
- Secular tribalist parents have universalist children
- Combat between secular universalists and Orthodox modernists
- Israel’s move to the right
- The rise of Palestinian activism
He then explained each point in detail, examining how young Jewish people have different views from their parents and how their views of Israel have changed over time. The topic was then opened up to the panel for discussion. Waxman framed his argument around the conceit of marriage and divorce with Israel and America as the feuding couple. Spangler described the need for Palestinian voices to be heard in the discussion. The conversation became more focused on Zionist theory and, around this point, the panel started to lose me.
I consider myself pretty good at picking apart jargon and learning from context clues, but Zionist theory laid me out flat. For the next hour, I scribbled words wildly, clinging to the conversation by a thread while processing it 10 seconds later. Arguably, I was not the audience for this panel, but at least a third of the audience was students, and I find it difficult to believe that all of them followed along perfectly. This lost feeling culminated when Fish began to speak, stating that the Jewish youth were unfamiliar with an extensive and complex list of philosophers and the minutiae of their arguments.
As a former English major well acquainted with theory, I understand how alienating high academia can be. The term “ivory tower” doesn’t do it justice; academia makes it abundantly clear that if you can’t keep up, there is no use for you. At a certain point, jargon stops being about education and starts being about who can drop more isms and prove their intellectual superiority.
I was still scribbling, but my skin prickled as a student raised her hand at the end of the panel.
“Who is supposed to teach us this?” she asked. “Where are we supposed to learn about these topics?”
This gave the panel pause. It seemed not to occur to them that the Jewish youth were not born with this knowledge, that the youth might not have time to immerse themselves in theory, that every Jewish kid did not have a Jewish education.
It is entirely possible that I was not the intended audience for this panel, that it existed only for Zionist scholars and Jewish youth with the right education, but what’s the point of a discussion if it excludes members of the group it purports to protect? The tension in the room reached a zenith when Beinart and Fish shot final remarks back and forth, eliciting selective applause from the audience.
I understand, of course, how important and nuanced the topic of Israel is. My own research has been limited due to my upbringing, and the discussion certainly gave me a lot to think about. I hope that as a community, we continue learning and approach each other with empathy as we strive toward a solution.