Should I stay or should I go?

Or, to quote The Animals, is it time to sing ‘We gotta get out of this place’?

A sign is displayed at the pro-Palestinian demonstration encampment at Columbia University in New York, April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

(RNS) — In the immortal words of The Clash: “Should I stay or should I go?

That was a question that was on the lips of many of us participating in the “Re-Charging Reform Judaism” conference at the end of May at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York. An intergenerational gathering of more than 250 leaders of the movement struggled with the essential questions of Reform Jewish identity — and most notably: What does it mean for us, as Reform Jews and liberals, to be Zionists?

Especially, after Oct. 7 and its prolonged, agonizing aftermath. 

To channel the name of the aforementioned British rockers, there were no visible clashes. But for me and for others, the clashes were internal.

They were all about: Should we stay or should we go?

First: Should we stay or should we go — from the universities?

For American Jews over the past two centuries, the university has been our replacement for the holy temples in Jerusalem. The university has epitomized our dreams of intellectual engagement, social inclusion and professional attainment. That is why we fought admissions quotas in the Ivy League — quotas that were specifically designed to keep Jews out.

But since Oct. 7, American Jews have seen the rising tide of Jew-hatred on campuses. Fifty blocks north of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, at Columbia University, Jewish students have been spat upon, forced out of clubs, shunned, called “disgusting colonizers,” told to “go back to Poland” and that “Zionists don’t deserve to live.”

It is bad. There have been mounting protests against Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, which has reported that 61% of Jewish students feel less safe because of encampments on campuses.

Let us remember how the book burnings in Nazi Germany started. It happened at Humboldt University in Berlin in May 1933, not at the instigation of the Nazi Party but, rather, because students and faculty members readily, eagerly and hungrily consigned the books to the flames.

So, should our kids stay, or should they go? Should they, perhaps, reject elite universities?

Some will do precisely that.

This potential academic exodus makes me uncomfortable, however, because that is precisely what the anti-Zionists and their allies would want. It is far better to hang in there and to engage these issues. Moreover, the challenges on campus could be precisely the kind of Jewish spine-building that our young people might need.

On that topic: What should we want for our kids on campus?

Yes, the American system guarantees freedom of speech, but our young people must enjoy another freedom — the freedom from attacks on core aspects of one’s identity.

Universities have the obligation to protect young Jews just as they have the obligation to protect other groups from violence against their identities. If other groups on campus were similarly attacked, no one would find it permissible. 

But there is a difference between safety from attack and safety from challenge. We should expect that the university experience will challenge our young people — intellectually and morally.

Which is to say that academic struggle over the meaning of Zionism is perfectly acceptable — as long as other versions of nationalism receive the same scrutiny. If Zionism is the only unacceptable nationalism, that is a problem, as it would be if Palestinian nationalism were the only acceptable nationalism. 

Second: Should we stay or should we go — from alliances with progressive groups?

Not long ago, I bemoaned the post-Oct. 7 silence (and worse) of the progressive left and asked them:

Where were you?

You were either silent, or you said there was wrong on both sides (like “There are good people on both sides” at Charlottesville?), or that all human losses are the same (recalling how none of us liked the “all lives matter” thing), or you were outright hostile to Israel and the Jews.

Yes: on October 7, you offered us, perhaps, a day of sympathy.

 But, it is easy to sympathize with Jews who are suffering. After all, we have so much experience with it.

But, when Israel fought back, you went “ballistic.” You criticized Israel’s response. You ignored how Hamas operates – placing its operatives in schools and hospitals, deliberately using its people as human shields. You called for a cease fire but not a release of the hostages.

And, why? You were victims of your binary categories of powerful/powerless that you could not see the pain of the Jewish people.

That pain is out there. At “Re-Charging Reform,” two of America’s most preeminent statespeople addressed it head-on.

Rabbi David Saperstein, the Reform movement’s senior social justice activist, pleaded with us neither to exaggerate the left’s antisemitism nor our perceptions of the left’s abandonment of the Jews.

Amanda Berman, CEO of the progressive Jewish group Zioness, urged us to go further: to drill down and to educate our partners. Let us not assume that they understand the issues or the depth of our hurt. Use this moment as an opportunity to use the brokenness to find something deeper and richer.

Here again, as with the universities, it is tempting to walk away from these coalitions, but neither we nor America can afford this luxury. As with the universities, to make progressive spaces “judenrein” — free of Jews — is to give the bigots what they want. 

For some of us, the hurt from those progressive groups is too deep. Some will say: We still care about progressive causes — race, environment, etc.— but we will no longer work with those groups who have offended us.

One of my favorite rabbinic tales is about a group of sages in the days of the Roman Empire who were sitting around and discussing Roman civilization, under whose dominion they lived.

Some of them cited the worthy aspects of Roman culture, but Shimon bar Yochai had nothing good to say about that world. He and his son fled into a cave, where they lived for many years, all of their needs satiated; it was as if the cave had become their womb.

When they finally emerged, everything they gazed at became incinerated on sight. It was as if their castigation, and their withdrawing, had become destructive.

It is a cautionary tale.

Our anger, isolation, despair and trauma are real.

Yet American Jews lack the luxury to stare at the world in anger, and to even unconsciously wish that it would be obliterated.

“Should I stay or should I go?”

I understand wanting to go.

Nevertheless, we stay.

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