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Emerging Jewish Left Posing ‘Challenge To The Center’

At a recent Jewish Currents’ relaunch party in Brooklyn. The quarterly magazine is trying to bring together young Jews disillusioned by the mainstream community’s stance on Israel. Rafael Shimunov/Courtesy of Jewish Currents.

The nearly 400 young Jews gathered in a former warehouse in Brooklyn sipped on drinks with names like Trotsky’s Pick or Red Scare and danced the hora to the rollicking sounds of a klezmer band.

You might have expected a screening of “Reds,” with Warren Beatty as the revolutionary John Reed.

In fact, it was an early-summer party celebrating Jewish Currents, a 72-year-old Jewish leftist quarterly magazine that was recently relaunched and passed on to a new generation of leadership. With headlines like “The Best Argument for Socialism,” “Walking Off a Birthright Trip Isn’t Stealing” and “How to Fight the Netanyahu Government (and Win)” recently gracing its homepage, the magazine is clearly hoping to appeal to a new generation of young Jews whose feelings about socialism and Israel don’t match those of the mainstream Jewish community.

“The energy in the room was so over the top,” said Arielle Angel, 33, a new co-editor of the magazine. According to Jacob Plitman, the 27-year-old who became Jewish Currents’ executive editor last month, young Jews like himself “have been looking for this thing for years and just didn’t know it existed.”

The idea of an emerging Jewish leftist community — which includes publications like Jewish Currents and the online journal Protocols, anti-Israel-occupation groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace and podcasts like Judaism Unbound and Unsettled — might seem strange given the politics of American Jews, who have long been arguably the most liberal religious group in the United States. But the place of those pushing for leftist causes, especially when it comes to Israel, has always existed more on the periphery of the Jewish community. That distance from the center has grown over the years as the community’s center of gravity has been pulled to the right after years of terrorism within Israel and rocket attacks from Gaza.




Jewish Currents executive editor Jacob Plitman: North Carolina native’s visit to Bethlehem transformed his thinking on Israel. Shira Hanau/JW

Having grown up in Jewish institutions — day schools, camps, youth movements, synagogues — where Zionism was taken for granted, a subset of young Jews no longer feels comfortable in those institutions. In the minds of those who actively and vocally oppose Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its continuing settlement-building activity in the West Bank, American Jewish institutions are implicated in Israel’s misdeeds.

In recent years, as leftist Jews have been building new organizations, attracting members and making more noise on social media, their growing community is facing a crossroads. Can its laser-like focus on Israel’s occupation move the needle on that issue in the Jewish community, or is it tilting at windmills? And, more crucially, will the new Jewish left’s refusal to take a position on the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, on Zionism or even on whether Israel should be a Jewish state, keep the movement on the far fringes of the community, even as the Reform and Conservative movements and groups like the ADL and AJC have leveled sharp and bitter criticism at Israel’s right-wing government on a whole range of issues?

“People need this,” said Plitman. “The growth of Currents right now and the rejuvenation of the magazine is part of a general challenge to the center.”

Demographics may be with Plitman and his cohort.

Part of this “challenge to the center” aligns with a broader story about changes and challenges to the Democratic Party. Millennials, now ages 20-37, are the most progressive generation of today’s eligible voters. A widely reported 2016 YouGov poll showed that 43 percent of young adults ages 18-29 viewed socialism favorably, up from 36 percent the previous year. Since November 2016 and the election of President Donald Trump, the Democratic Socialists of America has seen its membership jump from about 5,000 to 40,000 members across the country. At a time when Democratic Socialist candidates like House nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Queens and state Assembly hopeful Julia Salazar, who is Jewish, are rallying young voters, the Democratic Party is now torn between its centrist and progressive wings. The political changes in the Jewish community seem to be a microcosm of a larger story about a party in transition.

Where the story of young progressive Jews departs from that of their non-Jewish peers, and their Jewish forebears, is the topic of Israel. “They’ve grown up not with a sense of Jews at the precipice of disaster, but they’ve grown up … with a sense that Israel is Goliath and the Palestinians are David, and that’s a huge difference from previous generations,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist and author of “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism,” agreed. “They believe that the Jewish state could be governed and operated with social justice as its primary attribute, and when they see Israel becoming more aligned with the values of Donald Trump, they think, ‘Well, that’s not the Israel that I have in my mind’s eye,’” he said.

The revival of a vibrant Jewish left has given Jewish Currents, which now has a circulation of 5,000, a new lease on life. Founded in 1946 as a Communist Party-affiliated publication, it became an independent magazine in 1958 and rescinded its earlier Stalinist positions. The magazine has had just two editors since 1959, making the decision by former editor Lawrence Bush (he’s still listed as editor in the masthead but now serves in an advisory role) and the editorial board to hand over control of the magazine to a new millennial staff all the more telling.

Plitman, the new executive editor, is in many ways emblematic of the community encompassing the emerging Jewish left and Jewish Currents’ younger readers. Growing up in a small town in North Carolina, his parents sent him to a Young Judea camp to get his Jewish identity fix. He loved camp and soaked up its messaging on Israel and Zionism, eventually deciding to study in Israel for a gap year between high school and college. His rosy view of Zionism began to change that year when he visited Bethlehem and came face to face with Palestinians for the first time. “The things that I saw there were more powerful than my ability to ignore them,” said Plitman.

