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‘Defending the Indefensible’: What Israel’s new government means for Jewish students abroad

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Defending the Indefensible’: What Israel’s New Government Means for Jewish Students Abroad

As Israel’s most right-wing and reactionary government to date begins enacting its policies, Jewish students thousands of miles away feel the burden of being identified with it (Haaretz, 10th January, 2023) )

Until the recent election, though, Israel still had the benefit of being viewed by most of the Western world as a democracy, albeit a fragile one. But that election, held just over two months ago, has brought into power the most right-wing and reactionary government in Israeli history. Headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, it is planning crackdowns on the judicial system as well as basic civil and minority rights, leaving the country’s status as a democracy in limbo.

Among those certain to be impacted by this new government are those Jewish students abroad who, for no fault of their own, may be held accountable for its actions. Some are already pushing back.

Within days of the election, the Union of Jewish Students in the United Kingdom issued a statement saying it would not be able to support a government that includes the likes of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich – now the national security and finance ministers, respectively.

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“If we as a community call out the Far Right in Britain and elsewhere, we must not turn a blind eye to the Far Right in Israel,” the statement said. It noted that these two leaders of the Israeli far right “do not represent the Jewish values we hold dear.”

Even before the election, the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, which represents students at schools throughout Australia and New Zealand, issued its own statement expressing concerns about the possible impact of events taking place thousands of miles away. “While we cannot vote in the Israeli elections, as Jewish students in the Diaspora, we are significantly invested in and affected by political developments in the Jewish State, whether we like it or not,” it said.

The student union expressed deep concerns that a party running on a platform of homophobia and racism – the Religious Zionism party led by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir – was likely to emerge as the third-largest party in the country, which it did. Referring to the two lawmakers, the statement said: “We cannot allow these men to co-opt the ideologies we hold so dear, and it is for this reason that we say Lo bishmenu – not in our name.”

In conversations with Haaretz, 15 Jewish students from the Diaspora share their thoughts about the new government in Israel, and what it will mean for them and their campus discourse.

Betsy Cohen, 21, fourth year student at Leeds University, England

Cohen, who was raised in North London in a Modern Orthodox family, had been considering aliyah. But following the November 1 election, she is having second thoughts: “I’m waiting to see how things pan out,” she says.

A member of the British Labour party, Cohen describes herself as left wing and “culturally religious,” though she isn’t especially active in Jewish life at her university.

The rise of the extreme right in Israel, she believes, has brought the cultural divide between Israeli and Diaspora Jews to the forefront. “At the end of the day, Israelis voted for a radical far-right government,” says Cohen. “I think we have to start asking ourselves uncomfortable questions about what this reveals about the country and the headspace its citizens are in.”

Cohen still identifies as a Zionist and says she can’t imagine the day when she would sever ties completely with Israel. “That said,” she adds, “it no longer feels like the country I knew and was taught to love growing up.”

The rise of the far right has made it more difficult for students like her to defend Israel, says Cohen, “because the optics are so bad.”

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“We have to be able to separate Israel’s government from Israel as a whole,” she adds. “But that’s not a super clear or strong argument for Jewish students to pedal.”

Asher Dayanim, 20, third-year student at Columbia University, United States

Dayanim, the son of Jewish immigrants who fled Iran, describes himself as a Zionist with strong cultural and emotional ties to Israel. Although his commitment to Israel has not waned because of the election results, he says, defending the country has become “trickier” – especially on a campus where students and faculty tend to be very left-wing and critical of Israel.

“It feels like the election results have confirmed all their biases,” says the Philadelphia native. “I also know some Jewish students who have been on the fence about Zionism, and this hasn’t helped.”

Dayanim takes solace, however, in the fact that Israel’s previous government, albeit short-lived, was the most diverse in the country’s history. “I think this shows that there hasn’t been a fundamental shift in the political outlook among Israelis, but rather that Israeli politics are an absolute mess,” he says. “There’s still a sense that we can all ride this out.”

Brad Gottschalk, 21, third-year student at Cape Town University, South Africa

Gottschalk grew up in Johannesburg, where he was active in Habonim Dror, the left-wing Zionist youth movement. He is now a member of the South African Union of Jewish Students.

Because the Jewish community of South Africa tends to be quite conservative with regards to Israel, he says most of his peers are unfazed by the recent election results. “In fact, Bibi is a popular figure here,” he says, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In South Africa, he explains, it’s hard to find Jews with a nuanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “You are either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine,” says Gottschalk.

That makes life particularly challenging these days for an outlier like him. “Being a left-wing Zionist involves a lot of mental gymnastics,” he says. “I feel like I’m having a particularly rigorous workout.”

As someone who follows Israeli politics closely, Gottschalk says, he wasn’t particularly shocked by the election results. “That said, I think for a lot of my contemporaries, it came as a

“It no longer feels like the country I knew and was taught to love growing up”

huge and unwelcome surprise,” he adds. “Many students in South Africa are what I term ‘blind Zionists,’ and fascism in Israel doesn’t fit the narrative of the Herzl spiel we all grew up on.”

