If the Island of Misfit Toys had a Jewish community, its extreme political left would look a lot like Jewish Voice for Peace. The Anti-Defamation League calls JVP “the largest and most influential Jewish anti-Zionist group in the United States,” and accuses them of using Judaism “to shield the anti-Israel movement from allegations of anti-Semitism and to provide the movement with a veneer of legitimacy.”
In response to Israel’s defensive actions against violent rioters last week on the Israel-Gaza border, JVP held a webinar to discuss the crisis and, more broadly, the nakba—the Arabic word for “catastrophe” used to refer to the founding of the Jewish state. Among these self-identified Jews, there wasn’t a single reference made to Israel’s establishment as anything other than nakba.
I participated in the webinar along with 29 others, at least two of whom were JVP staff. After a brief, stilted, highly selective, occasionally fictionalized historical review of the events of 1948, participants read aloud about three villages that had been “ethnically cleansed.” We reviewed part of a JVP slide show intended to document the scope of expulsion by showing buildings and villages that predated the now-Jewish local communities. And, in the strangest part of the call, we broke into two discussion groups for an awkward conversation about how we came to have our eyes opened about the nakba and what we should do now. One participant, tellingly, said that he started to question the pro-Israel viewpoint when he discovered that those who shared such views had other political opinions he found problematic—to which a staffer responded that Zionism was inconsistent with the political left. Another participant unironically noted that it was important when discussing these issues to have one’s facts straight.
JVP is a small organization, but far from insignificantly so. According to its most recent publicly available tax forms, it has raised about $2.5 million in each of the past few years. Its annual fundraising jumped by more than $1 million in fiscal year 2015—a time period that coincides with the last major Israeli conflict in Gaza.
Group members protest local first-responders sharing best practices with Israeli counterparts. They engage in public displays of specifically Jewish mourning for dead terrorists. They encourage young Jews to turn their backs on visiting Israel with Birthright. They seem to choose their targets explicitly to infuriate the mainstream Jewish community.
And it works. But rather than allow ourselves to be infuriated, the pro-Israel community, which still largely controls the levers of the organized, mainstream Jewish community, should learn from JVP and make some adjustments.
First, we should promote and institutionalize an unapologetic Zionist narrative, including prioritizing familiarity with early Zionist thinkers and Jewish text related to Israel. In a world in which increasing numbers of Jewish young people find Israel’s existence to be anachronistic, its location to be incomprehensible and its defense to be burdensome, we should embrace the challenge of finding a way to make the foundational texts relevant.
American Jews must stop treating Israel as Jewish Disneyland. Israel is a real place made up of real people from brilliantly diverse backgrounds who have, like in the United States, stitched together a vibrant national culture. While we may wish it to live up to the prophetic vision of being a light unto the nations, teaching our children only that wish sets us up for failure. Israel is populated and governed by humans. We should teach about it accordingly.
We need to fearlessly teach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We don’t really do it now because the politics of it have become toxic, the narratives entrenched and the complexities overwhelming. If you teach it in Sunday school, you run the risk of alienating or angering a sizable group of people. If you teach it in day school, you risk losing students. Donors may be offended. There are a million reasons to avoid the topic and only one reason not to: We send our kids off to college and into the clutches of JVP types. It must be taught.
Lastly, there must be zero tolerance for organizations like JVP that promote an objectively false, defamatory, anti-Israel narrative, and that make common cause with avowed enemies of the Jewish people.
At lunch last week, a Conservative rabbi friend who had seen my live-tweeting the JVP webinar wondered how something that had once solidly united American Jews now divided us. It’s an interesting question, but not as important as this: What do we do now?
Jonathan Greenberg is an ordained reform rabbi, and the senior vice president of the news and public-policy group Haym Salomon Center. Follow him @JGreenbergSez.