Opinion: Pro-Palestinian protesters are proving why Israel is needed

Editor’s Note: Mijal Bitton, PhD, is the spiritual leader of the Downtown Minyan in New York City and a sociologist of American Jews. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion articles at CNN.

Here’s a secret that many of the protesters in university encampments and on city streets don’t seem to be in on: The more they demonize Israel, the more they reawaken Jewish identity and strengthen Zionism.

Mijal Bitton - Courtesy Nir Arieli Photography
Mijal Bitton - Courtesy Nir Arieli Photography

As a community leader and Jewish educator in the United States, I have been living in the shadow of the horrors of October 7. We have seen the worst carnage against Jews since the Holocaust, video-broadcast by brutal terrorists. We have witnessed the avalanche of rising antisemitism around the world, including allegations last Saturday that a 12-year-old Jewish girl in France was gang-raped while being subjected to religious slurs. We have found out that too many of our allies right here at home refuse to speak up when Israelis are murdered or when American Jews who care about Israel are excluded from polite society.

While the intensity of the campus protests are simmering down with the end of the school year, the virulence of demonstrators outside college quadrangles are only intensifying the fear Americans Jews are feeling. Last week, protesters in Lower Manhattan targeted an exhibit dedicated to the memory of the hundreds of young Israelis murdered or kidnapped from the Nova music festival. They unfurled a banner proclaiming “Long Live October 7” and held signs declaring that Zionists “are not Jews and not human.” Days earlier, crowds chanted “kill another Zionist now” across from the White House in Washington.

But paradoxically, every day since October 7, I have also seen how this rise in antisemitism and anti-Zionist rhetoric is inspiring Jewish pride and solidarity with Israel among so many young Jews. I have seen this as a visiting researcher studying American Jewry at New York University. And I have seen this as the spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Downtown Minyan, a congregation filled with the diverse, ambitious and socially liberal young professionals who thrive in New York.

I have heard from many young Jews around America newly awakened to their Judaism. Some confess that they haven’t been to synagogue since their bar or bat mitzvahs but they want to come back now. Others have asked me how to get dozens of mezuzahs for their friends to hang beside their front doors. I see many sporting new jewelry expressing both pride and pain: prominent Magen Davids alongside dogtags calling to “Bring Them Home Now.” I am in regular conversation with dozens of Jewish leaders, rabbis and educators, and we’re all experiencing this — we’re running out of chairs for programs and struggling to meet demand for Shabbat dinners.

These young Jews have different backgrounds and political views, but they share the life-altering experience of deep disillusionment with previous professional or social homes. Nearly every young person I know has had a (former) friend express sympathy for Hamas, been the recipient of antisemitic comments on social media or seen overt antisemitism in their neighborhood.

Multiple Jewish university students have told me they have endured a sort of social “canceling” for expressing empathy for Israelis. One was ousted from her sorority for being a Zionist, another was told that being a Zionist made others have to self-censor so they stopped including him in events.

But they are finding that in their loneliness, they are not alone. They are rediscovering that they belong to a rich history of Jews who experienced othering and expulsions but whose greatest strength was in each other. They are rediscovering the millenia-old Jewish rituals and community structures that nourish belonging. And they are rediscovering Zionism.

This is not surprising. The Zionist dreamers of the 1800s and 1900s were motivated to build a Jewish state by the realization that their neighbors in an “enlightened” Europe were incubating a hatred so dangerous it could lead to their genocide. Young American Jews today are realizing that they, too, can be made to feel unwanted in their own homes.

According to many of the protesters, Zionism is a settler-colonialist Jewish supremacist movement akin to Nazism and dedicated to the displacement of Palestinians. But for most of us American Jews, Zionism is the belief that Jews have a right to self-determination in their historical homeland.

At the heart of this Zionism is the security in having at least one place in the world that never closes its doors to displaced and oppressed Jews. This Zionism is dedicated to fighting for an Israel that is liberal and democratic and also holds hope for dignity, rights and freedoms for Palestinians.

I see this vision resonating with young Jews who never would have thought of themselves as Zionists before. I have spoken with young professionals who in college were too progressive to visit Israel but now are convinced that if America betrays its values, Israel is the only other country that would have their backs. I have spoken with dozens of Jews who are looking into real estate opportunities in Israel as an insurance plan in case they have to flee their communities. This is not just talk — just about anyone born a Jew today is a descendant of refugees who were either lucky or alert enough to survive persecution by leaving their homes behind.

Indeed, too many protesters have only reinforced American Jews’ fear that antisemitism is spreading here. Too many anti-Israel protesters have waved flags of terrorist groups sworn to kill Jews like Hezbollah and Hamas, or recycled medieval canards accusing Israel of blood libel. Too many have used chants like “there is only one solution: intifada revolution,” awakening in Jews two nightmarish memories: Hitler’s final solution and the Palestinian intifadas — which saw thousands of Israeli civilians murdered by suicide bombers.

When a UC Santa Barbara Jewish student leader is told “Zionists not welcome,” when an encampment at UCLA blocks Jewish students from getting to class, when a campus leader at Columbia goes so far as to say that Zionists don’t deserve to live, that pushes young Jews to question the direction America is heading in.

After all, though many protesters want to make a distinction between Jews and Zionists — to say that their hostility to Israel doesn’t mean they are hostile to Jews — the reality is that American Jews overwhelmingly identify with Israel. The latest Pew study on Jewish Americans shows that for 82% of US Jews, caring about israel is an important or essential part of what being Jewish means to them. It is therefore understandable that overwhelming numbers of us Jews feel threatened by crowds shouting anti-Zionist slogans.

Of course, some protesters don’t even pretend there’s a distinction. Visibly Jewish university students I’ve talked to have been told that “Hitler should have finished the job” or have had “oink, oink, pigs” screamed at them. This form of overt hatred fuels Zionism. Indeed, there is no greater justification for the legitimacy of a sovereign Jewish state than when protesters yell at us to “Go back to Poland.” This jeer is a grotesque reminder of indifference to Jewish lives — exhorting Jews to go back to the countries where our families were murdered in the gas chambers for not belonging there, while telling us that we don’t belong in America either.

To be sure, Jews’ care for Israel can take many different forms, left-wing and right-wing, in favor of the current Israeli government and deeply opposed to it. But across the political spectrum, it’s become too common for Jews to open up conversations in synagogue or with friends by trying to figure out what signs would lead them to move in search of safety.

As a Jewish educator, I see this moment as a bittersweet opportunity. Antisemitism might be on the rise, but so is Jewish identity. Jews might have friend circles that have disavowed them, but they are finding refuge, comfort and strength in each other. The protests unleashed a relentless antisemitic wave in America, but they also have awakened Zionism in the hearts of American Jews who now understand that Israel is at least one place on Earth that can truly guarantee that Jews will always be welcome.

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