April 3, 2016

DANBERG BIGGS | A Jewish Opinion (Maybe)

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It is often noted that young American Jews are far more conservative when it comes to the Israeli conflict than they are in any other realm. Non-interventionist across the rest of the world, people of my demographic will gladly support massive military support for the state of Israel, whose governing coalition seems presently disinterested in any immediate peaceful resolution. In a variety of ways, the American left is full of young Jews who find common ground with conservatives on this particular issue. And the explanation that is consistently offered seems simple, that they are aligning with their faith. But upon closer examination this doesn’t really make very much sense.

Israel is not the only issue that is approached from a religious perspective. In countless other ways, American Jews look to their faith, to varying degrees, to guide their view of the world. And like believers in any other faith, they find vastly different interpretations that guide them to diametrically opposing viewpoints. The question we should be asking is not why young Jews choose to bring their faith to the topic of Israel, but rather why they do so in a such a uniform, black and white sort of way.

Because I do not wear Judaism on my face, most days it does not have to be who I am. Unlike other, more immutable characteristics of personhood, faith tends not to be an identity that is quite so externally visible. Of course there are exceptions to this for those who wear religious garb, and at the complex intersection of race and religion, this tendency breaks down. But for many, religion is an entirely internal identity. It exists and holds significance exactly to the extent that we choose to allow. If given the opportunity, it bends and reflects the world we see. It is a property of faith that it governs the way in which we understand questions in our lives — that I may read a book or have a debate from the perspective of a Jew is indeed the essence of that faith. It is a certain pair of glasses to wear.

This is the remarkable feature of living in a secular space. Devoid of any external expectation, it can remove many of the ascriptive qualities that religious identity can hold. For certain moral questions I do turn to my faith for some form of guidance. But it is just that. Faith does not dictate the precise way in which I interpret the world, but rather is just a small part of the equation. There is no external expectation by others that I understand the world with a Jewish mind, and through Jewish eyes. Except when we talk about Israel.

One of the few near-universal experiences of young American Jewry is being expected to know how you feel about Israel. It comes from both the voices of conservative Jewish communities, telling individuals to support the Israeli government, and the conservative elements of the Israeli government, which claim the issue to be highly religious. They also get it from pro-Palestinian groups, which often expect some sort of denunciation of Israel from the Jews that they talk to. It also arrives implicitly through the connections on college campuses between large Jewish organizations and pro-Israeli groups that often make the two appear, to the non-affiliated, as if they are one and the same.

Through the process of being asked, and re-asked, I have begun to feel an acute internal pressure to see this part of the world in a certain way. Whereas in every other arena, my mode of thinking has been the product of a collection of experiences and identities, when it comes to Israel, religion must be in the forefront. If a Jew would have an opinion, then my right to call myself one is tied to finding that opinion.

This, I think, begins to explain why my generation of Jews seems to respond to this issue in such a monolithic way. If religion is the reason for which I am sitting at the table, it is far more likely that is will be the sole factor guiding where I sit. That is, where there are the most Jews already sitting. When American Jews approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feeling that their Judaism requires them to do so, we are far more likely to adopt a two-tone approach to the what their faith should mean. It is the presence of expectation, not religion, that explains why my generation acts the way it does.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at red243@cornell.edu. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.