I have never done 23-and-me, nor have I “ancestry.com’d” myself. It’s never felt necessary. My family’s Eastern European Jewish heritage was something we lived to honor, including in our politics.
Like so many others, my family came to this country escaping discrimination in the Old Country and facing injustice in the New: abusive labor conditions; university quotas; social exclusion when we tried to climb the ladder of the American dream. Given our history in this country — and our involvement in so many social justice movements — it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many young Jews, myself included, can’t imagine being anything other than political progressives. As a gay abortion rights advocate and environmentalist, my place in such circles has always been welcomed and accepted.
Well, until now.
As a sophomore at George Washington University, whose student government last year passed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions proposal, I now find myself pushed to the fringes of a movement I thought I was at the heart of, marginalized as someone suspicious at best and oppressive at worst. This is because I am a Zionist. It is because I, like 95 percent of American Jews, support Israel.
Before I arrived on campus, I could proudly say that I was both a strong progressive and a Zionist. I didn’t think there was a conflict between those two ideas. In fact, I understood them as being in sync, given that progressives have long championed the liberation movements of downtrodden minorities. I viewed — and still view — the establishment of the state of Israel as a fundamentally just cause: the most persecuted people in human history finally gaining the right of self-determination after centuries of displacement, intimidation, violence and genocide. For me, this remains true even as I oppose the occupation of the West Bank. It is my Zionism that informs my view that the Palestinian people also have the right to their own state.
But my view is not at all shared by the progressive activist crowd I encountered on campus. They have made it abundantly clear to me and other Jews on campus that any form of Zionism — even my own liberal variant, which criticizes various policies of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and seeks a just two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — is a political nonstarter. For this group at my school, and similar groups on campuses and cities around the country, Zionism itself is, to parrot the Soviet propaganda of several decades ago, racist. And anybody who so dares to utter the words “right to exist” is undeniably a proponent of racism.
Given that almost all American Jews identify as “pro-Israel,” even as the majority of us are also critical of Israeli government policy, this intolerance affects huge numbers of young American Jews. I am one of them.
At many American universities, mine included, it is now normal for student organizations to freely call Israel an imperialist power and an outpost of white colonialism with little pushback or discussion — never mind that more than half of Israel’s population consists of Israeli Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, and that the country boasts a 20 percent Arab minority. The word “apartheid” is thrown around without hesitation. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is repeatedly dragged into discussions ranging anywhere from L.G.B.T.Q. equality (where to mention Israel’s vastly better record on gay rights compared with that of any other country in the Middle East is branded “pinkwashing”), to health care to criminal justice reform.
At a recent political club meeting I attended, Zionism was described by leadership as a “transnational project,” an anti-Semitic trope that characterizes the desire for a Jewish state as a bid for global domination by the Jewish people. The organization went on to say that Zionism should not be “normalized.” Later, when I advised a member to add more Jewish voices to the organization’s leadership as a means of adding more nuance to their platform, I was assured that anti-Zionist Jews were already a part of the club and thus my concerns of anti-Semitism were baseless.
I expected this loophole, as it is all too common across progressive spaces: groups protect themselves against accusations of anti-Semitism by trotting out their anti-Zionist Jewish supporters, despite the fact that such Jews are a tiny fringe of the Jewish community. Such tokenism is seen as unacceptable — and rightfully so — in any other space where a marginalized community feels threatened.
All of this puts progressive Jews like myself in an extraordinarily difficult position. We often refrain from calling out anti-Semitism on our side for fear of our political bona fides being questioned or, worse, losing friends or being smeared as the things we most revile: racist, white supremacist, colonialist and so on. And that is exactly what happens when we do speak up.
After the Israeli election in April, I spent a week explaining to my classmates that there were plenty of people in Israel who didn’t vote for Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, just as there were and are many Americans who oppose President Donald Trump, only to be called an “apartheid-enabler,” a “baby killer” and a “colonial apologist” by my peers in person and on social media.
The next month, on May Day, I eagerly attended a student rally for higher wages for the university’s custodial staff, excitedly carrying a “Fair Wages Now” poster I had made. The rally attracted dozens of students. We all gathered in the quad where we chanted for fair wages, cheered for speakers and booed the names of G.W. executives. Then the organizers of the rally invited speakers from the organizations Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. At first, I applauded these speakers — I figured that although I might disagree with these organizations about Israel, these students have every right to speak on the issue of fair wages for custodial staff.
But as they began to speak, the gathering suddenly transformed from a “fair wages” rally to a “Free Palestine” rally. The speakers railed against the oppression of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, which, according to them, had everything to do with G.W. janitors making less than their fair share. The students saw no reason to decry labor conditions or human rights violations in any other university, city, state, region or country. Reasonable people recognize that conflating the Jews with being money-hungry or cheap is anti-Semitic. How is tying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to janitors not getting paid enough at an American university any different?
And just last week, a video was posted to a student’s Snapchat story, in which another G.W. student is seen advocating the bombing of Israel, and then proceeding to spew blatantly anti-Semitic profanities about Jews.
This is our new normal. On college campuses and in progressive circles across the country, it does not matter if you strongly oppose the right-wing leadership in Israel; if you are a Zionist, you are seen as the enemy. It does not matter if you think President Trump is a monster for smearing Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib; I have been branded “irredeemably problematic” on G.W.’s campus because of my unwillingness to unconditionally support their politics. It does not matter if you believe in the right of self determination for all people, including Palestinians; if you still feel a connection to the State of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, you are on the wrong side of history.
While white supremacists plot to murder Jews across this country, “anti-Zionists” on college campuses seek to marginalize us as white supremacists. Consider the fact that at the University of Virginia — where white supremacists marched through campus shouting “Jews will not replace us!” — it was Jewish students who were barred from joining a minority student coalition to fight white supremacy (that decision is under review). At Benedictine University, a student aligned with the Students for Justice in Palestine group asked a guest speaker who survived the Holocaust to denounce the crimes of Israel against Palestinians, and then left during his speech.
This month, more than 400 Jewish students walked out of a student government meeting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, after the Student Senate, by a vote of 29 to 4, approved a resolution of Students for Justice in Palestine that condemned “conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.” At the meeting, according to Ian Katsnelson, the only Jewish senator, there was a poster that equated supporters of Israel with Nazis.
Then, after the vote, Students for Justice in Palestine touted their victory as sending “a powerful message yesterday to white supremacist forces on campus.” Casting Jews and their allies as white supremacists is call-out culture at its worst: Dare to disagree and you’re denounced as your greatest domestic enemy.
This is the reality of being a politically active Jew on many American college campuses. If you call yourself a Zionist because your family fled to Israel from a Middle Eastern country as a means of survival, you are complicit in ethnic cleansing. If you call yourself a Zionist because your family fled Germany to escape a concentration camp, you are a colonialist. If you call yourself a Zionist because your family made aliyah to Israel because of their religious or spiritual beliefs, you are complicit in apartheid.
Progressives believe that words matter, and that words can soften the ground for violence. We also believe that any politics that excludes, ignores or dehumanizes the voices of minorities is a politics that is dangerous for all of us. Do these activists, who have increasing sway beyond the quad, believe that those same considerations should be granted to Jews? I fear the answer to that question.
Blake Flayton (@blakeflayton) is a sophomore at George Washington University.