ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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Inside story'Most people around me only know the Israeli perspective'

US Jewish teens, led by Ezra Beinart, are meeting prominent Palestinians via Zoom

The high school junior’s new initiative seeks to bring Palestinian perspectives to young American Jews – a demographic, he says, that sorely lacks exposure to them

Ezra Beinart in an undated photo. (Courtesy via JTA)
Ezra Beinart in an undated photo. (Courtesy via JTA)

JTA — When Rep. Rashida Tlaib joined a Zoom with 40 teenagers, she soon found herself talking about the kinds of topics — academic and otherwise — that tend to take up their days.

There was discussion of the stress of AP exams, embarrassing dads and social media memes. She showed them pictures on Instagram of her dog at the US Capitol. Everyone was on a first-name basis.

“My son is a [high school] junior,” she said, responding to a message in the Zoom chat from one of the teen participants. “Oh my God, the SAT — I was stressed out. I’m stressed because he’s stressed. He had to take all his AP exams and stuff.”

Tlaib got personal too — talking about her grandmother, with whom she last spoke on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

But the conversation also turned to a question many of the teens had encountered at high school, camp, youth groups or elsewhere in their lives: Is anti-Zionism antisemitism?

As the only Palestinian-American in Congress — and perhaps the chamber’s most prominent anti-Zionist — Tlaib was in a unique position to answer. And the students on the call had a particular interest in the question as well: They were all Jewish.

The teens are all participants in a new initiative, launched last year, to expose young American Jews to Palestinian voices through video chats. Founded by Ezra Beinart, a junior at a Jewish day school in New York City, the project’s goal is to bring Palestinian perspectives to a demographic that, he says, sorely lacks them.

“I live in a very Jewish community and most of the people around me are very educated on the Israeli perspective, but not as knowledgeable about the Palestinian side,” Beinart said in an interview. “And that’s why I decided to create the group to inform young Jews about the other side of the story, which I don’t think most Jewish students know much about.”

In her response to the question about antisemitism and anti-Zionism, Tlaib again turned to her grandmother, Muftieh, whom she refers to with the Arabic term “Sity” and whom she has portrayed as the face of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. She said people were “weaponizing antisemitism” in order to chill criticism of Israel.

“My grandmother, literally solely based on the fact that she was born Palestinian, she just doesn’t have equality,” Tlaib told the teens. “Her life would be completely different if that wasn’t the case. And so, you know, for me criticizing that, if anything, is more chipping away at this form of government that does that to my Sity.”

Beinart said he wants to increase opportunities for Jewish-Palestinian interaction. So he said he has reached out to “very Jewish” communities around the country, through chat groups and progressive synagogues, to get the word out. He started out with just a handful of teens, but his numbers are growing: His session with Tlaib drew 40 viewers.

Screen capture from video of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Michigan, addressing the US House of Representatives during a debate over a resolution rejecting boycotts of Israel, July 23, 2019. (YouTube)

Such interest comes at a time of political flux in Israel, and as young Jewish adults in the United States view the country less favorably than their elders. A 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center found that Jews aged 18-30 were less emotionally attached to Israel than older generations, more skeptical of its efforts toward peace and likelier to support efforts to boycott it. In recent years, activist groups founded by young Jews have pushed institutions such as campus Hillels and the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah network to be more inclusive of Palestinian or anti-Zionist perspectives.

The initiative’s format has speakers introduce themselves for five minutes or so and then take questions, which Beinart selects, for another 30 minutes. It has held about half a dozen sessions with speakers like Ayman Mohyeldin, a journalist at MSNBC, and Amahl Bishara, a professor at Tufts University. Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, is its most prominent guest so far. (Her office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or for comment.)

Beinart wanted his peers to have their minds opened, as he said his was when he interned last summer at the Jerusalem Fund, a pro-Palestinian think tank and advocacy organization in Washington, DC. He noticed that a friend of his who worked there used “Palestine” as readily as he used “Israel,” and described to him how fraught traveling to the region was for her, whereas he took his ability to enter the country for granted.

“It made it much more tangible to have friends explain how Israel’s actions affect them in everyday life,” he said. “It’s different from just reading about it or seeing a video.”

If Beinart’s name is familiar, it’s because his father is Peter Beinart, the writer who was once an outspoken advocate for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, and now is a prominent Jewish voice supporting a single, binational Israeli-Palestinian state. The elder Beinart declined to comment for this article, as the initiative is his son’s project rather than his. But for a decade, Peter Beinart has been making the case that American Jews need to spend more time listening to Palestinian voices.

Resistance to hearing from Palestinians, the elder Beinart wrote in 2013 in The New York Review of Books, “make[s] the organized American Jewish community a closed intellectual space, isolated from the experiences and perspectives of roughly half the people under Israeli control. And the result is that American Jewish leaders, even those who harbor no animosity toward Palestinians, know little about the reality of their lives.”

Peter Beinart speaking at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, Seattle, Washington, May 23, 2019, at an event sponsored by J Street. (CC BY-SA 4.0/ by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia)

Ezra acknowledges his father’s influence, albeit reluctantly. The first speaker in the series was Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist Ezra met when he accompanied Peter on a West Bank tour.

“Yeah, obviously, but I’m going my own way with it,” Ezra Beinart said, asked about his father’s influence. “I’m connecting Israel-Palestine to what I see going on with my peers, my friends.”

