Last Monday, 18,000 Jews shamefully applauded a man backed by neo-Nazis at AIPAC’s annual policy conference. However, while Donald Trump was pandering to and being cheered by an unrepresentative segment of the American Jewish community willing to ignore his fascism and hate, something much different was happening 2,000 miles away in Salt Lake City.
This is where Bernie Sanders, the only Jewish presidential candidate and sole contender to skip AIPAC’s conference, delivered a speech he wrote with AIPAC in mind, a speech which likely would have been ill received by an unforgiving and hostile audience.
Sanders, among all candidates, was the only one to mention Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinians. Not only that, he called for its cessation as well:
Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank, just as Israel did in Gaza – once considered an unthinkable move on Israel’s part.
That is why I join much of the international community, including the U.S. State Department and European Union, in voicing my concern that Israel’s recent expropriation of an additional 579 acres of land in the West Bank undermines the peace process and, ultimately, Israeli security as well.
Sanders ruffled the feathers of some institutional Jewish leaders loathe to even mention the word “occupation,” much less acknowledge it as an obstacle to peace. However, he actually represents the majority of American Jews who see critiquing Israel, namely its settlements and the occupation, as not just compatible with being Jewish, but an essential part of what it means to be a Jew.
Sanders also echoed the desires of a small cadre of young, American Jews who are actively working to oppose the occupation through The Center for Jewish Nonviolence via an activist campaign called “The Occupation is Not Our Judaism.” These American college students are organizing and raising funds for the type of trip one imagines Sanders would have joined as a youth and might even publicly support today:
We are a group of American college students, and we believe that occupation is not our Judaism. As part of the student wing of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, we will join Jewish activists, rabbis, community leaders of all ages from around the world in the West Bank this July for ten days of nonviolent solidarity work with Palestinian partners. Our commitment to Jewish history, texts, and community compels us to work toward a day in which the shared humanity and full equality of Palestinians and Israelis alike will be realized. We, as consistent with the values of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, are unequivocally opposed to the occupation and committed to the practice of nonviolent resistance.
Several weeks ago, I sat down with Maya Rosen, one of the students organizing and raising funds for this trip. We met at a bustling coffee shop in PIttsburgh, where she was visiting family during her spring break from Princeton. Short, with wavy brown hair and piercing eyes which narrow when concentrating, Maya spoke about the confluence of Judaism and her activism with a contagious intensity. (Disclosure: I know Maya and her family personally.)
Unlike Sanders and the majority of American Jews, Maya is deeply connected to Jewish practice and texts, viewing her opposition to the occupation and championing of Palestinian equal rights as a direct extension of her religious convictions. However, like Sanders and the majority of American Jews, who view “working for justice and equality” as one of the defining characteristics of being Jewish, Maya stands in direct contrast to many Jewish institutional leaders who fight nonviolent opposition to Israel’s policies rather than those policies themselves.
Maya has opposed such Jewish leaders in the past, even those on Princeton’s campus, who wish to deny those who support nonviolent measures, such as boycotting Israel’s occupation, a voice within the Jewish communal tent. Such activism has not been easy for her.
“I remember I was sitting in my Biology lecture and I started getting these messages from people I didn’t know,” she recalled after publishing an article in the Forward on her work. “They were blaming me for violence against Jews and saying this is what happens with anti-Semites like you around.”
When I asked how her activism, as a committed Jew, affected her engagement with the organized Jewish community, she answered, “I keep kosher, Shabbat, I engage in the community, but it’s not a safe space for me to talk about Israel.”
When I asked Maya about her current activism, about the name of the trip for which she’s trying to raise money, “The Occupation is Not Our Judaism,” the cadence of her speech quickened, clearly invigorated.
“The name is simultaneously affirmative and negative,” she said, leaning forward.
“Well, negative in that I oppose Jewish organizations trying to speak for me and, by extension, saying jingoistic policies are something I support. That’s wrong and I’m going to vocally oppose that.”
“You’re referring to the occupation?”
“Among other things, yes.”
“So the affirmative, then?”
“The name is affirmative in that peace and justice are my Judaism. The Torah has a very clear sense of what it means to seek peace and pursue it. I take that vision really seriously.”
I couldn’t help but think, staring at Maya, that Sanders, a secular Jew disconnected from Jewish organizations and religious practice, would say something remarkably similar, absent textual references. Indeed, when I asked Maya about Sanders, she immediately responded, “I’m very excited about Bernie!”
“Well, Israel isn’t the only reason I’m excited, but I do feel he presents a much better approach. His recent speech [in Utah] is the soundest thing I’ve ever heard from a presidential candidate. I’m happy he didn’t pander to AIPAC.”
Maya also isn’t one to pander. When I challenged her on the danger of her activism conflating Judaism and Israel, she was resolute. “Israel has already muddied the waters, particularly settlers with their extremist religious rhetoric. This trip, the name of this trip, is a way to redeem this muddying. I hope that by using religious language, we can neutralize religious language.”
“So you’re intentionally trying to be controversial?”
“Look, this is partially about getting the attention of the organized American Jewish community, whose complicity is staggering.”
“So what do you say to those whose attention you garner who think you’re anti-Israel?”
“Ending the occupation is the best thing for Israel and the security of the Jewish people. Of course it’s about Palestinians and human rights, but it’s also about the threat that the occupation poses to Israel. This is about us, about who we are, and about what we as Jews stand for.”
As Maya stood to go, I couldn’t help but think about how she represents the future of the American Jewish community, a future which desperately needs to be supported. I also thought about how American Jews like Maya, focused on justice and invigorated by Sanders, are a subset of something larger reverberating across this country as young Americans―focused on social and economic justice―flock to the first successful Jewish presidential candidate in US history.
Maya’s desire to work with Palestinians, to fight for equal rights and social justice, is an extension of her Jewishness. Just as Sanders being a Democratic socialist is an extension of his own Jewishness. The two separated by generations. Struggling together. Creating a powerful, if not inspiring, alliance.
If you’d like to support Maya and help make her trip for college students to the West Bank happen, you can do so by donating here.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.