Jaron Rykiss, 21, third-year student at the University of Manitoba, Canada

Rykiss, who describes himself as a “Zionist with caveats,” is president of the student union at his university.

Disappointed with the new political situation in Israel, he says: “I’m trying to be calm and take a wait-and-see approach, but Israel needs to be a country that provides a safe space to all its citizens – at least that’s the ideal we should all be striving for.”

“Fascism in Israel doesn’t fit the narrative of the Herzl spiel we all grew up on”

He says he wouldn’t blame young Jews for turning their backs on Israel, given the composition of the new government, and notes that the process has already begun.

“I think part of the issue is that Diaspora Jews are taught that Israel is a magical land, and they’re not give a counter-narrative,” says Rykiss. “Once they get to campus and meet pro-Palestinians for the first time, it makes for a jarring experience.”

Leonardo Shaw, 20, third year student at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Shaw, who defines himself as “culturally and ethnically Jewish,” is not aware of his Jewish friends pulling away from Israel because of the new government. and assumes this is because they are able to distinguish between the state and the government.

“Britain also has a very right-wing government in power, so it could be that it’s easier for us to make this distinction,” he posits.

While the political situation in Israel is “upsetting,” he says, his feelings toward the country haven’t changed.

“I was hoping to visit this summer, and funds permitting, I will,” says Shaw. “Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but politics are temporary, and things can always change for the better.”

“As Jews, we end up spending most of our time defending the idea that the Jewish people have a right to a national homeland”

He doesn’t expect it to become more difficult to defend Israel on campus for the simple reason, he says, that most students tend to be pretty ignorant about the situation in the country. Indeed, Shaw says he would be shocked if students on his campus knew anything about Itamar Ben-Gvir, widely considered to be the most controversial member of Israel’s new government.

“Most non-Jews I meet on campus don’t even know that Israel’s a democracy, let alone keep up with the country’s politics,” he says. “The type of debates we have on campus are way more basic. In fact, as Jews, we end up spending most of our time defending the idea that the Jewish people have a right to a national homeland.”

Josh Cohen, 21, third year student at Nottingham Trent University, England

Cohen, president of the JSoc (the Jewish students society) on his campus, identifies as Modern Orthodox religiously and center-left politically. Describing himself as an “unapologetic Zionist,” he believes it is important for students to continue engaging with Israel, but at the same time, to be “vocal in our opposition to the new government.”

Cohen does not anticipate tough times ahead for Jewish students on campus: “The vast majority of students, Jews and non-Jews alike, aren’t interested in Israel’s internal affairs.”

Gabriel Gluskin-Braun, 23, graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, United States

Gluskin-Braun, the son of a Reconstructionist rabbi, was active in the Habonim Dror Zionist youth movement but now identifies as anti-Zionist. The rise of the far right in Israel, he predicts, will push growing numbers of young American Jews into his camp.

“The idea that Israel represents the interests of global Jewry has, I think, been largely disproven,” says the Philadelphia native, who is studying Eastern languages and culture, with a specialization in Arabic.

“In the past, Diaspora Jews were hesitant to criticize Israel in public for fear of being labeled ‘self-hating’ or even ‘antisemitic.’ Now, a lot of young Jews have reached the end of their tether and are questioning how much longer they can defend the indefensible and engage with a country whose values don’t align with theirs.”

He describes the predominance of extremists in Israel’s new government as “another straw on the camel’s back.”

George Aminoff, 23, fourth-year student at Aston University, England

Aminoff, a member of the Birmingham JSoc, was raised in London and comes from a traditional Jewish background. Although he remains a Zionist, he says he will find it much harder now to continue defending Israel. “I don’t want to excuse the country’s swing to the hard right,” he says.

At the same time, he doesn’t expect the rise of the far right in Israel to radically change the views of his Jewish

“People think Israel is a dictatorship, comparable to a theocratic regime like Iran”

friends. “On campus, a lot of young Jews are increasingly critical of Israel, but I don’t think the election results alone are going to turn people into anti-Zionists,” he says.

Paris Enten, 20, second-year student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia

Enten, who serves as advocacy and communications coordinator for the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, says that this is the first time she can remember so many young Jews fundamentally opposed to the Israeli government.

She describes the situation as “challenging,” but does not think the election results will cause young Jewish Australians to distance themselves from Israel. “Our relationship with Israel isn’t based on the government of the day but on the idea of supporting a Jewish homeland,” she says.

Growing up at a time when Israel is under constant international criticism – often unfairly so in Enten’s view – has strengthened the resolve of her and her peers to stand up for the Jewish state. “It has hardened our Zionist beliefs,” she says.

Enten takes consolation in the fact that most of Israel’s major critics on Australia are relatively clueless about domestic politics in the country.

