Confessional testimonies of the latest Jewish, anti-Zionist poster children recall Puritan Americans’ “captivity narratives.” Virtuous seventeenth-century women kidnapped by Indians described their brutal incarceration, then, their redemption. The new captivity narrative, modern-spoiled-American-Jewish-suburban style, recounts a young Jew’s harrowing redemption from Birthright Israel or Zionist summer camp.
Force-fed diets of Zionist folk tunes, midnight adventures, passionate friendships, and hunkalicious Israeli soldiers, they courageously flee their brainwashing into the welcoming bosom of the New York intelligentsia, rejecting Israel while embracing Palestinians, about whom they claim they never were taught. Kiera Feldman, describing her Birthright Israel trip for The Nation, writes: “Chronically underslept, hurled through a mind-numbing itinerary, I experienced, despite my best efforts to maintain a reportorial stance, a return to the intensity of feeling of childhood.” Village Voice film editor Allison Benedikt in “the Awl,” recalls: “Those summers blur together, but each day begins and ends at the flagpole, where we raise and lower two flags: the American and the Israeli. We make blue and white lanyard bracelets, carve Israel out of ice cream, and sing ‘Hatikvah.’” She adds the self-loathing line: “Because it''s all Jews, I''m considered cute.” She ends the memoir recalling her escape from these cy-ops executed against her by mysterious, manipulative, nebbishes in Bermuda shorts saying: “My best memories from childhood are from camp, and I will never, ever send my kids there.”
Even the rare compliments are dehumanizing. Benedikt’s non-Jewish husband, whose contempt for Israel triggers her transformation, visits Israel, rudely condemns her sister’s “morally bankrupt decision” to make Aliyah, “but at least concedes that … the women are hot.” The “hot” Israeli women and handsome Israeli soldiers reduce these new Jews to all brawn, making American Jews smarter, civilized but flaccid. The stereotyping parallels the racist and sexist 1950s hipsters who considered white men all mind -- feminized and impotent -- but black men all body -- hyper-sexualized and super-potent.
Emboldened by the intellectuals’ conceit that their marginal views reflect popular sensibility, welcomed by a left-leaning media echo chamber, they believe their redemptions signal a mass movement. “Most of my Jewish friends are disgusted with Israel,” Benedikt reports. “It seems my trajectory is not at all unique.”
With this allegation, anti-Zionist delusions meet pro-Israel fears. “Oy the kinde,” loyalists yell, fearful “we” are losing “our” youth. “Ah, we enlightened ones see through that Israel trip tripe,” hipsters rejoice. The surveys from Brandeis University’s Cohen Center and elsewhere calling younger Jews today more pro-Israel than their immediate elders – thanks to big bad Birthright -- are irrelevant. Never let evidence ruin a good rant.
These testimonials do suggest that anti-Zionism is ever trendier among America’s elites. The narratives pivot on a zero-sum ideological universe, first caricaturing the Zionist message as “Support Israel Right-or-Wrong,” then treating Israel as all-wrong and all right-wing. The “brainwashing” set-up imputes to the Zionist educational process a mythic, monolithic propagandizing power. I have helped shape the educational programming of the Young Judaea movement Benedikt mocks as well as Birthright Israel. There is more ideological fluidity, self-criticism, and anguish over the Palestinian problem than is alleged. Simultaneously, the redemptive deprogramming paints Israel as uniquely depraved. As Feldman writes, “With the relentless siege of Gaza, the interminable occupation, the ever-expanding settlements, the onslaught of anti-Arab Knesset legislation, Israel has earned its new status as an international pariah.”
Feldman’s essay spews out modern anti-Zionist clichés, as lecherous billionaires bankrolling Birthright seduce naive American Jews with a bewitching cocktail of sex and Israel advocacy. Everything Israeli is militarized, right-wing, racist, tainted by occupation. Kibbutz Gvulot is a “kibbutz cum military outpost.” AIPAC and Stand With Us are “right-wing Zionist groups … whose members have been known to target Jewish anti-occupation activists with Nazi slurs and pepper spray” – news to me. Philanthropists like Lynn Schusterman and Charles Bronfman, who finance Israel’s left, are “hawkish,” with one small educational grant over the Green Line used to accuse Schusterman of “financially support[ing] illegal Jewish settlements.”
Like a jilted lover, the apostate’s sanctimony, mixing penitential self-righteousness with insider’s knowledge, ultimately sounds petty, vengeful. These testimonials rankle because by repudiating Israel itself rather than criticizing Israeli actions, these Jews feed the delegitimization campaign against Israel. This disapprobation treats Israel as the only country on probation, reinforcing the anti-Semitic Arab campaign against Israel’s right to exist.
Ignoring such complexities, these posturing progressives are the New Galut Jews, the court-Jews of twenty-first century elite society, purchasing acceptance from others by mocking their own. While the nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine saw conversion as the admission ticket to European culture, some American Jewish extremists now use anti-Zionism as their admission ticket to hip, progressive circles.
Refugees from leftist circles could mock Birkenstock-wearing, vegan know-it-alls as tree-huggers claiming to save humanity by recycling paper while ignoring American racism, poverty and violence. But rather than trading insults and perpetuating the false claim that liberalism and Zionism are incompatible, better to learn about the liberal Zionist synergies Rabbi Richard Hirsch celebrates in his new book For the Sake of Zion, which Natan Sharansky hailed at a book launch this Monday in Jerusalem.
A leading Reform Zionist, Hirsch shared his Washington office space with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s, and has championed liberal Zionism since first visiting Israel as a rabbinical student in 1949. Sharansky thanked Hirsch for supporting his dual role in the Soviet Union as a human rights activist and a Zionist, understanding particularism as a path to universalism. Hirsch sees tribalism as comforting, familial, not stultifying because these “special relationships” never stopped him from criticizing Israel when necessary. To him, controversy demonstrates caring and belonging: His response to Israel’s struggles: “Let the debates continue.”
These Zionist captivity narratives ignore the debates that shaped their educational processes, and the debates shaping Israel today, silencing further discussion through their contempt and ridicule. Instead Hirsch’s Zionism is a Zionism of controversy and loyalty, of nuance and complexity, of proudly belonging while ambitiously striving to improve Israel – and the world.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” firstname.lastname@example.org