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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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