The Volokh Conspiracy

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"A Message from Jewish Students at Columbia University"

"Contrary to what many have tried to sell you – no, Judaism cannot be separated from Israel. Zionism is, simply put, the manifestation of that belief."


Throughout the recent campus tumult, media outlets have always been careful to say the Jewish students are part of the "mostly peaceful" protests. The press has dutifully reported about shabbat dinners and Passover seders at the encampments. The message is clear: how can these protests be anti-semitic if Jews are involved? Indeed, the Jewish students at these encampments insist that the Jewish faith is separate from Israel–they maintain that real Jewish values are inconsistent with Zionism.

These arguments have brought to the forefront an issue that has pervaded Judaism for millennia: there is no single Jewish religion. There is one Catholic church, and one set of doctrine. There are a range of Protestant faiths, but when there are broad disagreements, there is a schism, and branches go in different directions. (For an example, look at recent developments in the Methodist church). But for Jews, a formal schism is impossible, and really unnecessary, because different groups within the faith can and have adopted radically different understandings.

This dynamic presented itself (trigger warning) in debates about Judaism and abortion. Some Jewish people claim that scripture imposes something like a religious obligation to have an abortion in certain circumstances. And, they asserted that RFRA compels the state to grant an exemption for women to have an abortion in those circumstances. Other Jewish people vigorously dispute and contest this reading of religious teachings. But for purposes of RFRA, it doesn't matter. The courts can probe sincerity of belief, but they cannot mediate what are and are not the tenets of a particular faith.

This history brings us back to Israel: is Zionism essential to Judaism? The Jewish students wearing kaffiyehs and N95s on the upper west side will tell you the answer is emphatically no.  Other Jewish students will say yes. Today, more than 500 Jewish students at Columbia signed a letter to explain why the occupiers have gotten Zionism so wrong.

I'll include some excerpts here, but you should read the entire letter:

Over the past six months, many have spoken in our name. Some are well-meaning alumni or non-affiliates who show up to wave the Israeli flag outside Columbia's gates. Some are politicians looking to use our experiences to foment America's culture war. Most notably, some are our Jewish peers who tokenize themselves by claiming to represent "real Jewish values," and attempt to delegitimize our lived experiences of antisemitism. We are here, writing to you as Jewish students at Columbia University, who are connected to our community and deeply engaged with our culture and history. We would like to speak in our name. . . . 

We proudly believe in the Jewish People's right to self-determination in our historic homeland as a fundamental tenet of our Jewish identity. Contrary to what many have tried to sell you – no, Judaism cannot be separated from Israel. Zionism is, simply put, the manifestation of that belief. . . .

Our religious texts are replete with references to Israel, Zion, and Jerusalem. The land of Israel is filled with archaeological remnants of a Jewish presence spanning centuries. Yet, despite generations of living in exile and diaspora across the globe, the Jewish People never ceased dreaming of returning to our homeland — Judea, the very place from which we derive our name, "Jews." Indeed just a couple of days ago, we all closed our Passover seders with the proclamation, "Next Year in Jerusalem!"

How do the Jewish students at the encampments respond to this article? I'm not entirely sure. You'd have to ask them. But one rather common approach is to simply disregard certain religious doctrines that are inconsistent with modern-day values. For example, on Yom Kippur, the tradition is to read a well-known passage from the Book of Leviticus: "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence." Some temples have re-interpreted this provision such that it does not actually prohibit homosexual sodomy. Other congregations simply skip it. Yes, on the holiest day of the year, they just jump over the text, as if it is not there.

It is entirely possible to treat the connection between Judaism and Israel in the same fashion as some treat Leviticus 18:22. Again, there is no equivalent of a pope to mediate what the right Jewish reading of scripture is, or what the right Jewish understanding of Zionism is. Ditto for how Judaism addresses abortion and LGBT issues.

The letter makes several other important points, one of which I have advanced of late: antisemitism manifests itself in every generation in different ways:

This sick distortion illuminates the nature of antisemitism: In every generation, the Jewish People are blamed and scapegoated as responsible for the societal evil of the time. In Iran and in the Arab world, we were ethnically cleansed for our presumed ties to the "Zionist entity." In Russia, we endured state-sponsored violence and were ultimately massacred for being capitalists. In Europe, we were the victims of genocide because we were communists and not European enough. And today, we face the accusation of being too European, painted as society's worst evils – colonizers and oppressors. We are targeted for our belief that Israel, our ancestral and religious homeland, has a right to exist. We are targeted by those who misuse the word Zionist as a sanitized slur for Jew, synonymous with racist, oppressive, or genocidal. We know all too well that antisemitism is shapeshifting.

You should not blithely assume that because Jewish people are part of the protest, it cannot be anti-semitic. As we are reminded often, Justice Thomas, one of the most important African-Americans in American history, is racist because he opposes progressive views on race. Throughout history, regrettably, Jewish people have been on the side of antisemitism–often as part of an attempt to assimilate with the prevailing currents of modern society. There is nothing new under the sun.