I just visited five North American universities in a week, stretching from McGill in Montreal toUniversity of Victoria. I discovered more good news – and bad news – than I expected.
First, the good news: I met bright, passionate, thoughtful, committed Jewish students who care about each other, Judaism, Israel and the world. They’re not the cynical, technology-addled, spoiled materialists that pop culture depicts. They’re meaning-seeking millennials, open to viewing Judaism and Zionism as vehicles for finding individual and communal fulfillment.
Many warmed to my challenge to create a revolutionary Judaism to jazz up their Jewish experiences and an “identity Zionism” to use the great adventure called Israel to help find meaning. Many agreed that too much of the Judaism they encountered growing up was staid and superficial, more a turn-off than a turn-on. In some places, we discussed the Kermit kippah controversy I’ve started, lamenting the North American Jewish tendency to sport pop culture figures and team logos on ritual garb. While most were less disturbed than I was, they agreed with my essential point.
I had a major Twitter duel with a friend who insisted that “finding [a] connection to Judaism, whether via Kermit or Clinton or even the Yankees, is a good thing.” I believe that commercializing our sacred spaces is demeaning and looks desperate. “Free advertising for the Chicago Bulls is good for being Bullish, not Jewish!” I replied.
Our students are sophisticated. They can sniff out cheap appeals to popularize and peddle. Most – or at least the ones who showed up – want something more meaningful, authentic and challenging.
Similarly, they understand that our relationship to Israel must transcend “Israel advocacy,” and that we’re too addicted to crisis. We talked about Ze’ev Maghen’s “philosophical rampage” John Lennon and the Jews and his message that just like loving your spouse means singling out that particular special someone, so, too, does identity develop best through preferential love and tribal commitments, rather than a generalized, Lennonist, imagined love of everyone with no borders, boundaries or traction. Israel is countercultural here, especially in our cosmopolitan universities.
But that, ultimately, was my message: make Judaism and Zionism intense, alive, countercultural and subversive. The more it’s simply a cheap imitation of modern culture, the less inspiring it is.
There was bad news, too. First, these students were a small minority. Most of their Jewish peers have checked out. Furthermore, these students, most of whom leaned left politically, were pro-Israel, but dismayed at how leftist forces on campus have rejected them. Most of the campuses I visited, especially out West, had minimal anti-Israel activity. Still, there was a general feeling that leading social justice forces on campus hated Israel.
American political commentator Peter Beinart claims Israel’s policies force Jews to check their liberalism at the door of their Zionism. Now young Jews are being forced to check their Zionism if they want to join campus liberals. The McGill students I met heard this from campus feminists, LGBTQ activists and Black Lives Matter supporters: if you’re a Zionist, keep out.
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With “intersectionality,” the new buzzword in the anti-oppression world emphasizing the overlapping interests of the oppressed, Jews are blocked from that intersection. We have a name for the negative singling out of Jews: anti-Semitism. Even its “kosher” variety – perfumed by human rights and social justice discourse on today’s campus – stinks.
Despite the challenges, I was inspired by the students I met and convinced yet again that while we must refute the lies just enough so as not to be bullied, we cannot let that fight hijack our identities. We should focus on the positive, building a new exciting Judaism and a Zionism that isn’t just about defending Israel, but about finding meaning as Jews and humans in this complicated world.