Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism

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Leah Nussbaum and Evan Traylor, students at Hebrew Union College in New York. (credit: Damon Casarez for The New York Times)
How a new generation of Jewish leaders began to rethink their support for Israel.

By Marc Tracy | The New York Times Magazine | Nov 2, 2021

“For those of us for whom Israel has represented hope and justice, we need to give ourselves permission to watch, to acknowledge what we see, to mourn and to cry. And then, to change our behavior and demand better.”
— an open letter to American Jews

It began, as so much these days does, with a group chat. Early this year, around 20 rabbinical and cantorial students started a WhatsApp thread they eventually named “Rad Future Clergy.” Among them, they attended rabbinical schools in five different U.S. cities. Several of them first became friends while studying and working in a sixth city, Jerusalem, the capital of the land that both the Torah and Israel’s declaration of independence deem the place for “the ingathering of the exiles.”

In April, the texting heated up. A longstanding effort by a right-wing Jewish group to assume ownership of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighborhood, was coming to a head. Israel’s government characterized the issue as a mere “real estate dispute,” which was true in a narrow sense but elided the winding history of the homes’ ownership — which changed hands as the land beneath them did over the course of two wars — as well as the Jewish group’s frank goal of altering East Jerusalem’s demographics to secure it permanently for Israel. Protests in the neighborhood spread to the nearby Temple Mount, a holy site for both Jews and Muslims, where riot police fired rubber bullets and Arab protesters threw stones following Friday prayers.

There have been weekly protests against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions for years, and the broader conflict is of course much older than that. But at no recent time has there seemed less of a chance that Israelis and Palestinians will reach a peace agreement that might establish a Palestinian state on land presently occupied or annexed by Israel. Israeli politics are so sclerotic that it required four elections in two years to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, an unpopular prime minister facing corruption charges, with a coalition that, despite the historic presence of an Arab party, is unlikely to significantly alter the country’s approach to Palestinian issues. Israel’s newfound friendliness with powerful neighbors like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has actually lessened the international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians, whose own politics are static and divided.

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