Zionism is being strangled on college campuses.
Amidst the fear of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to isolate Israel in the manner of apartheid South Africa, billions of dollars have funneled into an alphabet soup of pro-Israel organizations that teach Jewish students to be Israel’s ambassadors on campus. We are the warriors, the “front lines,” the defenders of the Jewish people, the advocates. We have been armed with talking points, swag, funds, professionals and trainings.
In my two years at the University of Minnesota, before I left in 2017 to travel, I was one of these advocates. I helped fight a prolonged BDS campaign in the spring of 2016, and later became an Israel on Campus Coalition fellow, as well as president of the founding chapter of Students Supporting Israel.
In the process, I realized that the Jewish community was wrapped up in a hypocritical conversation about Israel meant for our critics and defined, bluntly, by our “enemies.” We spoke out about the right of Israel to exist and the right of the Jewish people to decide our own future in our historic homeland — self-determination — but never turned around to ask ourselves, “Nu, so what kind of homeland do we want?”
While the diaspora and Israel are undergoing a furious divorce, a generation of young American Jews has been taught to proclaim Zionism as Jewish self-determination in Israel, rather than act on it — as is our Jewish right.
So under the guidance of “pro-Israel,” we’re stuck, helpless, explaining in front of student governments that Israel is a thriving democracy. And then Israel almost deports tens of thousands of African refugees that it has kept disenfranchised and without official status for years. We set up tables on campus with pictures of Jewish, Muslim and Druze IDF soldiers to prove how tolerant Israel is. And then Israel arrests a Conservative rabbi at four in the morning because non-Orthodox weddings are illegal in the country.
And most hypocritical of all is Israel’s nation-state law, passed last July. Jewish students watched, mute, as Israel proclaimed itself the nation-state of the whole Jewish people. Then it told half of that same people — a majority of American Jewry that opposed the law — that because we don’t live there, we don’t get a say in the internal decisions of the country.
And time and time again, Israelis, from the streets of Tel Aviv to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, thank young diaspora Jews for being on the “front lines” against BDS. Fighting the PR war for the country most of us don’t live in.
As this goes on, the American Jewish establishment shoots itself in the foot. Rabbis and donors and lay leaders cry out that Israel doesn’t listen to diaspora Jewry. The Kotel deal is still frozen, with Israeli officials offering only excuses about coalition politics. The Conservative and Reform movements, representing most of diaspora Jewry, still aren’t legally recognized as Jewish denominations in Israel.
But Israeli officials don’t have to listen, because with the consent of American Jewry the diaspora has been subdued. The students — the future of American Jewry — are normalized in a system where they never actually exercise Jewish self-determination.
Hillel, StandWithUs and other pro-Israel organizations don’t organize trainings for Jewish students to learn how to lobby for religious pluralism in Israel. There are no Jewish students on trips to Israel to advocate for the Kotel deal in the Knesset.
And I, a Russian-speaking Jew, have no outlet from campus to advocate for the over 400,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union. Their families, like mine, lived through rampant Soviet anti-Semitism, only to get to Israel and be denied Jewish status by the state.
No ambassadors for ourselves. Only ambassadors for Israel. We are trusted enough to fight an international PR war and lobby campus, state, and federal governments. But not to represent ourselves to Israel, as is our right — ironically written even in the nation-state law itself.
And yes, there are organizations lobbying for diaspora Jewish interests in Israel, providing access points for young Jews to get involved. But there’s a reason Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a once-close confidant of Prime Minister Netanyahu, saw fit to publish two New York Times op-eds in 2018 publicly criticizing Israeli policy.
Because for all the lobbying, Israel still isn’t listening.
This is how Zionism dies in the diaspora: on campus. A real issue — BDS — transformed into the boot and heel of a “pro-Israel” machine that then watches, seething, as an increasing number of young Jews are alienated from Israel, sick of the hypocrisy of being a diaspora ambassador for the Jewish state.
Simply talking about Jewish self-determination won’t lessen the alienation for Jewish students. Only exercising it will. And if the “pro-Israel” machine won’t help students be Zionists, then it will just have to be dismantled.
Lev Gringauz, a freelance writer, attended the University of Minnesota from 2015-’17.