"Complicated" isn't good enough. It's time for the Conservative movement to address the occupation.


When I spent the winter of 2009 with my Solomon Schechter Westchester classmates on a two month-long trip to Israel and Poland, we were told to keep a journal that would chronicle our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and would serve as a reminder of our trip and of what we were “fighting for.” This journal would remind us of our tears at Auschwitz, our delight at floating in the Dead Sea, and of squeezing our own letters into a sea of other hopes and prayers at the Western Wall. After our trip, we participated in a seminar led by the David Project, a right-wing Israel advocacy organization that armed us with talking points for defending Israel on our college campuses. The message was loud and clear: the state of Israel would shield us from the unspeakable horrors of another Holocaust, and yet it was under attack. Our role as newly-formed adults was to defend Israel against “delegitimization,” against the scourge of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, against professors who would only teach “one side,” and against our non-Jewish classmates.
I recently came across my old journal, and in between florid descriptions of hikes and play-by-play analyses of each interaction that my crush and I had were the seeds of uncertainty. How did the state of Israel play into my identity as an American Jew? What did it mean to advocate for Israel both inside and outside the bounds of The David Project? And how could I reconcile the way that Schechter took us to the site of the King David Hotel bombing and took us to meet with members of the settlement of Efrat, with Israel we were told was purely peace-seeking country? Was Schechter the school that mentored me as I co-founded the school’s first Young Democrats Club, and asked us to contribute dozens of service hours to our communities each year, or was it the school that couched decades of brutal occupation in the word “complicated,” limiting our role only to unquestioning defenders of Israel?
I grew up within the Conservative movement. I attended Ramah as a child, attended a Conservative shul every week, and spent my weekends as an active member of Hanefesh, my local USY region. My mother grew up within the movement as well, and my grandfather was a Conservative rabbi who served on the Committee of Jewish Laws and Standards. It was my parents who signed my tuition checks, who drove me up to USY conventions in the far reaches of Connecticut, and who walked with me to shul everySaturdaymorning. I did not shop schools or shuls, or decide how observant I would or would not be. As a teenager, I did not choose to be a member of the Conservative movement, though as an adult, I get to choose if I will stay. The teachings and institutions of the Conservative movement helped guide me during adolescence, but also taught me the steep price of dissent. Now, as an adult looking for meaningful Jewish life, but frustrated by the movement’s red lines around Israel-Palestine, I do not know whether or not I belong in this movement.
I don’t know if I can pay membership fees to a Conservative synagogue when the USCJ has expressed more outrage at the Israeli government this past year about Women of the Wall then they have throughout fifty years of brutal, dehumanizing military rule. When I have children, I don’t know if I will send them to a school whose affiliates apologize after daring to allow Palestinian children to wave their flag, and where tikkun olam is declawed and depoliticized. I’m not sure how much longer the movement can rest on its laurels. How much longer we can beam with pride and teach our children about Heschel and Dr. King marching side-by-side through the streets of Selma, while ignoring the cries of the oppressed both here and abroad. In the midst of darkness and destruction, when the Occupation enters its 50th year, when Gazans still lack electricity for more than several hours a day, and when the President allies himself with white supremacists, and denounced violence “on both sides” after neo-Nazis and white supremacists stormed through Charlottesville, the Jewish community urgently needs bold moral leadership.
Instead of nurturing young leaders and teaching them to confront the injustice of the Occupation, I worry the Conservative movement has insulted their intelligence by teaching them the word “complicated.” I worry for a movement that teaches its young leaders to view BDS as an existential threat when the scourge of white supremacy creeps through our country. We are told that we cannot possibly engage, unless it is under their purview, using their talking points with little room for nuance or debate. During my senior year of high school, under The David Project, my classmates and I were armed with facts and figures, a long litany of dates of wars and treaties, so that we could be prepared for what we were told was a wave of hatred of Israel on college campuses. Palestinians were seen solely as caricatures, rendered inhuman by their virulent hatred of Jews. Like so many young Jews who grew up in the Conservative movement, the more I learned about the Occupation, the more heartbreaking it was to recognize the reality that had been hidden from me by the institutions that raised me.
Over the past year and a half, I have found my Jewish home in IfNotNow, a movement of young Jews working to end American Jewish support for the Occupation, and fighting for freedom and dignity for all people. I initially joined the movement because it aligned with my politics, but it also gave me back the Jewish community that I had been craving. It gave me back text studies and Shabbat dinners, but most importantly, it brought a fire back into my Jewish practice. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision.” If the Conservative movement is to truly develop its young leaders not just as pray-ers but as people whose actions align with the words they pray, it must remain brave and heed Heschel’s call. It must understand the urgency of confronting injustices both here and in Israel-Palestine, and it must encourage its students to face these difficult conversations head-on.

Naomi Heisler lives in Brooklyn, NY, and is pursuing a Masters of Public Health at NYU. She is an active member of IfNotNow NYC.

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