In the Zoom session, Tlaib intuited Ezra’s ambivalence about bringing his father into the conversation, so she trod carefully when she quoted the elder Beinart to make a point.

“Ezra, your dad said something once — I know you don’t want me to mention your dad, you’re like my son,” she said. But she then brought up a quote by Peter Beinart to explain why she had chosen, despite considerable backlash, to host an event in the US Capitol commemorating the Nakba, the word meaning “catastrophe” which Palestinians use to describe their displacement during and after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Peter Beinart’s quote was, “When you tell a people to forget its past, you are not proposing peace, you are proposing extinction.”

Tlaib said, “I used [Beinart’s quote] today when I got interviewed because I love this, but when Peter says it, it’s like okay, look at this is, this is a Jewish American man speaking up about the importance of understanding history.”

After the meeting, Ezra Beinart told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he chose questions that reflected the narrative Jewish youth were exposed to in their communities. In addition to discussing anti-Zionism and antisemitism, one question was, “What is your response to those who believe that using the word ‘occupation’ is harmful?” (Avoiding accurate terminology inhibits the advance of peace and human rights, Tlaib said.)

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib stands outside of her office after placing a Palestinian flag there on January 25, 2023. (Rashida Tlaib/Twitter)

“Jewish people, when they think about Palestinians, they think of terror, most of them,” Beinart said. “So that’s something they should hear about from Palestinians.”

Teaneck, the northern New Jersey suburb that would qualify as a “very Jewish” community by nearly any standard, is where one of the participants, Liora Pelavin, 15, lives. Her mother, who is a rabbi, saw a post about Beinart’s Zoom meetings on Facebook and thought her daughter might be interested.

“Hearing from Palestinians really humanizes them,” Pelavin, who attended a Jewish day school through eighth grade and now goes to a public high school, said in an interview.  “It makes me learn and also realize that they all have different opinions, too.”

Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, an organization whose programs include facilitating dialogue between American Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, said any interaction would be welcome.

However, he was concerned that most of the Palestinians Ezra Beinart had selected were political or advocacy leaders, instead of ordinary Palestinians who might be better suited to explain everyday realities to high school students.

“There’s probably a version of a way to do this like Encounter,” a long-running program that brings American Jews to the West Bank for dialogue with Palestinians, “where you are hearing from people and learn their stories, and you are free to come to the political conclusions you want,” Kurtzer said. “But you humanize their experience. That’s one way of doing any of this work. There’s another way to do this work, which is, ‘I want to influence the politics of your own community.’”

Jonathan Kessler — a former senior official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who now leads Heart of a Nation, a group that facilitates dialogue among Jewish American, Palestinian and Israeli teens — said he was aware of Beinart’s initiative, and that it is an example of how Gen Z may be better able to break down barriers than their elders.

“A generation that does not think of gender and sexuality in binary terms is uniquely well positioned to approach a conflict, which has for too long been defined in a binary way,” Kessler said.

Jonathan Kessler. (Courtesy)

Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian political scientist who has spoken to Beinart’s group, said it was particularly important for Palestinian speakers to reach Jewish teens.

“Within the Jewish community, particularly in the organized Jewish community, there may be a lot of pro-Israel perspectives represented and not a whole lot of Palestinian perspectives represented,” he said. “I’m always inspired when I speak to younger people about this issue who have an interest in learning more.”

For Tlaib, it was also a forum where she had expressed views that she hasn’t otherwise voiced publicly — saying that she felt conflicted about evacuating Israeli settlers because they had lived in the West Bank for so long.

“Just the idea around taking families that — that’s been their home — it’s just completely uprooting, forcibly displacing,” Tlaib said. “It’s something I struggle with because, like, we’re doing it all over again, right? This happened during the Nakba.”

Beinart said he and others on the call, including Pelavin, were moved by her sentiments.

“A lot of the Jewish community thinks like, ‘Palestinians hate us, and don’t think we’re people too,’” Pelavin said. “I think that’s so wrong, and being on these calls has just confirmed that for me.”

Ezra Beinart favors a single binational state — Tlaib is the only elected lawmaker who also takes that position —  and Pelavin said her views on Israel trended left. But while much of the organized American Jewish community has historically bristled at criticism of Israel, neither teen said that they were made to feel like a pariah in their Jewish milieus.

“They think it’s cool that I do these types of things, but I think a lot of their goal is to just stay away from this topic around me, because they don’t really want to get into an argument about it,” Pelavin said of her peers.

And Beinart said holding a minority viewpoint hasn’t been a problem for him, either. “The kids in my school know who I am,” Ezra Beinart said. “No one’s mean to me. There are kids who share my views — a few, but not many.”

Despite the weighty subject matter, the conversation had an informal, friendly feel. Tlaib also wanted to learn more about the participants, but when she asked what colleges they were planning to attend, no one spoke up — until she noticed answers to her question piling up in the Zoom chat.

“Oh look there — you guys looove the chat!” she said. She then attempted to get her dog to hop on screen, but settled for showing the teens photos.

Ezra Beinart said he was fine with Tlaib’s cooing and kvelling about the college plans.

“I’m not going to pretend that this is a group of well-educated adults,” he said. “This is a group of kids who don’t know about this stuff as well. And that’s why I’m doing it — it’s not supposed to be for people who are experts, right?”

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