/ Notes for the Field

Notes for the Field

Welcoming Our College Kids Home to a More Open Conversation about Zionism

Aaron Brusso

Aaron Brusso

Aaron Brusso

Aaron Brusso is Senior Rabbi at Bet Torah in Mount Kisco, New York and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

One month after October 7, I received an email from a young man who grew up in my congregation. He was in my teen learning class when I first arrived in the community, and he’s now a graduate student in his late 20s. He wrote: 

When I was going to Hebrew school, there was a map of Israel upstairs on the wall just outside our classroom. The map showed a very simple version of the story.… A solid mass from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. There was no dotted line around the West Bank.… no indication whatsoever of the complicated history and present of the region, and there was certainly no indication of Palestine, the people or the state. I think that map sums up my Hebrew school education on Israel pretty well.… Israel does not represent all Jews, and its actions do not reflect on the Jewish people as a whole, but at this moment I worry that we as American Jews have made so many around the world believe that it does, and that is a mistake we need to reckon with now.… I think we as a Jewish community can and must do better at this moment. We have to think more carefully about what we are supporting and what is being done in the name of Judaism. 

I set up a meeting with him over Zoom, and I acknowledged that we had not given him the education he needed and did not prepare him for the more complicated versions of the Israel narrative he had encountered in college and graduate school. The simple map he remembered from his classroom represented at best an avoidance of a difficult conversation and, at worst, an erasure of history. I described how we had completely overhauled teen education in recent years to include the truth that, while Jews had an unbroken relationship with the land of Israel over thousands of years, the Jewish return home in the 19th and 20th centuries was also an encounter with another people living there. And that while Zionism was one of modern history’s most successful liberation movements, it also began a complicated relationship with Palestinians that has ranged from open conflict to peace processes and everything in between.  

Around the same time that I spoke with this graduate student, I held a Zoom session for our current college students, many of whom had been through our teen programs after the curricular changes. They reported feeling much better equipped than their peers to not only weather the moment but to engage thoughtfully. They knew more about the history of Israel than their peers, and they were prepared to discuss the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. And, looking around the Zoom, I realized there was one other critical factor: I had been to Israel with most of these students. Over the last 12 years, our synagogue has prioritized family trips to Israel as our primary programmatic engine for Israel engagement. We have brought hundreds of members of our community. The motivating idea is simple. Our community’s commitment to Israel will be deeper and more lasting if the State is a partner in a relationship and not an argument to be made.  It seemed, at least at that moment on Zoom, that through open, nuanced conversations, robust presentations of modern Israeli history, and giving our kids the ability to say “I’ve been there,” we were able to keep our kids in the Zionism camp.  

But then came the encampments.  

I think that those of us who don’t live in virtual spaces the way young adults do can hardly understand the real-world impact social media has on their lives. As I understand it, for the younger generation, engaging in these spaces is not optional. If you don’t post and don’t take a position, your silence speaks for you. At the same time, there is no reward for nuance or deep knowledge in these social media spaces.  

This spring, younger members of my community were seeing their peers post and normalize words like “genocide” and “apartheid” in relation to Israel, and then they would see these peers in class, at lunch, and in the dorm.  

Engaging with these peers on social media was unsatisfying (or worse), so they asked me: should we open up conversations with people in person? Many chose not to engage. 

The encampments brought this background, virtual conversation into real space in real time, making it unavoidable. But instead of making human, face-to-face discussions possible, the encampments simply made clear who stood where. One Jewish college student told me she saw a friend from one of her classes in the encampment, and they approached each other, meeting at the encampment’s edge. Her friend said, “I’m so curious to hear your thoughts on what’s happening in Gaza.” But before the conversation could continue, one of the organizers of the encampment stood between them and discouraged the dialogue.  

One college student told me recently that “on my campus being Zionist is the same thing as being MAGA.”  

The working theory I’ve had as a congregational rabbi is that if I give them more background, more nuance, and a real relationship with Israel they will stand on firmer ground knowing who they are and what they believe. But what if they find that people don’t value those things? And what happens when the conversation shuts down? Here for example is an email I got from a Dartmouth student who grew up in our community:  

It’s hard to decipher whether many of my classmates are actually in support of Palestine, against police coming to campus, or just trying to make themselves feel good by being a part of a trendy cause. Yet, when slogans like “resistance is justified when people are occupied,” “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and comparisons of the KKK to the IDF are chanted across campus, the difference between why people are protesting feels obsolete.  

I certainly don’t agree with what Hamas is doing, but I also don’t agree with much of what Israel is doing. Yet, I can disapprove of some of Israel’s actions while still supporting the existence of the nation and its stability, along with stability in Gaza. At the moment, I am feeling pretty hopeless about the war, as it seems like both leaderships (Hamas and Netanyahu) will lose power if there is a ceasefire, and neither side would necessarily want that.  

