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Why Student Protests Are “Good for the Jews” and a Congressional Crackdown on Israel Criticism Is Not

To show solidarity with oppressed communities is to act on the inherited Jewish principle of support for the marginalized.

Jonathan Goldman & Jacob Leland May 16

It’s a refrain that has echoed in Jewish-American households for generations. In response to world events, international politics and  popular culture phenomena, our uncles and aunts and grandparents and parents, and finally, we ourselves ask it of one another around the seder table, the shabbat table, the breakfast table. 

Matters from Iraq wars to Jewish rappers, to major-league baseball players, to Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris playing George’s parents on Seinfeld all fall under the all-encompassing rubric: “Is it good for the Jews?” 

Student protesters remind us of the age-old Jewish tradition of questioning authority and speaking truth to power.

The question is posed with a self-consciousness that one might say mitigates its myopic quality: It straddles the line between earnestness and irony. Also ambiguous is the precise meaning of “good for the Jews.” Good for our collective reputation? For our ability to advance in or integrate into mainstream American society, culture, politics or business? For the likelihood of the next generation of Jews celebrating holidays, maintaining the culture and traditions, joining synagogues? For our safety from antisemitism at home and abroad? To answer a single question with four more is, of course, a Jewish custom.

As college and university students gather on their campuses to call for a cease-fire in Gaza, institutional divestment from Israel and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, they offer one clear answer: To show solidarity with oppressed communities is to act on the inherited Jewish principle of support for those in need and those on the margins. Student protests are good for the Jews. 

Illustrations by Gianluca Constantini

The most publicly visible Jewish Americans loudly deny this, of course. The Anti-Defamation League, for instance, counts those protests among its list of “antisemitic incidents,” and its president has compared them to Nazi Germany — that is, when he isn’t rehabilitating the reputation of  whichever right winger has most recently repeated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He also accused the protesters of being proxies for the Iranian government. Again, this is the president of an organization that claims to oppose the defamation of Jewish people. He and other apologists for Israel’s military aggression don’t speak for all Jewish people though, and neither does anyone else: As an old joke goes, ask two Jews, get three opinions. 

Indeed, differences of opinion within the Jewish community is one of the only things we all agree upon. The Talmud itself is made up of conflicting opinions, interpretations and commentaries, and one role of Jewish scholars and intellectuals has been to add their own voices to such interpretation. 

When Jewish students at a campus protest conduct a Passover seder or a Shabbat service — when they organize with Jewish Voice for Peace or Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and when they proclaim or just imply their Jewish values as part of their rationale for protesting — they make publicly visible a kind of Jewish person who puts the lie to antisemitic tropes. They remind us of the Jewish tradition of questioning authority and speaking truth to power, one that stretches as far back as the foundational Jewish myths of Jacob, wrestling with God’s messenger and Moses, striking down an Egyptian slave-driver and returning from exile to demand that the most powerful man in his known world set free an enslaved, oppressed people. Just by showing up, whether or not they make their Jewishness apparent to all, they wrest American Jewish identity back from Jonathan Greenblatt, Ben Shapiro and Sheldon Adelson while asserting their cultural-genealogical connection to Emma Goldman, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein (to name just a few). They insist that Jewishness still includes dissent and oppositional politics and — this part is crucial — that Jewish people will stand up when injustice is being committed against other communities, even when, especially when, it is in their name. That’s good for the Jews.

You know what’s bad for the Jews? Congress’ “antisemitism” bill that aims to silence criticism of Israel. It’s fodder for antisemitic tropes like those that depict Jews exerting disproportionate control over world governments. It feeds right into antisemitic narratives of Jewish privilege, Jewish special treatment, and Jewish cabals controlling policy and the economy — into antisemitic narratives that equate Jewishness with Israel, itself a variation of an ancient antisemitic trope that casts Jews as loyal to a foreign power.

This aside from the fact that free speech is a central principle of Jewish American thought, promoted by figures such as Louis Brandeis. It almost goes without saying that the bill does nothing to curtail actual antisemitic speech. Rather, it turns over the power to gatekeep Jewish identity — a power nobody should or does have — to white-supremacist Christian nationalists, telling the Jewish left they don’t belong. 

Congress’s “antisemitism” bill is fodder for antisemitic tropes such as the ones that depict Jews exerting disproportionate control over world governments. 

When Republicans in Congress pretend — and they are pretending, make no mistake — to protect Jewish sensitivities or to protect the good Jews from the bad ones, they align Jewish Americans with ruling-class white suburban culture and the military and law-enforcement industries on which it relies. They offer American Jews the same deal that the Pharaoh of Genesis offers Joseph: Assimilate to power, do its work, and it will protect you — until, they never say out loud, it doesn’t. Congress’ actions purposefully drive a wedge between Jews and oppressed peoples and minorities, furthering a divide that has often been marked by distrust. That is bad for the Jews. 

Student protests, with their prominent Jewish presence, demonstrate that Jewish people all over the world are not the oppressor even if the Israeli government is. The next generation is putting itself on the line for the sake of peace and justice. Good for the Jews. 

Jonathan Goldman is a Humanities professor at New York Institute of Technology. His current research project is the archival website NY 1920s: 100 Years Ago Today. On the web at jonathanegoldman.com and on Twitter @jonnysemicolon.

Jacob Leland is a high-school teacher and musician in Oakland, California.

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