“Debates are not happening on our campuses at a such a sophisticated level,” she says. “People think Israel is a dictatorship, comparable to a theocratic regime like Iran. So, we don’t spend our time discussing nuances, but rather, dispelling basic lies.”

Kayla Lior Vardi, 22, third-year student at University of Cape Town, South Africa

Vardi, who was born in London and grew up in Johannesburg, identifies as a secular Zionist, but is active in Chabad, the Orthodox outreach movement.

As someone who has long advocated for Israel on her campus, she anticipates greater difficulties ahead. “In South Africa, the antisemitism I’ve experienced has always stemmed from anti-Zionism, and the composition of the new government is bound to provide more fodder.”

With Israel moving away from democracy, says Vardi, it will become harder for students like her to advocate for it. “I’ll be having to defend a government I disagree with on just about everything,” she says.

Having said that, Vardi does not think many young South African Jews will disengage from Israel because of the new government.

“Even the most liberal Jewish schools in South Africa are staunchly Zionist, and so, I don’t think the trend we see worldwide is relevant for young Jews in my country,” she says. “One election – albeit unprecedented in terms of the extremist results – is unlikely to make us turn our backs on

“I would delete my social media and [move to Israel] very quietly, because I’m worried about being canceled”


Vardi has considered immigrating to Israel, but says she was always hesitant “for fear of a backlash from my non-Jewish friends.”

If she were to move now, she says, “I would delete my social media and do it very quietly, because I’m worried about being canceled.”

Josh Feldman, 22, fourth-year student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia

Feldman, who describes himself as a centrist Zionist, runs the blog for the Jewish Student Society at his university and follows events in Israel closely.

He thinks it would be “short-sighted and wrong” for young Jews to abandon Israel, and believes most of his peers in Australia share his view. “Young Australian Jews are very Zionist – even more than our parents and grandparents were, and I highly doubt this election will change people’s feelings toward Israel,” he says.

“Rather than distancing themselves, I think a lot of Jewish students are interested in learning why a person like Ben-Gvir has managed to become so popular,” he adds. “In this regard, there’s a perverse sense of renewed interest in the country.”

Rose Zelezniak, 21, third-year student at University of Cape Town, South Africa

Zelezniak, who identifies as a left-wing Zionist, says she is feeling “pretty hopeless” about Israel these days.

“But I’ve accepted the fact that as a Diaspora Jew, there’s very little I can do,” she says.

Rather than feed into the anti-Israel atmosphere on her campus, Zelezniak says, she has resolved to keep her thoughts to herself. “On campus, I still advocate just as fervently for Israel as I did before the election,” she says.

Zelezniak expects life to become even more challenging for Jewish students like herself because of the Israeli government’s orientation.

“Now we have to contend with the idea that a fascist party will be part of the new government, and that is the last thing we need on our plate,” she says. “If I were to sum up, I’d say that the Israeli election has made an already desperate situation even more toxic.”

Sheli Cohen, 22, recent graduate of University of Kansas, United States

Cohen, who grew up fairly observant, describes herself as a “cultural Jew” with left-of-center political views.

After graduating this summer, she moved to Tel Aviv, where she is working in the film industry. Despite the temptation to pick up and leave in despair over the new government, she says, she felt “the brave thing to do was to stay and fight.”

Cohen finds it disheartening that most of the American Jews she has recently encountered who moved to Israel tend to see eye-to-eye with the new government. “They’re changing the demographics of the country, and it is hard for me to engage with them,” she says.

The situation in Israel today reminds Cohen of how things felt in the United States right after Donald Trump was elected president. “It enabled the extremists to become more extreme, and led to super-polarization,” she says.

Adam Levy, 23, fourth-year student at University of Sydney, Australia

Levy, who describes himself as left-wing, is concerned that if the new Israeli government begins to act on some of its declarations, life could become far more challenging for Jewish students on campus.

“This is bound to further enrage the anti-Israeli activists on campus and make the environment even more hostile to us”

“All these horrendous laws will end up creating more violence against the Palestinians, and this is bound to further enrage the anti-Israeli activists on campus and make the environment even more hostile to us,” he says.

Levy, who plans to immigrate to Israel within the next few years, believes it is easier for him, as a Diaspora Jew, to distinguish between his feelings toward the state and his feeling toward the government. “I understand that’s a privilege not afforded to Israelis,” he says.

Beitha Milner, 20, second-year student at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Milner, the national chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish Students, is not particularly disturbed by recent political developments in Israel. “Israeli politics are not super relevant to me, because my ties to the land are historical, cultural and religious,” she explains.

Neither does she anticipate that life will become more difficult for Jewish students on South African campuses. “The pro-BDS students in South Africa have never cared about who’s in power in Israel,” she explains. “The election for them is irrelevant, and I doubt they even knew one had taken place.”

Although she cares deeply for Israel, Milner says she would never speak out publicly against the new government. “Who the Israelis choose to elect isn’t really my business,” she says. “I’m not a citizen of the country, and I don’t pay taxes there.”

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Article source: Haaretz, 10th January, 2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000