Just weeks after thousands of Israel advocates applauded Donald Trump at AIPAC, some of the same voices attempted a coordinated campaign to force Bernie Sanders to back off from his progressive positions on Israel before a Brooklyn debate.
Sanders refused to back down in the debate. In order to solve the Mideast conflict, he argued, we are going to have to treat “the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.” While he noted that he was “100% pro-Israel,” he also said that “there comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.”
But hours before the debate, the Sanders campaign did suspend its young newly-hired Jewish outreach coordinator, Simone Zimmerman, over her angry social media posts about Israel, which the Israel activists on the right used to generate a media firestorm over Sanders’s positions.
What this firestorm says about our Jewish community is deeply upsetting.
These leaders continue to send clear signals to our young people about who and what is acceptable in their Jewish community. If they want to know why young people are turning away from Judaism, they just gave a crash course in it.
Faced with a choice between Abe Foxman and Bernie Sanders, young Jews will choose Bernie Sanders. And, increasingly, they will choose people like Simone Zimmerman.
I’ve watched scripts like this one unfold for more than a decade as a Jewish pro-peace activist. It’s not only about the fact that good people get hurt in the process, but about the fact that the enforced narrowness of the debate is actually terrible for Jews and for Israel.
We Jews become known almost exclusively for our so-called leaders’ right-wing leanings on Israel, rather than for the spiritual and ethical tradition that I love and that inspires me every day. We alienate our young people, who may choose to opt out of the Israel conversation entirely rather than suffer the slings and arrows of their community’s elders.
We need the next generation of Jews to help our community articulate and sustain an ethical path on the issue of Israel. It would be a shame if our young people learn from moments like these that the Jewish community would rather they stopped and checked their Jewish values at the doors of Jewish institutions.
Of course, the overall positive change in the substance of the debate matters more than what this or that Jewish staffer says. The days when Democratic politicians competed over who can be more one-sidedly and blindly pro-Israel are ending. The rules of the political game on Israel are changing, and the ground is shifting — albeit slowly.
And with the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank about to enter its 50th year, it is way past time for old political paradigms on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to change.
Isaac Luria lives in Brooklyn with wife Rabbi Sara Luria and three young children. He was formerly the Communications Director of J Street.