Columbia made me a self-loathing Jew. Living here, I didn’t believe any less in my self-worth, the worth of Jewish people in general, or the right of Israel to exist as a nation. But I also didn’t believe in spitting on basic human rights—and that, I was told, made me a self-loathing Jew.
On this extremist campus, those were my choices: right-wing hawk or progressive turncoat, hate myself or hate others. I disengaged, ignored both the tenure witch hunts and vitriolic anti-Israel rallies, and opted for a Jewish identity that could be Netflixed.˜ When Woody Allen seemed like its paragon of sanity, I ditched the American Jewish culture.
Last Sunday, thank heaven above and Washington, D.C below, I found the moderate Jewish voice of reason. Speaking to the Hillel brunch crowd, Jeremy Ben-Ami preached pragmatism in the form of a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” approach. His organization, J Street, offers what I consider to be a progressive alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. Not dismissing Palestinian suffering or confusing criticism of the Israeli government for anti-Semitism, it promotes the aggressive pursuit of a two-state solution by American officials willing to put pressure on both sides.
Nationally, J Street has begun to draw criticism from the left after its immediate rejection by the conservative Jewish establishment. At the Columbia event, some people were skeptical that its coalition could hold. Like Obama’s appeal during his 2008 presidential campaign, J Street’s general appeal, they argued, is too broad for the divisive details of Israeli policy. Yet even the willingness to discuss those details has become a policy stance, and an essential one. I may not agree with every position J Street takes, but if its members can accept that, then so can I.
A conversation with my seat-mate at brunch firmly etched my relief that a J Street chapter is growing on our polarized campus. Thrown off by my enthusiasm for the group’s message, my neighbor tore apart the J Street goal of “broadening the Israel conversation.” There’s a broad political spectrum in Israel, he insisted, so we don’t need one here. Let them duke it out, our role is to present a united front for whatever the Israelis decide. As if to finish me off, he asked, would you criticize America overseas?
Yes, I would, and I did when I studied abroad. I love America because it allows me to tell anyone I want, anywhere I want, if I think its government has committed abhorrent acts. By allowing debate and discussion, America offers a middle ground between revolt and blind obedience. Until recently, the American Jewish community has not.
My time abroad also taught me that this notion has worsened Israel’s position in the world. There is a current of anti-Semitism in England that, as a lifelong New Yorker, shocked me. Several people who were otherwise reasonable, pleasant, and well-informed—but who did not know many Jews personally—viewed Jews as some sort of imperialist monolith, caring only to increase Jewish power at all costs. That is, of course, ridiculous. Jewish people, like all others, are diverse with different backgrounds, opinions, and priorities. But many Jews seem to have been trying to convince the world otherwise, and, tragically, they are succeeding.
Perhaps my anti-J Street neighbor is reading this and thinking I’m not worthy of the cause. If ideological purity is your goal, then you’re right, and Ben-Ami is right to worry about the next generation. I would sacrifice my support for Israel before I sacrificed my freedom to criticize its actions. And so too, eventually, would many other liberals and moderates among Jewish and otherwise sympathetic observers. Anyone ready to purge me or other progressive Jews from the fold should realize: you will not create a Jewish American monolith, but a nation of “self-loathing” Jews.
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in English.