Soldiers for Israel: Who are American Jewry’s conscientious objectors?

Debates about soldiers on the physical battlefield enthrall the mainstream media, and rightly so, but that leaves the metaphysical battlefield woefully unexamined.

By ROI BACHMUTSKY
June 24, 2013 20:44
IDF soldiers patrol during a raid [file]

IDF soldiers patrol during a raid 390 (R). (photo credit: Abed Omar Qusini / Reuters)

 
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The IDF’s declaration that conscientious objector Natan Blanc is unfit for duty marks the culmination of another chapter in the war over whether Israelis are allowed to refuse military service solely due to objections to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Debates about soldiers on the physical battlefield enthrall the mainstream media, and rightly so, but that leaves the metaphysical battlefield woefully unexamined.

Its expanse stretches far beyond the holy land and onto distant shores as Jewish youth take up rhetorical arms in defense of Israel on the American college campus.

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My research on undergraduate Jewish students at UC Berkeley suggests that youth active in mainstream Jewish organizations feel an intense impetus to defend the Jewish state.

“In a situation where there is a very loud voice against Israel’s existence,” a leader in the local student advocacy group – Tikvah: Students for Israel – began explaining, “our primary responsibility is to defend Israel. That is why I am involved in Israel advocacy – out of responsibility, not out of enjoyment...a duty to the Jewish people.”

Another student recalls being propelled by her Hebrew teacher to “defend Israel and tell [students] the truth,” compelling her to realize that “Israel needs people like me, who care about it, and want to defend it on campus.”

These young Jews are, and to a certain extent even see themselves as, analogues to Israeli soldiers placed in new context – the discursive battlefield of international public relations.

While some Jewish students identify as advocates, defending Israel has become so normalized in the Jewish community (often ambiguously referred to by the euphemism: “supporting Israel”) that it is often regarded simply as the sole possible mode of engagement with the Jewish homeland. One student, who several years prior served as a youth leader in the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), described her board position as the organization’s “advocate for Israel.” Then, noticing she technically misspoke, she added, “I mean I don’t know. We were ‘in charge of Israel’ – whatever that meant.”



Akin to wars with which we are more familiar, a corollary of the duty to defend Israel is that critique of the state is relegated to the status of a luxury which must be sacrificed during wartime.

“In a large public context it is... probable that people don’t know much about the situation,” one student elucidated, “and so, disproportionate negative attention [including critique] might give them an inaccurate view of Israel... something that is damaging to Israel’s image can be damaging to Israel’s security.”

Another went even further to deem Jews who are publicly critical of Israel to be “irresponsible at best... useful idiots of the anti-Zionists.”

It is no surprise then that self-censorship has become chronic among the youth of the Jewish establishment.

Unfortunately, the war for Israel on the American college campus seems to have no end in sight. In fact, the Tikvah leader quoted earlier expressed a strident belief that there is “more likely to be peace between Israel and its neighbors than peace between the ideologues here [at Berkeley].” If, as he suggests, “there will [n]ever be an end to people [on campus] calling for Israel’s destruction,” then young Jews are being asked to remain silent – not just temporarily – but permanently.

This is a frightening realization, yet if we extend the metaphor, what of conscientious objection to remaining silent in defense of Israel? Does the American Jewish community have its own Natan Blancs? “You don’t improve things by sitting and saying, ‘look how good this is,’” one student mocked, “it is right, it is appropriate, and in many cases it is...necessary to point out the things that don’t work...[in order] to come up with ways they could work better.”

This student is an ex-advocate who, in the process of a tremendous personal transformation, joined the local campus chapter of J Street U, the studentorganizing arm of J Street. He is not alone – J Street has firmly established itself in the American Jewish mainstream with over 180,000 national supporters and 45 campus chapters.

But if J Street is a haven for ex-advocates who have made the personal-political transition from defending Israel to improving Israel, then the organization is metaphorically more alike the ex- IDF veterans working in Breaking the Silence (BtS) rather than conscientious objectors to the military draft. Perhaps Jewish Voice for Peace, which has embraced its peripheral role outside the Jewish establishment and in solidarity with the BDS movement, harbors our community’s Natan Blancs.

Could it be that choosing between being an Israeli conscientious objector or Israeli-veteran-turned- activist is paralleled in the American Jewish context as the choice between Jewish Voice for Peace or J Street? In broad strokes, the difference between the two is not the product of ideology, but of varied levels of trust and disillusion. The ostracized, who lack confidence in their fellow Jews and are disillusioned with their community’s virtues, choose to leave. Those with deeper ties stay and fight from within.

There are two lessons to be drawn from this conclusion.

The first is that the choice between J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace is not set in stone for each individual. It is instead determined by the actions of those with whom these young Jews interact – mine and yours included. We are welcome to quell their pessimism or exacerbate it further, to welcome them in or push them out.

The second is that if J Street fails in its mission as ex-soldiers working for a two-state solution, we may witness a mass American Jewish disenchantment with Israel. American Jewry is the only major demographic population in the United States whose liberalism does not falter with affluence. An overwhelming majority of American Jews have supported Democratic presidential candidates in every election since 1928, with Carter’s attempt at a second term in 1980 serving as the sole exception.

Gallup polls have shown that Jews are in fact the most liberal religious group in America – even beating those identifying as non-religious/atheist/agnostic.

If the potential for a two-state solution evaporates, our community’s liberal roots will finally be completely at odds with those of the Jewish state.

We might very well become a community of conscientious objectors.

Is that day on the horizon? The jury is still out.

The author is a 2012 graduate of UC Berkeley who did his honors thesis research on Israel and American Jewish identity. You can follow him on his blog (http://homelandhevruta.com/) and on Twitter (@roibachmutsky).

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