Solidarity with Palestinians is Part of American Judaism

By Eliza Schloss, APN Spring 2023 Intern

Every Sunday morning I stuck out a cupped hand to my dad in the driver’s seat as we pulled up to my Reform synagogue. He knew to begin digging around in the cup holder for loose change. Dusted pennies and quarters filled my palm as I headed into my classroom, cracked open the tzedakah box, and dumped the contents of my hand inside. My change clicked on other coins and thudded on dollar bills at the bottom. Proud of my charitable giving, I would find a seat.

I was raised on the principle of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world. Not only did my Jewish community prioritize giving, but they took initiative to turn service into action. Years later, I’ve frequently found synagogues, like the one I grew up in, displaying support for gay pride, reproductive rights, and Black Lives Matter. Politics have always been a part of my Judaism.

As a young proponent of liberal causes, I never questioned the Jewish institutions that checked all the same boxes on the ballot. But as I grew older, I learned that my community’s advocacy had limits, and that limit was Palestine.

Between my Reform temple, Jewish summer camp, and college Hillel, the Jewish spaces I grew up in told me life would be better, less complicated, without Palestine. Less complicated, I’ll give them that. Otherwise, they couldn’t be more wrong.

In college, I joined a predominantly Jewish anti-Occupation group and found an unprecedented connection to my Judaism. Before stepping foot on campus, I didn’t know these spaces existed. I’d unearthed something forbidden, or at least hidden.

Yes, we talked about Israel, but we also talked about Palestine. We talked with nuance and passion, about current events, and the entanglement of our American Jewish identities with the harm of the Occupation. I experienced the joy of being part of a community that embraced the freedom of all people – Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Muslim, and beyond.

Our organization worked hard to hold space for conversation while represented under the largest Jewish organization on our campus. It was important to me that we open the door for Jewish students with nonconformist, let alone critical, beliefs on Israel and Zionism alike.

We were often told that balance was critical to gaining the support, sponsorship, or advertisement from Hillel. However, “balance” dilutes, and the voices that the majority of American Jewish students are familiar with regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not the ones we need to prioritize. On our own, we hosted Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli Defense Force veterans sharing their experience operating in the occupied West Bank. With pushback, we held discussions about AIPAC’s role in funding homophobic, antisemitic, anti-choice politicians. While our efforts were never vetoed, our acceptance into the Jewish community was qualified.

I’m grateful that Jewish spaces engage in discourse surrounding anti-Black racism, feminism, and antisemitism. However, when it comes to Palestine – or Israel under a critical lens – they greet the issue with distance. Hillel engages students with Israel education at more than 550 colleges and universities across the globe. Why shouldn’t we be challenged? After all, we are pursuing higher education to become capable and critical thinkers.

Jewish institutions are setting future generations of American Jews up for failure. Today, this is clearer than ever. In 2021, a quarter of American Jews believed Israel as an apartheid state, according to a poll conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute. The survey also shows that critical support for Israel is rising among younger Jews. In 2023, amid the gravity of Netanyahu’s anti-democratic, pro-occupation efforts – of which the majority of American Jews are opposed – Israel’s reception in the U.S. will likely continue to shift.

Students, campers, and young congregants are ready to engage in conversations about Israel that are critical, even ones that include Palestine. Oftentimes, we are already doing so behind closed doors. While this course of conversation can strengthen bonds between those who are cast as “outsiders,” it can also intensify larger fractures.

Solidarity with Palestinians and amplifying their right to dignity, equality, and freedom has not only become a central feature of my Judaism, but an incredibly meaningful one. In fact, it was my Jewish foundations that taught me to strive for justice everywhere.

Jewish institutions have to meet us where we are. Whatever you paint your politics, you are a Jew. Some of us have been given a far more comfortable seat at the table. Like it or not, you have to pull up a chair for all your family members.