Allow me to give the lowdown on my Jewish background. I was born in one Jew-dense city, Buenos Aires, and moved to another, Miami, at the age of five. There, my family was rather secular compared to others; my parents, I’d find out later on, were reticent agnostics. Still, we kept to basic Jewish traditions—partially because my parents saw this as a way of honoring our ancestors; partially because everyone else was doing it, too.
Then there’s the inescapable subject of Israel. Growing up, there was little talk of the country or its issues in our home. But outside our walls, the discourse was different; Israel was held as the beacon of justice, democracy, and Jewish excellence. All around me, in community centers and schools, in neighborhood dinners and religious services, young people like myself were indoctrinated—a jarring, yet apt word— into the principles of Zionism, the name of the movement to officially establish Israel as the Jewish homeland. We were taught to love Israel unwaveringly, to not doubt, critique, or find fault with any of her actions or people. As it follows, pro-Palestinian was equated with pro-terrorism, Islamophobia was rampant, and to be anything but intensely pro-Israel was to be a dissenter. This, you will imagine, felt jailing.
By the time high school was ending, the knowledge that I would soon be escaping all of this felt just as one would expect a freeing of this sort to feel: exciting, but equally daunting. Exciting, because the prospect of being around alternative views intrigued and stimulated me. Daunting, then, because I wasn’t sure how my Jewish identity would manifest itself once I found myself ungoverned by my home community. It didn’t matter—I was getting away from it all. And even if the specific college I’d be attending was known for its large Jewish population, nothing could compare to the confinement I was feeling back home.
As my freshman year at Wash U comes to a close, my major and future are both unclear— but my religious withdrawal is indisputable. Back home, most weeks included a visit to temple, and every Friday had my family sitting down for Sabbath dinner; on campus, though, five is the number of religious dinners I’ve attended (most of which were clustered in the first semester), and zero represents how many times I’ve walked through a synagogue’s doors for anything other than a major holiday.
It wasn’t until recently that I started thinking about this irreligiousness of mine on campus. I know, at least, that its cause is denser than the blanket “college changes people.” Yes, I recognize that, in many ways, I am the bird freed from his cage, the small-town boy in the big city, the captive who, captive no more, sees alternative lifestyles and freely defines his own. But I also know that there’s more to it. After all, when my mother calls on Friday mornings to ask if I’ll be attending services later in the day, and my response is a hesitant and disguised “no,” disinterest in religion just doesn’t cut it as a full explanation—for neither of us. No, there’s something else. There is another reason I feel such apathy and aversion to the idea of connecting to my Judaism on campus.
In an earlier draft of this piece, a draft I almost submitted as my final, I progressed to explore this reason that I believed—and convinced myself—to be the cause of my irreligiousness. Had I left this piece unchanged, this paragraph would have come next:
“Much thinking later, I have come to believe that the cause of my campus secularity is, of all things, social progressivism. I am not saying that I felt compelled to abandon my Judaism because the Left’s implicit social code includes a stipulation that new members desert their religions (though statistically, liberals are much less religious than conservatives). My point, rather, is that by herding all social justice groups—those representing LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, feminism, pro-choice, socioeconomic diversity, and countless other causes—into a boat with pro-Palestinian organizations, and then insisting that this boat sail together or not at all, the Left leaves behind a passenger, the Jewish progressive, who cannot as easily ride with pro-Palestinian sentiments. (Stay tuned for why.)”
The “why” of why some Jewish progressives can’t sign on with pro-Palestinian causes is two-fold. First, some of our families (mine not included) and home communities (mine included) see taking a pro-Palestinian stance as taboo, as an unspeakable treason comparable to deserting the religion and community altogether. Second, and perhaps more symbolically, some of us do not feel at ease campaigning against a state that was founded to protect and ensure the survival of the Jewish people, the descendants of my grandparents’ siblings who just seventy years ago were murdered in a mass genocide—even if we know this state is also so blatantly violating human rights.
The premise of my argument was based on several experiences I’ve had as a member of social justice groups on campus, groups that didn’t hesitate to ally themselves with “other marginalized groups” broadly, and with pro- Palestinian causes in particular—even if their official focuses were on other causes altogether. I was uncomfortable seeing these older students, whose social justice vigor I revered, standing by a cause that my home community had painted as sinful. Ultimately, I argued: “When I choose to join a social justice organization, I want to choose to join that organization. Maybe when polarizing social causes, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are allowed to exist independently of each other, potential activists will feel more at ease signing up for the cause or two they feel especially strongly about—rather than all at the same time.”
Then, I concluded—and still believe—that the reason for my irreligiousness on campus is that I am compelled to hide my Judaism rather than risk alienating myself from several social justice causes that I feel equate—wrongly, if so—Judaism with Zionism, the ideology that led to the displacement and oppression of so many Palestinians to begin with.
Despite laboriously reaching those conclusions, by the end of that earlier draft, I felt uneasy. I anticipated backlash to the key part of my argument that encouraged the exclusion of pro-Palestinian groups from the social justice wagon. And what worried me most was that, to an extent, I agree with the critics in my head.
I agree, in particular, that pro-Palestinian groups on campus are very much in need of other social justice groups’ support. Pro-Palestinian groups are, by all means, marginalized groups with views and voices that have historically been silenced on this campus. This is evidenced by the fact that it wasn’t until this past fall that Students for Justice in Palestine became the first SU-funded pro-Palestine group on campus. It’s further corroborated by the detail that Jews, who by most estimates represent over a fifth of Wash U’s population, well outnumber Muslims on campus. This leads me to think that all social justice groups should ally together to amplify their collective voice and aggregate power.
But as I consider how this approach inadvertently encouraged me to abdicate my religion, a part of me believes that social justice groups should not ally together. This way, students—like the Jewish progressive, for example—can keep up their social involvement while not facing the dissonance with their backgrounds and communities that I described earlier. Ultimately, I consider a piecemeal social justice approach to be the best approach, even if it carries the risk of lessening the voice of social justice causes, like pro-Palestinian ones, that undoubtedly deserve to be heard.
If grouping all causes together means unintentionally but concurrently asking people to choose between their religions and their social beliefs—as I found myself having to do during much of this past year—then it is best not to sell the social justice movement as an all-in-one bundle deal, but rather as a movement that respects the nuances in the beliefs, backgrounds, and circumstances of its many activists.