The topic no candidate wants to talk about

Tuesday, March 10, 2020 - 12:12pm

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Design by Noah Finer

On Feb. 6, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., made headlines when she announced she would not be attending the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), conference in Washington, D.C. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., followed suit a few weeks later, citing concern “about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” In late February, these candidates were also joined in their boycott by candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg.

AIPAC advertises its mission as to “strengthen, protect and promote the United States-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.” Its conference, held each year in D.C., provides a space for speakers from around the world to speak, largely in defense of Israeli policies and U.S. support for Israel.

Democratic candidates saying “no” to AIPAC is a big deal. The mainstream Democratic party has not historically taken strong viewpoints regarding Israel/Palestine policy — the default stance for prominent Democratic politicians has been to affirm American support for Israel and to support the establishment of a two-state solution. In general, the Democratic party of the past two decades has branded itself as a primarily pro-Israel party.

This election cycle, however, progressive Democratic presidential candidates are breaking out of this mold. Warren and Sanders have both criticized Israeli military actions over the past few years; following a wave of violence in November of 2019, Sanders and Warren spoke out against the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Both candidates have also called for conditioning American military aid to Israel. And as the Washington Post reported, 2020 is the “first time top contenders — Sanders and Warren — have boycotted the massive American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.”

This decision was wildly unpopular among many Jewish Americans. But it was also applauded by many, significantly by the liberal Jewish movement IfNotNow, which had done a lot of the organizing work through their #SkipAIPAC campaign that resulted in candidates boycotting the conference.

I fall into the latter camp of Jewish Americans, those who are happy to see candidates saying no to blind Israel support. But I didn’t always identify this way.

I grew up attending a reform synagogue in Southern California, with a circle of lefty-ish Jewish family friends. My community didn’t talk about Israel/Palestine very much — my only concrete memory of anything vaguely controversial is my Rabbi making some general comment about the importance of peace and justice for all. The general understanding seemed to be that Israel was important, our connection to it as Jewish Americans was important, but we didn’t need to get too much into the weeds of the matter.

Therefore, I came to the University of Michigan not really having an idea of how I felt about Israel. I went to University of Michigan Hillel for Shabbat a few times. I heard my Jewish peers talk about how important Israel was to them, about how Palestinian student activists were motivated primarily out of anti-Semitism, about how it was necessary to shut down criticism of Israel at any possible opportunity.

This is what it meant to be Jewish, I figured. Being Jewish equated with supporting Israeli politics unequivocally, wholeheartedly, unabashedly. 

But something didn’t sit quite right with me. I’d read some articles on Palestinian movements, taken a class on the history of the Middle East. I couldn’t quite get behind the idea of supporting Israel at all costs, even at the expense of others — which I was deeply ashamed of. I thought to myself, I must just not be Jewish enough to fully get it. 

My Jewish upbringing had been unconventional, this is true. My father was raised Catholic, and my mother, despite being ethnically Jewish, was raised almost entirely secular. It wasn’t until later in life that she started actively practicing — formulating a Jewish community around her, hosting Passover Seders, lighting the candles for Shabbat on Friday nights. So, I didn’t grow up with passed-down recipes for matzo ball soup or a traditional challah cover. My family learned traditions from our Jewish family friends, adopting new ones, slowly recreating a sense of Jewish identity for ourselves.

For a long time, this was something I was immensely insecure about, especially when surrounded by my peers who had attended Jewish day school their whole lives, and who had grandparents and great-grandparents sitting around the table with them at the Seder table every year.

It wasn’t until I met other young Jewish students who felt uneasy about Israeli politics that I realized I wasn’t alone. The realization that there were young people out there who both cared deeply about being Jewish and felt uncomfortable with the unconditional support of the state of Israel was huge for me. Sophomore year, an organizer from J Street — an organization that promotes itself as simultaneously supporting Israeli and Palestinian rights — asked me to grab coffee. When she told me about her views on Israel/Palestine, and how for her, being Jewish made her want to make the state of Israel better — I cried.

I realized that having doubts about Israel didn’t make me less Jewish. In fact, perhaps my Jewish values were the very reason I harbored doubts about unconditional support for Israel. My Jewish community taught me to think critically, to ask questions, to not accept stories at face value. The history of Judaism is a history of arguing and questioning; about how to interpret the Torah and how to live one’s life.

My Jewish community also taught me to value empathy and support for other people. One of my strongest memories of Hebrew School growing up is the emphasis on tikkun olam, or “repair the world.” To be Jewish, I was taught, was to make the world better for everyone, not just the Jewish people.

This is why I’m glad that by mainstream candidates denouncing AIPAC, the Democratic Party seems to be moving in a new direction — a direction that acknowledges the American Jewish community is by no means a monolith. A direction that can at once take into account the significance Israel carries as a stronghold of Jewish identity for many Jewish Americans while also calling out the nation when it enacts policies or takes military actions that threaten Palestinian human rights.

As of Warren’s exit from the 2020 presidential race, Sanders remains the lone Democratic candidate willing to bring these conversations to a national stage. He is also a proud Jewish American — something he doesn’t hesitate to talk about. Seeing Sanders simultaneously defend his Jewish heritage and his support for Palestinian human rights gives me hope for the future of the American Jewish community and the Democratic party.

I still think the Democratic party has a long way to go. I would love to see politicians explicitly calling Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza occupation and vocally opposing settlement expansion (a campaign that J-Street affiliated students are working on across the country). But I’m happy that we seem to be making some progress, however small it might be.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an ugly, complex, gnarly problem, and discussion about it is, too. In my classrooms at the University, I hesitate to speak openly about my political viewpoints on the matter, even after actively developing and deepening them over the course of the past few years. Which is understandable, when there’s so many identities at stake. I get it. But I also think we need to start talking about it, on a national stage, in a way that is productive and nuanced. 

I can’t speak for Palestinian students on this matter. I also can’t speak for other Jewish students — my Jewish lived experience varies dramatically from that of my peers. What I do know, however, is that come this election season, what I want to see is a Democratic party candidate who acknowledges the spectrum of perspectives on Israel/Palestine, and who doesn’t equate Judaism with unconditional support for Israel. I want to see a candidate who calls out human rights violations and pushes Israel to be a better state — because that’s what my experience and my Jewish values have taught me.