How the last best tactic we have to fight the occupation might be the most difficult to put into most practice.
American Jewry is complicit in the occupation. American Jews send millions of dollars and thousands of people across the Green Line. We provide financial backing and political legitimacy, oftentimes without even knowing, to the systematic dispossession and subjugation of Palestinians. The organizations that claim to represent us sanction violence against civilians in Gaza, justify martial law for millions in the West Bank, and support racism and incitement in Israel.
In its insistence on the exceptional justness of Israel, the American Jewish establishment has enabled Israel’s slide into exceptional brutality. The values that these organizations once took pride in are hollow, empty words used for cynical political manipulation. That the Anti-Defamation League, emphasis on the defamation, would not condemn the beating of Tariq Abu Khdeir (the American cousin of the Palestinian boy brutally murdered by Jewish extremists) demonstrates the meaningless of what the American Jewish community claims to stand for. The ADL stated it was withholding judgment because the boy was “arrested for participating in a violent demonstration,” which seems to imply that if it was proven that he was involved in a protest, the bludgeoning that a prone and immobile Tariq Abu Khdeir received at the hands of Israeli police would somehow be justified. We know we’ve reached a dangerous political situation when an organization founded “to secure justice and fair treatment for all” is prepared to accept wanton police brutality and summary beatings.
If there is anything this past year has shown, it is that the major American Jewish organizations and their leaders cannot be convinced by any conventional means. No amount of lobbying, petitions, and letter writing swayed the old Jewish men’s club that runs our communal organizations. Whatever green shoots that seemed to suggest a thaw of the communal prohibition against talking about the occupation as an occupation have been stamped down, perhaps forever. No amount of town halls, not that illusory “constituency for peace,” and no volume of university newspaper op-eds can shake the sturdy pipeline through which money—our money and our families’ money—flows directly to the West Bank.
However, this isn’t just a matter of money—it’s a matter of moral legitimacy and symbolic support. Our communal organizations aren’t just subsiding the occupation, they also make it respectable by showing that we, respectable American Jews, disproportionately well educated and active in American public life, sympathize and support the settlement enterprise. They maintain the occupation in our name.
It isn’t enough to try “to change the conversation.” This theory of politics based on discourse—the idea that if we can change the words people use to speak about a given reality, then we can also change the tangible facts of that reality—is inadequate. And as progressives, our experience fighting other systems of oppression should teach us that power has a near infinite capacity to turn attempts to oppose it into support and reinforcement for itself. For example, forcing Hillel International to accept speakers who are not Zionists cannot end the occupation. It may make us feel better, more included perhaps, and give us hope that the critical theory we learned as liberal arts majors might actually have some practical use, but it cannot end the occupation. If anything—and if Hillel’s leaders are just a little smart they will realize this—the veneer of openness would allow Hillel to avoid changing its policies that directly impact the on-the-ground reality in Israel and the occupied territories. “See, look, we’re inclusive of different perspectives and worldviews,” they’ll say, while advertising for summer programs in West Bank settlements. We need something stronger, more decisive, less likely to be used against our goals.
American Jewish supporters of the occupation are better funded, better connected, and better organized than we young progressives will ever be. But we have one crucial advantage: the major Jewish organizations cannot survive without us. And if we can show them in practice that their greatest fears about our disaffection and disaffiliation—evidenced by the innumerable studies they commission to find out what we think—may come true, only then do we stand a chance of winning.
On this side of the Atlantic, the struggle to end the occupation is more than ideological—it’s generational. The generation in power is aging; it can sense its own demise. Out of its fear of obsolescence it attempts to shape the future—us—by courting us with free trips, concerts, and cheap thrills. The American Jewish establishment’s greatest fear is that one day when the time comes to bequeath power to the younger generation, we will abandon its organizations, denominations, and associations. Today, that is only a nightmare for the current Jewish establishment, a potential future that is not necessarily guaranteed to arrive. But we can demonstrate to them the potential of the threat and show them that it is a real possibility—that if they do not end their support for violence and injustice, we will abandon them.
We must boycott, disassociate, and sever ties to organizations that maintain, support, and fund the occupation. This will entail a personal cost that many progressive, Jewish activists have already experienced. It may deprive us of access to the aspects of Jewish life we desire. But we can hope that the deprivation will be temporary. And there are existing alternatives to the sclerotic organizations of our parents’ generation that we can turn to. If we feel something is missing, we can build it. But we cannot expect any attempt to confront injustice to come for free.
The occupation’s American financial infrastructure needs us—our money and our futures—to remain standing, which means that we can bring it down. We can throw away the JNF’s blue boxes that fund the eviction of Palestinian families. We can stop paying organizational dues that go to support the Israeli political Right. We can protest synagogue and community events at which annexationist views are accepted as mainstream. If groups like the Conference of Major Jewish organizations fear the politics of young progressive Jews so much, let’s give them a reason to be afraid.