By Lily Hoffman Simon
Activism is an age-old Jewish tradition. The most recent example of this was the recent protest at the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly in New Orleans, where five students disrupted Netanyahu’s speech about the delegitimization of Israel. (Before you read on, watch this movie):
On the one hand, these students are courageous, passionate, and strong young Jews, who possess an ability to take a stance in a way that many wouldn’t have the chutzpah to. Yet, their actions, and especially the responses to them, beg the question of what, if anything, their activism accomplished.
Let’s take a minute to reflect on different avenues of Jewish activism. There are numerous Jewish groups in the USA and Canada dedicated to national inequalities, such as Jews for Economic and Racial Justice. Other Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish World Service, are committed to combating global inequalities, most often in underdeveloped countries. These kinds of groups, which believe their activism is Jewishly-inspired or mandated, focus on social activism and are dedicated toward increasing people’s equality and freedom, either on a national or international level.
Given that activism is often politically-based, it could be argued that political lobby groups, such as AIPAC and JStreet are also organizations of Jewish activism. Their work is dedicated toward promoting certain values in policy. Such work seems to be the most tangible type of activism, as it tends to produce real, concrete results (like a political policy). However, the productive nature of this work does not necessarily imply social changes or affect people’s attitudes.
This brings us back to those five protesters, who neither build anything or create policy, per se, but vie purely for social change. When watching the video, it is obvious that the crowd around them is unimpressed by the student’s disruptions. In fact, the more they protest the more aggressive and angry the crowd becomes. The students hoped to promote alternative viewpoints to Netanyahu’s presentation in a space in which they felt shut out. Compare these goals to the results of their activism, and the outcomes are disheartening. Aiming to encourage a critical perspective on Israel, the protestors in fact reinforced a vehement support for Netanyahu (and by extension, a singular perspective on Israel). Instead of recognizing the legitimacy of the student’s voices, and their presence at a Jewish Assembly (supposedly representative of all Jews), the protest just made people angry. This anger can do nothing else but fuel more resentment towards the student’s message. The attempt to deconstruct Netanyahu’s argument, may in fact, have reinforced it (or at least turned people off from the new argument).
While the protest ultimately failed in its goal of contributing a different Jewish perspective to the debate, it did accomplish one thing. It shattered the perceived unity of the Jewish people and made clear that there was not only one perspective on Israel, which seems to be the dominant idea at the conference. In that, at least, it inched toward the change in social attitudes.