The answer to an anti-Zionist Jewish future? – Mondoweiss

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What is the future of Jewish life in the U.S.? This question is increasingly tossed around within Jewish spaces. A growing population of young Jews in the U.S. are beginning to question the role of Zionism in Jewish practice and make note of its cost on Palestinian lives. These questions have been met with a dismissive response from Jewish institutions, who, rather than engaging with the changing landscape of Jewish politics, have fired, alienated and turned away anti-Zionist Jewish educators, students and groups. As the struggle for Palestinian liberation receives growing attention and support, these trends have caused a crisis in the realm of U.S. Jewish identity. 

Over the last century, responses to these questions and challenges from American Jewish movements and institutions have proven to be disappointing. At the cost of their own vitality and continued survival, many choose to ramp up their support for Israel and the false premise it is grounded in: that true Jewish liberation and safety could ever be preconditioned on the oppression of others. The future of U.S. Jewry cannot lie in the mainstream Jewish structures that, even with their dying breath, would prioritize the profit of settler-colonialism over the well-being of their constituents. With established communal institutions failing to engage with a Jewish future severed from settler-colonialism, many wonder where this growing population of anti-Zionist Jews will find community.

While anti-Zionist, U.S. Jewish activist groups aimed at recruiting millennials, and older adults have certainly gained momentum in recent years (Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, etc.), the question of meaningful engagement with Jewish life, culture, religion and community still remains. This is particularly true for younger Jews, such as college students and recent graduates. Jewish Gen-Z, in the wake of an emergent political consciousness that questions Zionism’s origins and its catastrophic impacts on Palestinians, have virtually no established outlets for creating value-aligned Jewish communities, especially on college campuses. Judaism On Our Own Terms (JOOOT), however, is an exception to this rule. 

 With its anti-Zionist mission long in-the-making, JOOOT initially began as an alternative group to Hillel under the title “Open Hillel”, motivated by Jewish college students’ desire to have Jewish community without sacrificing ethics as they relate to Palestine. In years since, JOOOT has claimed an identity distanced and distinct from Hillel on the whole, with staff changes and additions reflecting the transition to anti-Zionism, free from a manufactured piece of Jewish identity.

Many young Jews aren’t settling for the available answers to the aforementioned question of the future of Jewish life in the U.S., and are instead carving out a path for themselves rooted in a commitment to radical and mutual responsibility. Judaism On Our Own Terms, an independent, cross-national Jewish organization, has recently announced a firm, anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist politic, outlining a new Mission Statement and Points of Unity for burgeoning Jewish groups to sign on to. On the heels of this announcement, the student group hosted a digital gathering on Sunday, September 10th, where they endeavored to “collectively look toward the future of […] campus Jewish communal life and the ‘North American’ Jewish community at large.” Inviting current students and supporters to this meeting, the student group began to lay the groundwork for addressing the evolving needs of Jewish college students in the U.S., particularly those who reject Zionism and desire a more principled, antiracist, anti-colonial connection with their identities.   

Other offerings for anti-Zionist Jewish college students remain slim. Hillel and Chabad, and the largest Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, are all fervently Zionist and grounded in political and religious agendas dictated by the interests of their donors—and they are the only Jewish organizations most universities have. Hillel in particular holds a near monopoly over campus Jewish life, with an international network of funding, political, and professional support. Hillel’s Zionism is embedded in its policy, with Hillel’s ‘standards of partnership’ banning Hillel chapters from allowing Palestinians to attend meetings, participate in programming, or co-host any events. Any chapters rejecting these standards are cut off from Hillel International. Unlike Hillel and Chabad, JOOOT supports a network of independent, student-led Jewish organizations, providing resources and guidance for Jewish involvement, but allowing college students to define their own parameters for engagement with their unique communities. 

The decline in synagogue membership and attendance may well be indicative of a shift in where Jewish guidance is needed. Many young Jews come to terms with their Jewishness for the first time—independent of the family unit—during college. Some students are entering Jewish spaces for the first time at their universities. In finding and entering Hillel chapters, they often get thrown into a pipeline of Zionist politics through ‘Israel’ programming. JOOOT is trying to disrupt this pipeline. JOOOT aims to fill the gap that many Jewish students feel, when desire to be involved in Jewish spaces clashes with moral standing. By actively building a Jewish future untethered by the Zionist constraints of ‘legacy Jewish institutions’, JOOOT seeks to allow Jewish students to redefine what Judaism means to them, campus by campus. 

By investing in young, Jewish engagement with anti-imperial principals, JOOOT is supporting and building a future for Jewish life in the U.S. that is not contingent upon support for Israel or Zionism, but, rather, that rejects and opposes both. Where other anti-Zionist Jewish organizations may find traction in engagement with older Jewish populations, Judaism On Our Own Terms broadens the means through which young Jewish people can establish Jewish communities rooted in spiritual, religious, and educational Jewish anti-Zionism and solidarity politics. JOOOT understands and affirms that traditional Jewish institutions ‘distort Judaism’, and JOOOT works to cultivate a new way forward for the next generation of U.S. Jews.

In practical terms, Judaism On Our Own Terms is the only long-term Jewish student movement offering principled solidarity with colonized and exploited peoples. With JOOOT’s renewed dedication to justice, anti-Zionist Jewish college students may no longer be faced with the choice of Judaism or morality.      

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