Is it worth it to have these conversations, even when it feels like only one side is stating their views? Am I a bad Jew if I don’t actively discuss my opinions out of social pressure? Is that an underlying goal of the protests? Moreover, can I be critical of Israel as a Jew? If I am critical, does that fuel the other side, which fuels antisemitism (which seems to have subtle undertones at my school) and support of Hamas? I also can’t tell if I am questioning my beliefs simply because I am surrounded by disapproval of Israel, and then am I just a byproduct of the protester’s prerogative? 

This student didn’t find their place amongst the encampments but I wonder how prepared our Zionist spaces are for this kind of open questioning?  

In my lifetime I have seen what it takes to shift and broaden a Jewish communal conversation. In the 1980s, it was understood that intermarriage was a clear dividing line between those who were inside the Jewish community and those who were outside. And then, more and more, everyone knew someone who married a person of another background. And then it began to happen in people’s families. In the 2000s it was clear that heterosexuality was the preferred way to partner in the Jewish community and then more and more there was a recognition that many Jewish families include a queer relative. When public conversations move from the political to the personal, they begin to change. Independent of the outcome or where it heads, the more personal an issue becomes, the more the Jewish community has been able to expand to discuss it. 

There has been a generational divide for a long time around the question of whether Israel is strong or vulnerable, but a decade ago it was unthinkable that Zionism would be in question as a core value. But today, different generations are seeing different things happening in Gaza. While the American Jewish progressive left has agitated for a while to introduce a non-Zionist position into the mainstream Jewish conversation, it is only recently that families are coming to me to say that it’s their own child who is questioning this once bedrock value. Will this prove to be the moment that the political becomes personal and love for a family member begins to change the conversation?  

Where are liberal and questioning Zionists to go if there is no place for them to experience community? The ultra-nationalist government in Israel does not help, and often serves to obscure the just nature of the war, giving anti-Zionists the quotes and headlines they need to advance their objective of delegitimizing the Jewish state. The political left’s collapsing of vastly different geographic and historical realities into a simplified frame of oppressor versus oppressed does not help either. Extremism feeds both the online and campus ecosystems. 

I recently attended my daughter’s college graduation. Amongst the thousands of cap-and-gowned students sitting neatly in rows of similitude, there were a few dozen who wore black and white keffiyehs as shawls. Some of them refused to shake the hand of the university president as they crossed the stage. Beyond that there was no loud protest or walkout. It hit me, sitting there and looking at this sea of students, that the headlines have been generated by a minority. There is a silent majority who are not living with the angst that I as a Jewish communal leader experience when I think about these issues. It made me wonder to what extent the immune response of our Jewish communal organizations has been overactive and even unnecessarily combative. Is there a more measured, confident and nuanced response, one that would invite questions and open conversations? Would broadening the spectrum of Zionism help us and our kids through this moment? Can we create spaces modelling the opposite of the encampment’s rigid ideological policing?  

When enough of our kids came home telling us they had a partner of a different background, we began to understand that they weren’t also rejecting Judaism. Instead, we began to see the harm Judaism was doing in rejecting them. When enough of our kids told us they were queer, we finally could see that what was keeping them from building Jewish families was not their lack of desire, but the Jewish communal refusal to recognize their love. The fear in these cases was real, but the personal forced us to move past identities and boundaries to discuss content and values. In the process we realized that Jews with different life experiences, Jews whose lives look different than ours, still care about many of the same things we do.  

The fear now is that by opening up conversations that question Zionism and what it looks like, we might be giving up a core value and beyond that, empowering antisemites. This fear has legitimacy. But what if instead of holding the haters in our heads, we hold our children in our hearts? What would it look like to really talk about Zionism not just as an identity but as an idea? An aspirational idea still in process that can’t be captured by a politician or a policy or a moment. An idea like any other, aspects of which can lie dormant in the cold and then, if cared for and cultivated, suddenly bloom. Maybe we would free it from those who want to turn it into a pejorative, free ourselves from having to defend everything done in its name, and open up a conversation of curiosity with our children.  

In her book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes about people asking for “proofs” of the existence of the divine, saying that, “nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.” When we are feeling threatened, we lose touch with the curiosity and authenticity of truth. Those of us who are concerned about the hostages, the displaced, and those in battle are feeling acutely threatened. But maybe now is the time to push ourselves to allow even more nuance in our communal spaces, and to invite our young adults to bring all of their questions and concerns to us. To welcome them with loving curiosity and a willingness to express our own uncertainties. To have conversations that are critical alternatives to the extreme binaries of the online spaces and the encampments. Or will that only happen when enough people we love come home and tell us they’re not so sure about this Zionism thing?  

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