It’s the Jewish New Year and Rabbi Brant Rosen asks: Is the Jewish establishment really able to listen to the next generation of Jews?
“How do we reach Jewish young people?” has long been one of the central mantras of the organized Jewish community – as those of us who work as Jewish professionals can surely attest. But while we wring our hands over the state of the Jewish future, a remarkable new generation of Jews has been knocking insistently at our door.
Case in point:
Almost one year ago, five young Jews disrupted the keynote speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jewish Federation General Assembly in New Orleans. One by one, at five different points during the speech, the activists stood on their chairs, unfurled banners and shouted out in turn:
Young Jews say the settlements delegitimize Israel!
Young Jews say the Occupation delegitimizes Israel!
Young Jews say the siege of Gaza delegitimizes Israel
Young Jews say the loyalty oath delegitimizes Israel!
Young Jews say silencing dissent delegitimizes Israel!
With each successive interruption the shouts from the crowd grew louder and angrier. As security attempted to safely walk them out, one protester was put in a choke hold by a convention attendee and wrestled to the floor. Another conventioneer grabbed a banner and tore it in half with his teeth.
At the very same moment, “Young, Jewish, Proud” launched its website, featuring the “Young Jewish Declaration” – an astonishing statement of purpose that seemed to come directly from the collective heart, mind and gut of this newly-formed youth movement:
We exist. We are everywhere. We speak and love and dream in every language…
We remember how to build our homes, and our holiness, out of time and thin air, and so do not need other people’s land to do so…
We refuse to have our histories distorted or erased, or appropriated by a corporate war machine. We will not call this liberation…
We commit ourselves to peace. We will stand up with honest bodies, to offer honest bread…We are young Jews, and we get to decide what that means.
Predictably, the Jewish establishment wasted no time in excoriating the protesters. Some chided them condescendingly for their “misguided” behavior. Others angrily criticized them for “aiding the enemy.”
As for me, I watched these events unfold with genuine hope for our Jewish future.
After all, weren’t these young people claiming and proclaiming their Jewishness in classic Jewish fashion? Like young Abraham destroying his father’s icons, they stood up to the hypocrisy and corruption of their elders. In the heart of the the largest gathering of American Jewish leaders, these proud young Jews called out their community on its most sacred of sacred cows: namely, the unquestioning, unconditional support of the state of Israel.
In all honesty, I can’t say I’ve ever witnessed as authentic an act of young Jewish self-expression as I did that afternoon at the New Orleans General Assembly.
Yes, as a professional Jew, I’ve participated in the “how can we inspire young Jewish adults?” conversation more times than I care to admit. I’ve watched a myriad of Jewish community-sponsored initiatives come and go. And invariably, all of them focused on what we believed was best for Jewish young people.
But while the Jewish establishment has been excellent at creating and funding expensive projects, we seem to be chronically incapable of actually listening to Jewish young people. We love to tell them how we think they should express their Jewishness, but rarely do we stop long enough to really, truly learn what Jewish passions are driving young Jewish adults today.
Taglit-Birthright Israel – the Jewish establishment’s signature youth initiative – is the most obvious case in point. For well over a decade, we have invested literally hundreds of millions of dollars in providing free, all-expense-paid trips to Israel. The essential goal of these trips, as Birthright’s Marketing Director puts it plainly, is to make Israel “an integral part of every Jew’s identity.”
It’s well known that Birthright was born in response to growing reports that American Jewish young people were becoming increasingly disconnected to the state of Israel. But by rushing to address this issue through a massive multimillion dollar community initiative, we successfully avoided asking some deeper questions.
Could it be that we were afraid to know the answers?
Could it be that young people are becoming disenchanted with Israel because they are becoming increasingly troubled by its treatment of Palestinians? Could it be that growing numbers of young Jews regard Israel more as an oppressive colonial project than a source of Jewish pride? Could it be that in the 21st century world, the identities of young Jews are tied less to Jewish ethno-nationalism than to a more universal vision of liberation?
