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As more US Jews call Israel apartheid state, organizations struggle to counter

Mainstream groups say disconnect between Diaspora youth, reality in Israel result of ‘deficient education’; liberal counterparts argue Israel’s faults being glossed over entirely

Students protesting outside of the Ziegfeld Ballroom in New York City, April 15, 2018. (Courtesy of Jewish Voice for Peace via JTA)
Students protesting outside of the Ziegfeld Ballroom in New York City, April 15, 2018. (Courtesy of Jewish Voice for Peace via JTA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Sharon Nazarian has a theory about why a recent Washington, D.C. rally against antisemitism struggled to reach as large an audience as organizers had intended.

The Anti-Defamation League, for which Nazarian is senior vice president of international affairs, co-sponsored “No Fear: A Rally in Solidarity with the Jewish People,” along with several other of the largest American Jewish organizations. But it drew just 2,000 people on Sunday. By comparison, a rally in 2002 at the height of the second intifada drew more than 100,000 people.

Nazarian says the traditional mainstream organizational focus on, and lionization of, Israel is becoming a liability and turning people away.

“This narrative about Israel needs to be a more realistic one, one that [brings] attention to the strengths of the state, and to its weaknesses,” said Nazarian, a philanthropist who is president of a family foundation that funds research into education. She added that the rally was put together on short notice in the heat of the summer, at a time that the coronavirus pandemic is still a factor.

Two days after the rally, a poll of US Jews was published with some surprising findings: 25% agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state,” 34% agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States” and 22% agreed that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” The numbers only climb among younger Jews: More than a third of those under 40 gave Israel the “apartheid state” label.

The numbers are striking given American Jewry’s longstanding and steadfast support of Israel, even throughout times of right-wing governments, such as the ones led for years by recent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that have pushed policies that clash with the majority of their individual beliefs. But American criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza over multiple military conflicts in the last decade — most notably in 2014 and May of this year — has steadily grown harsher, and this year saw an unprecedented public outcry, accentuated by several influential celebrities. Many feel more comfortable agreeing with influencers and others who label Israel’s military response to rockets fired from Gaza as “genocidal” — even if human rights experts caution that the term is an exaggeration in this case.

The ‘No Fear’ rally against antisemitism on July 11, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Screenshot)

“What we’re missing, even the centrist organizations, is that for years now we’ve been hearing these sensationalist labels, and the reason we didn’t engage with it was because it was on the fringe, it was taboo, and we thought it would stay there,” Nazarian said. “What has happened now as a result of the May conflict is the real mainstreaming of this language.”

Another factor over the last year, since the murder of George Floyd, is the burgeoning awareness of racial disparities among Americans. Many of Israel’s critics have increasingly framed Israel’s conflict as one of racial injustice.

“We have to understand the building blocks, the framing,” Nazarian said. “And really the conflation of a lot of what we saw in the post-George Floyd kind of anti-racism activism that we as a Jewish community of America participated in.”

Many “No Fear” rally speakers explicitly conflated some of the harsher criticisms of Israel with antisemitism, and that disinclined some groups from accepting the invitation to participate, including the liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street.

“Rather than engage with young people and try to put the reality of the situation in context, and admit problems that are going on, they’ve chosen to deny that there are problems, and to attack those who raised them,” said J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami. “That has resulted in polarization. Rather than engaging people who have questions and criticism, they push them away.”

Those who did participate in the rally and responded to a request for comment on the Jewish Electorate Institute National Survey of Jewish Voters doubled down on their assertions and emphasized education, arguing that the Jewish community needed to do more to educate younger Jews about Israel — and to push back against characterizations that they said originated with its enemies.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. (Courtesy)

“A main source of disconnect between segments of American Jews and the reality of Israel is deficient education,” David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, one of the rally’s sponsors, said in an email.

Harris pointed to an AJC poll last month that showed only 37% of respondents described their Israel education growing up as “strong,” and to separate data showing that young people increasingly are getting their news from social media “where untruths are rampant,” he said.

“Clearly, greater efforts at educating American Jews, especially younger cohorts, about all aspects of Israeli society, and connecting them with their counterparts in Israel, are critical for ensuring nuanced understanding about Israel and strengthening Israel-Diaspora relations,” he said.

Harris pointed to AJC programs aimed at reaching Jews under 40. So did Adam Teitelbaum, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of North America’s Israel Action Network. JFNA was also a sponsor of the rally.

“The best way to combat this phenomenon is to meaningfully and authentically engage young Jews with questions such as ‘what do you think apartheid means?’; ‘what is the best path forward?’; and ‘how can Israel address real security concerns while still fighting for peace?’,” Teitelbaum said. “Young people recognize that the situation in Israel is complicated. We at JFNA and through the Israel Action Network know that when Jewish Federations and Israel educators approach young people’s questions with compassion and authenticity, they engage meaningfully and elect to become changemakers themselves.”

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