Plitman’s involvement in J Street U, the college arm of the liberal Israel advocacy group, served as a political outlet during college. Several months spent volunteering with Syrian refugees in Greece after college prompted him to question his preconceived notions about capitalism. Then he found Jewish Currents and found a Jewish and political home. “There was this small group of people that seemed to be speaking my language,” he said.

For Bush and his generation, “the word ‘socialism’ carries with it all the baggage of the failures of socialism and all the crimes of socialism or communism,” he said. “Their [Plitman’s] generation seems to be excited by the word communism without the baggage.”

The trope in Plitman’s story — growing up in a Zionist Jewish environment before experiencing a moment of disillusionment — is one with which many young Jewish progressives can identify. It’s the story that gave birth to IfNotNow, a Jewish anti-occupation advocacy group that is central in today’s emerging young Jewish progressive ecosystem.

Originally founded during the 2014 Gaza War and relaunched in 2015 after a year of planning and strategizing sessions, IfNotNow’s mission is to end what it sees as the organized Jewish community’s support for what it calls “the daily nightmare” that Israel’s occupation creates for Palestinians; it hopes to accomplish its mission through public campaigns and “disruptive protests” targeting significant Jewish organizations like the Ramah camping movement and Birthright.

Unlike J Street, IfNotNow is not a policy-making organization and it does not engage in lobbying. In fact, it does not take any official position on topics like Zionism or BDS. While Jewish Currents has defined itself as “pro-Israel, non-Zionist” for decades, both groups believe that having an official position on Zionism, on whether the State of Israel should exist, or whether it will support or denounce BDS is unnecessary.

“One of the best things about IfNotNow is that I don’t need to have an answer to that question,” said Yonah Lieberman, a founding member of IfNotNow and one of a handful of full-time staffers (the organization is largely volunteer-run). “What does it mean to be a Zionist? I think that the Jewish state exists.”

Not long ago, J Street was the Jewish establishment’s bogeyman, its message of liberal Zionism deeply threatening to the political status quo. And when J Street started its college arm, J Street U, in 2009, it quickly became the political home of Jewishly engaged college students like Plitman and Lieberman who were frustrated by the right-wing policies of the Netanyahu government and the American Jewish establishment which largely supported it. Plitman recalled being a part of a group that “found J Street U to be a really powerful place to be at a particular time. The halcyon days of the Obama administration, the seeming closeness of a two-state solution. Those things felt really powerful.”

In the years since J Street launched in 2008, it has gone from avant-garde to almost passé among the young Jewish left. For those looking for a radically progressive Jewish approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, IfNotNow or the pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace, which launched in 1996 and is shunned by much of the Jewish community, are now the places to go.

The question remains, however: What is the new Jewish left offering the wider Jewish community if it refuses to take a stand on BDS and Zionism and it refuses to offer any constructive solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

“I think a lot of people are ready to say that they’re outraged by something but they’re not necessarily ready to say I have the solution, especially if they’re in that phase of critically reappraising what’s going on,” said Sarah Seltzer, the digital editor at Lilith Magazine and a contributing writer at Jewish Currents.

“IfNotNow wound up being a place where young people could go who were affiliated and wanted to say a strong ‘no’ without having to be sort of in either place,” said Elisheva Goldberg, who served as an adviser to former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. “It’s for the most part a statement of ‘no,’ and the question of what [they can say yes to] remains to be seen.”

What may differentiate this generation of Jewish progressives from those that preceded it is the feeling of community that transcends the organizing meetings. “The art and the politics and the conversations that you’re having with your friends and that you’re having on Twitter are all coalescing around the same space; it’s sort of pervasive and it’s not just in the moments you go to meetings,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director.

Organizations like IfNotNow and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice are becoming the proto-institutions of a community structured around politically inflected Jewish experiences like Shabbat dinners and Freedom Seders as well as protests. (Interestingly, JFREJ just launched a political action arm to push progressive candidates in New York State.) The publications, podcasts and social media of the new Jewish left have created a media ecosystem in which Jewish progressives can talk to each other and think out loud about the values of their community without the gatekeeping of traditional Jewish media. “We’re sort of standing in for the sensibilities of an emerging community right now,” said Angel. “Jewish Currents used to be the magazine of a party, and now it’s more the magazine of a community,” echoed Plitman.

Can such a community become a force in the Jewish community, especially as population surveys show that charedim, who tend to be solidly pro-Israel and could act as a demographic counterweight to millennials, are growing at a fast clip?

“There are critics who remain on the periphery and there are critics who move from the periphery to the mainstream,” said Brandeis’ Sarna. “The question really is which of today’s critics will make that transition from periphery to mainstream and which will remain on the periphery.”

IfNotNow’s Lieberman already sees his organization and the Jewish progressive ecosystem it calls home evoking a reaction from the Jewish establishment. “I think that the establishment sees us as a threat,” he said. “And frankly, we are a threat because we are the future, and if they don’t change, they’re going to become irrelevant.”

But Lieberman later warned: “If we don’t change the mainstream, then we’re going to leave the community.”

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