“Young, Jewish, Proud” is decidedly not the product of a Jewish communal initiative. On the contrary it is a grass-roots, self-organized effort of young Jews who seek to express their Jewish identity in a time-honored Jewish manner: by speaking truth to power, by advocating unabashedly for peace, justice and liberation, by standing up to oppression, racism and persecution in Israel/Palestine – and throughout the world. They simply aren’t buying what the Jewish establishment has been selling them. They are finding their own voices.
We are young Jews, and we get to decide what that means…
I am well aware that it is not easy for a Jewish community so thoroughly focused on Zionism to hear it challenged in such a fundamental way. But aren’t these young Jews doing precisely what they were raised to do? They are taking a good, educated look around them, thinking critically about what they see and are taking a stand for what they believe in as Jews. Are we really prepared to disown them because their conclusions make us uncomfortable?
In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read that when God saves the life of young Ishmael in the wilderness, “God heeded the cries of the boy where he is.” (Genesis 21:17) In other words, God was able to find Ishmael by truly listening to him. Not where God wanted him to be or were God thought he should be, but where he was.
On this New Year, I fervently hope our community can do the same with our newest adult generation. These young Jews certainly have every reason to be disenchanted with the organized Jewish community, but for some reason they refuse to go away. They’re here and they’re knocking loudly at our door.
Do we, the gatekeepers of the Jewish community, have the vision, the faith and the courage to open it up and let them in?
Shanah Tova, Rabbi Brant Rosen
VIDEO OF DISRUPTION OF ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER BIBI NETANYAHU
In Our Own Words:
- Rae Abileah (Mondoweiss): Jewish Values vs. Israeli Policies: Why five young Jews disrupted PM Netanyahu in New Orleans reprinted at Jewlicious.com
- Rae Abileah (AlterNet): Shattering the Israeli barrier: Don’t buy into the Palestinian occupation
- Matthew Taylor (Mondoweiss) : Why I disrupted Bibi’s speech
- Matthew Taylor (Ha’aretz: Young Jews Tell Bibi: Israel is Delegitimizing Itself
- Rachel Roberts (Jewish Peace News): Challenging the Jewish General Assembly
- Emily Ratner (Mondoweiss): We would not have had to interrupt Netanyahu if the world listened to Palestinian voices
- Eitan Isaacson (Zeek): Reflections after New Orleans: What makes a liberal?
Through Others’ Eyes:
Rae Abileah: Interviewed by Scott Horton on AntiWar Radio
Matthew Taylor: Interviewed on WBAI’s Beyond the Pale
Forward Reporters’ Roundtable: The rise of Jewish Voice for Peace
National Pubic Radio: Israeli Prime Minister heckeld at New Orleans conference
- The Associated Press: Protesters interrupt Netanyahu New Orleans speech
reprinted in countless outlets such as:
National Public Radio
National Pubic Radio:Israeli Prime Minister heckeld at New Orleans conference
Los Angeles Times
Huffington Post (front page)
Bay Area Jweekly
San Francisco Examiner
Utah Daily Herald
The Canadian Press
San Diego Union-Tribune
Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Myrtle Beach Sun News
Omaha World Herald
Anchorage Daily News
WeJew (AP VIdeo)
and many others.
- New York Times (Roger Cohen): The “Real Jew” debate
New York Times: As Netanyahu speaks in U.S., Israel publishes plan for new settlement housing
New York Times (Reuters): From the bubble to the trouble: Israel’s divide
Dana Milbank, Washington Post: Netanyahu’s Noisy Tour of New Orleans.
