“Coming Out” at JTS
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
This December, the pro-Israel group Students Supporting Israel (SSI) hosted an event entitled “Indigenous People Unite.” The event included a line- up of what SSI leadership described as indigenous activists, including Tibetan and Native Canadian individuals as well as an Israeli citizen.
Shoshana,* a dual-degree first year in Barnard and the Jewish Theological Seminary, was one of many in the politically divided crowd.
An Israeli citizen, Jewish student, and pro-Palestinian activist, Shoshana attended the group not to support the event, but to counter-protest. A member of the Columbia University Apartheid Divest organization (CUAD) and Columbia Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), she was surprised and uncomfortable to find out that her JTS classmates were coming out to the event to support it rather than protest it.
“It was shitty. I didn’t realize there would be people yelling at you, and I realized that I had outed myself as an anti-Zionist.”
In an article entitled “Between Politics and Religion: Jewish Activism at Columbia,” first published in The Current, a journal of “contemporary politics, culture, and Jewish affairs at Columbia,” Solomon Wiener, CC ’19, describes what he calls “the spectrum of Jewish activism.” Wiener conceives of pro-Israel groups like Aryeh, which is somewhat more moderate than SSI, as being as much part of this spectrum as groups like JVP, which are vocally pro-Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions.
“Jewish students participate in a variety of activist groups,” writes Wiener, “and sometimes work against each other’s interests.”
While SSI describes itself somewhat vaguely as a “grassroots organization,” Aryeh, however, does not self-describe as an activist organization but rather as simply a “student group dedicated to engaging in the campus community.” Some Jewish anti-Zionists at Columbia believe, meanwhile, that being a Jewish activist means staunchly supporting the Palestinian people and working for progressive change in Jewish communities, and that supporting the state of Israel as a Jew is simply upholding the status quo, not a radical act.
Illustration by Kristine Dunn
“Coming Out ” as a Pro-Palestinian Jew
At the Jewish Theological Seminary, pro-Palestinian activists find themselves in an uncomfortable place, hiding their politics for fear of alienation from fellow Jews who support Israel. I spoke with Sophie Edelhart, a Barnard/JTS sophomore, in her Plimpton dorm room a few days before the beginning of the semester. A California native who was educated in a Jewish day school throughout her childhood, Sophie is considering attending rabbinical school after college, or trying to pursue more work in Jewish grassroots organizing. She says radical politics and Judaism are “two components of my life that are important and have always spoken to one another.”
I asked her what it was like to “come out” as a pro-Palestinian student at JTS, a traditionally Zionist and conservative institution.
She pauses and says, “I think in a big way I still haven’t come out as a pro-Palestinian Jewish student,” with a laugh. I said, “I should have used different language for that question,” to which she responded “No, it’s ok, that’s the language that a lot of people use. So it’s not just you.”
“I don’t feel that connected to the JTS community for a lot of reasons but also, the administration, in explicit and many implicit ways, is sort of clearly very pro-Israel and anti-BDS [the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the state of Israel] and I just never felt a platform or space for me to step up and be like, ‘I’m a BDS pro-Palestinian JTS student,’ because as far as I know there’s like four of us… that I know of.”
“There’s that small community, but I know them mostly through JVP. So, yeah, in a lot of ways I’m still sort of closeted.”
Shoshana, meanwhile, describes that, ironically, mainstream Jewish institutions have in fact been “very progressive about things like letting queer people into clergy and positions of religious authority.”
Even queer, female, feminist, or politically radical Jews must still hide their pro-Palestinian politics in self-proclaimed progressive Jewish spaces, says Shoshana.
This makes finding other pro-Palestinian students, let alone faculty members, difficult. Sophie says she has “no idea” if there are any non-Zionist faculty members, and ultimately finds it unproductive and difficult to try to seek out a non-Zionist community at JTS.
Another JTS student adds that often times, people are “so overwhelmed by the workload that they’re really apathetic about any politics or political engagement,” beyond the Zionism that is implicit in the institution itself.
“It goes from the religious text study to history and thought and more general humanities… and then we also have to take Hebrew. And we also have a breadth requirement to cover different historical periods. There’s also a requirement to have a class that covers Jewish women and gender studies,” said Sophie, adding, “There are a lot of feminist theologians at JTS.”
Sophie says that JVP, while focusing on faculty and student mobilization at Columbia/Barnard, has found it unproductive to try to work on mobilizing JTS faculty/students per se, and that even progressive faculty or adminstrators are under too much institutional pressure to engage critically with Israel. “It’s one thing to engage Jewish people in your life, it’s another thing to engage a Jewish institution with financial, academic, and institutional backing. None of us [in JVP] think it would be productive.”
Progressive Except Palestine?: Exploring Logical and Political Contradictions
“Women’s rights are human rights all over the planet,” said writer and activist Angela Davis during her speech at the Women’s March on Washington D.C., during inauguration weekend this past January, “and that is why we say freedom and justice for Palestine.”
But, as some anti-Zionist JTS students point out, the logic of solidarity with oppressed peoples, women and non-women alike, in Palestine, often falls flat in otherwise progressive Jewish spaces. “I think this is an issue with larger mainstream Jewish spaces in general which would call themselves liberal, is that they’re open and accepting of women and LGBTQ people. They host seminars about it and all this stuff, but when as soon as Israel comes up there’s an exception made, and it’s not held up to the level of scrutiny that a lot of other issues have.”
“I think it’s hypocritical,” says Sophie, “and I guess I can’t really explain the logic of it because I’m not a liberal Zionist.”
Earlier this year, the Movement For Black Lives put out a public platform which explicitly described Israel as an “apartheid state,” describing the injustices of the continued arrests, detainments, and impeded mobility of the Palestinian people in the Israeli state. “[The] Black Lives Matter [movement] is pretty off the table” for most JTS students, Sophie says.
Lived Experiences of Being in JTS/Barnard/Columbia
“I wanted to do the dual program because I come from a Jewish educational background and I think that education has always been the way that I connected to being Jewish and so I wanted to continue that and continue to learn in that sort of setting,” says Sophie.
At the Jewish Theological Seminary, students must take two Talmud Jewish law classes, two Bible classes, one liturgy class, two history, and two Jewish thought classes, as well as fulfilling all of the requirements for a Barnard degree or a General Studies degree.
Daniel* is a GS/JTS sophomore in the pro- gram, studying Jewish literature at Jewish Theological Seminary and “probably” Middle Eastern Studies at JTS. Through JTS, he has taken several classes specifically about Israel, covering topics like “the making of the Israeli national tradition and collective memory.”
He grew in the Habonim Dror movement, which he describes as a “socialist Zionist youth group.”
“A lot of what brought me to JVP was understanding that I don’t want to believe in that ideology,” Daniel says
I ask if there have been any stressful or uncomfortable encounters with students when issues of Israel comes up.
“I think that people tend to assume that if you’re Jewish and at JTS that you have certain feelings about Israel,” says Sophie.
While Sophie expresses frustration politically with the curriculum at JTS, Daniel points out that some aspects of a conservative Zionist Jewish education can be useful then as tools toward radical organizing.
The classes that Daniel has taken, mostly in Jewish and Israeli literature, were “not at all particularly leftist or critical.” Daniel believes they have been useful for him in terms of “opening my eyes to a lot of the myth-making of the Zionist movement and the way nationalist movements shape themselves.”
“It’s Not Up To Palestinians To Engage Jewish Communities:” Organizing for Palestine In and Out of Jewish Communities
“As someone who has a lot of privilege in the state of Israel, I can’t be not thinking about it and not fighting it,” says Shoshana.
I ask what the role of progressive Jewish spaces are in terms of holding a political line on Israel/ Palestine.
“It’s a complicated question which I don’t even know if I have the answers to,” Shoshana says she sees the value of Jewish organizations which are liberal to left on Israel, if not explicitly pro-Palestine. One example of such a group is J Street, an organization with a chapter at Columbia that describes itself as being “pro-Israel and pro-Palestine.”
Shoshana “wholeheartedly believes” that Jewish communities should maintain a certain degree of independence in mobilizing internally toward Palestinian liberation. This goal is “tied into trans- formation of the Jewish community, and it shouldn’t be up to Palestinians to transform the Jewish community; it should be up to other Jews. That’s where Jewish Voice for Peace comes in.”
If Wiener, the author of The Current article, describes how Jewish activists must straddle the line or stand uncomfortably “between politics and religion,” then these anti-Zionist JTS students confidently, if at times uncomfortably, solidly occupy both spheres. For them, there is no contradiction in being a Jewish theological student and a pro-Palestinian activist; rather, the two go hand in hand.
“I find meaning in Jewish community because it is Jewish,” says Daniel, “and I find meaning in Jewish Voice for Peace because it is pro-Palestinian.”
*Some names have been changed at the request of students interviewed for this article.