How the Democratic Party Alienates Young Jews: A Reply to Alexis Grenell

Not since the epic 2007 debate between Katha Pollitt and me over the saga of jailed quarterback Michael Vick have I written a public response to a Nation colleague. But I feel obligated to register my disagreement with fellow Nation journalist Alexis Grenell’s article “How The Left Alienates American Jews.” Rather than go through her column point by point and respond to each individual charge against the pro-Palestinian left, I want to give some context to why I believe her piece has evoked such a strong response.

There is an ongoing effort being waged to separate the Palestinian cause from the ecosystem of the Democratic Party. For some of those involved, the reasons may well be sincere. But the efficacy of their efforts is being stymied by a young generation of American Jews who are standing in solidarity with Palestinians like no time since the dispossession of Palestinian land that preceded the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Appalled by occupation, oppression, and apartheid, they see solidarity with the Palestinian people as not only a moral imperative but also central to a broader fight against anti-Semitism and all forms of oppression. Just as powerfully, they are saying “not in my name” and delinking our remarkably resilient 4,000-year religion and culture with support for a 74-year-old hyper-militarized ethno-state. They are saying that the trauma intertwined with so many of our family histories—the Holocaust, the pogroms, and the organized violence that sent our grandparents and great grandparents across the ocean—must not be used and exploited by the Israeli state to justify the oppression of the Palestinian people. They are saying that modern traumas such as the Tree of Life massacre or the Nazis in Charlottesville chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” or the January 6 Confederate/Trumpist putsch or the recent synagogue hostage taking in Austin, Tex., will not be weaponized to back a state whose most rabid supporters include a class of right-wing evangelical billionaires who have funded and egged on this anti-Semitic wave of violence at home. These evangelical power brokers are people who love Israel and hate Jews. For young Jewish Americans, the embrace of these forces by the Israeli right is amoral and appalling.

This development has had people like Benjamin Netanyahu and the current Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, in a panic, believing that the Israeli cause is losing a generation of American Jews. Donald Trump articulated this in his usual blunt fashion when he said, “The Jewish people in the United States either don’t like Israel or don’t care about Israel.… the evangelical Christians love Israel more than the Jews in this country.”

This is overblown, but there is a kernel of truth in Trump’s anti-Semitic ravings and Netanyahu’s fears. As Peter Beinart wrote presciently in 2010, “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.” Now, a quarter of all US Jews describe Israel as “an apartheid state,” and the younger the respondent the more likely they are to agree with this characterization. Seeing organizations like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace launch and grow has been one of the most positive developments for the broader left in the past 20 years. It has returned a young generation of Jews to the places of their grandparents and great grandparents who made up the backbone of the radical and socialist traditions in the United States. That chain of connection was delinked as Jews advanced in US society, became Americanized, were absorbed primarily into the Democratic Party, and in turn saw support for Israel—and defending Israel’s crimes—as central to their identity. Now, we are seeing young Jews not only stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people but also be part of the movement connecting the oppression of Palestinians with the oppression faced in Black and brown communities in the United States. This has provoked an incredible growth in political consciousness and solidarity in the face of an American apartheid that occupies communities in a military fashion, using hardware that even the IDF would envy.

Grenell’s article is best understood as a repudiation of these developments, aimed at marginalizing the radical politics that have brought life to the Jewish left for the first time since the 1960s. This is seen in the meat of Grenell’s argument, which decries the efforts of grassroots members in Democratic Socialists of America to expel Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) for his voting for $3.3 billion in direct military aid, a second $1 billion vote to fund Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, and then the visit to Israel during which he posed with far-rightist Prime Minister Bennett.

Should the Democratic Socialists of America support politicians with this kind of voting record? Grenell and many other people I respect in the movement, including the aforementioned Beinart, say yes. They believe that you support a Jamaal Bowman in the name of greater influence and by extension a greater good. They also say that he’s miles better than 99 percent of everyone in Congress, and it would be foolish to push him away.

I say no. I don’t think you build movements for social change by checking your friends at the door. This isn’t how you build a force for change. It’s how you tear any bonds of solidarity to shreds. Grenell believes it “alienates” Jewish people from the left when these efforts at Palestinian solidarity are put forward. But when that solidarity is squelched, we alienate social-justice-minded young Jews—and young people more broadly—from a Democratic Party that bends over backward to support the Israeli occupation.

This gap between the Democratic Party leadership and the rank and file on the question of Palestine has never been wider. It is a migraine headache for Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and others who want to go with the decades-long status quo of uncritical support. Every convention is now a pitched battle between the old guard and grassroots delegates, many of them Jewish, Black, and Palestinian, who want to put opposition to the occupation in writing. Pointing out these divisions, to paraphrase the late historian Howard Zinn, is not divisive. It’s a prerequisite to resolving them. As Jews, we should resolve on principle to stand with the Palestinian people and say loudly that it is in the best tradition of our faith to do exactly that. Does “the left” make some Jews feel uncomfortable? Maybe sitting in discomfort and reflection about what Israel is doing in our name is actually a healthy development. Maybe what’s truly uncomfortable is when we are pressured to be silent in the name of staying connected to the corridors of power. Politics such as this amount to a repudiation of the very faith that has sustained us for so many years. If we are going to be “progressive except for Palestine,” then not only are we talking about a left not worth its name; we are talking about building a movement destined for failure.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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