The Forward: Jewish Voice for Peace Activists Interrupt Bibi at GA
The Forward: Federations Find Youth Outreach Tricky Terrain at Yearly Meeting
The Jewish Week: Not All Criticism of Israel is the Same
The Jewish Week: The Pernicious Delegitimization Game
The Jewish Week: The Delegitimization Dance
The Jewish Week: Jewish community’s blind spot: Not listening to our students
Jewish Telegraphic Agency: Monday morning tussles at the GA
New Orleans Times-Picayune: Benjamin Netanyahu warns Israel will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon
Ha’aretz: Hecklers disrupt Netanyahu’s speech at U.S. Jewish conference
Ha’aretz: A Birthright trip for Palestinians, too? Maybe not
Ha’aretz: Five years on, New Orleans Jewish community rises from the ruins
Ha’aretz: Response to YJP’s Matthew Taylor
Jerusalem Post: Peace protesters disrupt Netanyahu’s GA speech
Jerusalem Post: As GA ends, heckling of Netanyahu leaves a bitter taste
Jerusalem Post: The GA: When the Jews came marching in
Ynet: Israeli who disrupted PM’s speech: We were raised on human rights
Ynet: Protestors disrupt Netanyahu’s GA speech in New Orleans
CNN: Israeli PM: Iran the world’s biggest threat
Democracy Now!: (segment begins 4:26 in): Netanyahu speech disrupted in New Orleans
Swarthmore Phoenix: King speaks out at Jewish assembly
Ma’an News Agency: Israeli, US Jews disrupt Netanyahu speech
Al-Ahram: Netanyahu, champion of settlers
Huffington Post: Netanyahu Sticks it to the United States…Again and Again
Daily Kos: Young, Jewish, and Proud
Electronic Intifada: Netanyahu disrupters tell of “mob mentality”
Common Dreams: A question of legitimacy
Mondoweiss: Five young Jews disrupt Netanyahu speech with call for new Jewish identity
Tikkun: Young Jewish Activists Attract Positive Press for Anti-Occupation Message
Zeek: What really happened at the GA
The Third Way: Am Yisrael Chai?
The Third Way: Young Jews Challenge American Jewish Leadership At Jewish Federation General Assembly in New Orleans
Jewschool: Bibi’s Hecklers
Jewschool: The Mishpocha
Alex B. Kane: Jewish Establishment’s Motto: Hear No Evil, See No Evil On Israel
Innermost Parts (Brandeis student blog): Jewish Yelling for Peace
Tablet: Biden’s Brief, Bibi’s Bombast, Simon’s Sermon
New Voices: JVP Protests Netanyahu’s GA Speech
Jewish Journal: Bibi’s G.A. Hecklers: Young Jews
Jewbonics: Young, Jewish, and Proud: Netanyahu’s speech disrupted
Jews Sans Frontieres: Matan Cohen is back!
Jew On This: The politics and poetics of (young, proud) diaspora
Good4Jews: Israel’s behavior vs. Jewish upbringing
New American Media: Jews protest Netanyahu speech
Desert Peace: You don’t have be Jewish to proud of these young people
Coto Report: Young Jews Disrupt Netanyahu at Jewish General Assembly in New Orleans
Paul Woodward (War in Context): Tribal loyalty vs. the integrity of the individual
Zain (Malaysian Blogger): Young, Jewish, and Proud protesting Netanyahu — My points
- Check out also:
JVP Rabbinical Council Cochair Rabbi Brant Rosen: Young, Jewish, and Proud– Time to make room at the table
JVP Rabbinical Council member Rabbi Brian Walt: Young Jews challenge Netanyahu
JVP Board member Stefanie Brendler (Mondoweiss) Mad Props to the proud, young Jews who heckled Netanyahu
JVP Deputy Director Cecilie Surasky (Forward): Shouting To Be Heard
JVP Rabbinical Council member Rabbi Shai Gluskin: Response to Ken Bob’s Piece in Forward.
The Magnes Zionist: Defense of YJP from criticism by Ken Bob’s Ameinu, crossposted on Israel’s +972 magazine.
The Magnes Zionist: Hillels should engage, not boycott Jewish Voice for Peace
The Magnes Zionist: Zionist, Yes; Progressive, Maybe
Ameinu’s Ken Bob (Forward): The Wrong People Shouting
- Mohammad Talat (Mondoweiss): In tribute to the “Young, Jewish, and Proud”
Shereen Naser (Mondoweiss): A perspective on the Jewish Federation General Assembly from its only Palestinian attendee
Peter Beinart (Daily Beast): Happy now, Bibi?
Bradley Burston (Ha’aretz): Thanksgiving, Tikkun Olam, and U.S. Jews breaking the Israeli barrier.
Bradley Burston (Ha’aretz): Bibi, Tom Friedman, and U.S. Jews divesting from Israel
Phyllis Bennis (Huffington Post): Bribing Israel, enhancing the swag
- Watch Associated Press video footage:
Rae Abileah on Al Jazeera: