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News + PoliticsAuthor Oren Kroll-Zeldin on Israel, Palestine, social justice—and the next generation of...

Author Oren Kroll-Zeldin on Israel, Palestine, social justice—and the next generation of Jewish Americans

USF professor talks about new book 'Unsettled,' and the concept of co-resistance for a shared future.

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As protests over Israel’s invasion of Gaza roil college campuses, Oren Kroll-Zeldin has a unique perspective.

Kroll-Zeldin, an assistant professor of Jewish Studies at the University of San Francisco, has spent years talking with young American Jews and researching their attitudes toward Israel, Palestine, and social justice.

He argues that growing numbers of young Jewish people in the US don’t see themselves as closely connected to Israel as their parents and grandparents were, and many are rejecting the idea that Zionism is part of the American Jewish identity.

Kroll-Zeldin, who is also the assistant director of USF’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice, teaches a semester-long class on the conflict in the Middle East. He’s the director of the Beyond Bridges: Israel-Palestine program with the Center for Global Education at USF. It’s an understatement to say he’s an expert on the region.

His new book, Unsettled: American Jews and the Movement for Justice in Palestine, (NYU Press) explores this generational change and its impacts for politics in the United States.

Oren Kroll-Zeldin at a co-resistance action in the West Bank.

We spoke with him about his research, his conclusions, how “unlearning Zionism” personally changed his life and his studies—and how this change may impact the future of the Middle East.

48HILLS Shortly after the invasion of Gaza, you did a talk at USF that I went to that I thought was really, really good. And one of the things you said was when you talk about the birth of Israel, multiple narratives can be true at the same time. And I’m wondering if you could start off by talking a little bit about that.

OREN KROLL-ZELDIN: There can be multiple truths at the same time. The birth of Israel, for some Jews around the world, was understood as an absolutely incredible moment in history, a really important moment for Jews rising out of the ashes of the Holocaust. Zionism itself was understood as a national liberation movement.

At the same time, the founding of Israel led to the Nakba, the catastrophe for Palestinians, the ethnic cleansing and dispossession of Palestine, and the creation of a massive refugee problem.

Both of those things are factually accurate, and different people hold different truths about those foundational narratives.

48HILLS One of the things you mentioned in your book is that for a lot of American Jews, the idea of Zionism and support for the state of Israel, almost no matter what it does, was kind of embedded in Judaism for generations, including yours. Can you talk a little bit about that?

OREN KROLL-ZELDIN  Yeah, there was a concerted effort by certain American Jewish establishment institutions in conjunction with the government of the State of Israel to ensure this very, very clear link between American Judaism and Israel and Zionism and support for the state of Israel. And really there is a very long history of American Jewish institutions silencing dissent and critique of that connection.

After the Arab Israeli war of 1967, Zionism became deeply interwoven into both American political life, but also, and more importantly for this conversation, Jewish American life in such a way that Zionism almost became a new American Jewish religion. When you would go to a synagogue, there would be an American flag and an Israeli flag on the pulpit. If you went to Hebrew School or Jewish day school or Jewish overnight summer camps, or almost really any Jewish educational institutional space, there were people teaching about Israel, unquestionably teaching about Israel, not telling anything about this other narrative that we started with, that narrative of ethnic cleansing, of dispossession, of the catastrophe of Nakba.

And the byproduct of that is people never knowing in American Jewish spaces what Palestinian narratives were, what Palestinian experiences were. It was only, we’re Jewish, there’s the state of Israel, it’s there for you, it is there for us, and let’s learn about it. Let’s celebrate it.

48HILLS You write in the book about “unlearning Zionism.” And you talk about your own personal experience, and maybe you can tell us a little more about the Berkeley Hillel trip you took in 2006 and how that experience as a young Jewish scholar affected you and brought you kind of on the journey to where you are today.

OREN KROLL-ZELDIN Much like the people I write about in the book, I went through a very similar process of being indoctrinated into unquestioning Zionism, which was strange because in the community that I grew up with, and at least in the home that I grew up in, we would question everything. We were taught to question everything, to champion liberal causes. The one thing we weren’t taught to question was Israel and Zionism, and it wasn’t until much later in my life that I learned to think more critically about that and for me, as for others who go through the process of unlearning Zionism, there are moments that form cracks in the foundational narratives.

I have a whole chapter in the book about Birthright critiquing. And part of the way I know so much about it is my own sort of experience.  

48HILLS Maybe we could stop for a second here and you can explain to people what the Birthright program is.

OREN KROLL-ZELDIN Birthright is a free 10-day trip to Israel for Jews from around the world between the ages of 18 and 34, who have never been on a peer trip to Israel before. More than 700,000 Jews from around the world have gone to Israel on a Birthright program. It is the single largest provider of Israel education for Jews across the world.

So I was staffing a trip in 2006, when the 2006 Israel Lebanon war broke out. We were in the north of Israel, very close to the Lebanon border. And one day on the Sabbath, we were eating lunch in our hotel, and three rockets from Lebanon fall within 100 meters of the hotel.

The whole thing shakes. We end up spending much of that day in the bomb shelter, waiting for clearance to be able to get on a bus and leave and go to the center of the country.

I had a really hard time hearing what people were saying: ‘They’re just our enemies. They hate Jews. They just want to wipe us off the face of the map. It’s only because we’re Jewish, that they’re doing this.’ And I remember hearing some deep-seated Anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia.

And I was wondering, well, what are the people on the other side of the border saying? What are people in Lebanon experiencing? And anytime I would ask people that, they would really quickly shoot me down: ‘How could you be talking about them? This is about our survival.’ And that really shook me. I was like, I know there’s more to this story.

So that sort of led me to examine and start learning more. What was happening in Lebanon. What was this war all about? How does this connect to the Palestinian issue? Who are the Palestinians? As I started learning more, I started to meet Palestinians, learn from them, and got deeply invested in the academic scholarship of Palestine studies, of Middle East studies, and connecting that to my own research in Jewish studies and  anthropology.

And I guess now there’s this book, exploring that all.

48HILLS One of the stories you also tell is about a student who was on one of these Birthright trips, who was given a map of Israel that did not include any lines around the West Bank. Can you talk a little bit about that?

OREN KROLL-ZELDIN So there’s a really common thing, the use of maps, and this is a big thing today. In these Jewish institutional spaces and on Birthright they give you maps and it’s a map of greater Israel. And there’s no demarcation of the West bank. There’s a very, very small line that points out where Gaza is. But the indication is that all of this is Israel. There’s no occupied Palestinian territories. There’s no sense that there’s any differentiation.

This really speaks to how American Jews are taught about Israel, but it also speaks to the power of the apartheid system in Israel. Jews on the entire land are citizens living with the rights of citizenship. But Palestinians, if they’re living in the West Bank or Gaza, they don’t have the same rights.

So this person on his Birthright trip was pointing out: But wait, where’s the West Bank? What’s going on here? What does that say about the program and the erasure of Palestinian life, Palestinian identity, culture, history, narratives.

You hear American Jews who are pro-Israel on campuses starting to say they feel uncomfortable when they see a protester wearing a shirt where what they would consider to be the state of Israel is with, like, maybe the checkered pattern of a keffiyeh, and is saying, well, this is all Palestine.

In a sense, both sides are using these maps to claim the whole thing belongs to me. It is all Israel, it is all Palestine. And in a sense, this sort of speaks to what we started with, the multiple truths and competing narratives.

We need to make sense of this. American Jews weren’t taught to make sense of this. And this activist on this Birthright trip was raising this as an issue. We need to reckon with what’s going on here. With what you’re putting on these maps.

48HILLS One of the things you write about is anti-Zionism as a Jewish value, and I’m hoping you can talk a little bit about that.

OREN KROLL-ZELDIN Anti-Zionism is a political ideology that is contesting the Jewish nation-state’s stronghold in Israel and its oppression of Palestinians. It’s a way of liberating Jewishness from Zionism. It’s saying there are so many different ways to be Jewish. It’s about the liberation and safety of all, the safety and security of Jews and Palestinians.

We are seeing a lot of allegations of antisemitism [in the movement for justice in Palestine], equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, which makes it harder to call out actual instances of antisemitism.

Like what we see in the rising white nationalists, the strength of white nationalism that people are very literally being attacked in their places of worship, in their synagogues, and being killed.

And we need to take that seriously. That is very real. But the individual instances of antisemitism in the movement should not be painting the entire thing as antisemitic.

48HILLS One of the themes that comes out of the people you’ve interviewed and the people you talked to was this idea of “co-resistance.” Can you talk a little more about that?

OREN KROLL-ZELDIN: Co-resistance, I think, is one of the most important and profound ways of resisting Israeli policies of apartheid and occupation that exists today. It means that Palestinians and Jews resist collectively on the ground, in alliance and collaboration with one another.

Co-resistance emerged out of the failure of coexistence programs There was a proliferation of coexistence programs during and immediately following the Oslo chords of the 1990s. Coexistence is like, whoa, let’s have a dialogue. And we’ll get to peace through these track two dialogue programs, and we’ll realize: Look, you love movies. I love movies. You like music. I like music. You eat hummus. I eat hummus. Amazing. Let’s all be friends.

The problem with that is it didn’t really address the imbalance of the power dynamics that continued to exist in society. So when coexistence activities started to fail, and not lead to any meaningful changes, Palestinian activists turned towards a new strategy which we now call co-resistance.

Co-resistance is meaningful because it’s always led by Palestinians. They set the terms for what the actions look like, and they invite Jewish Israelis and Jews from the diaspora to participate. Sometimes, if it leads to material changes, real material wins that improve the conditions of everyday life for Palestinians in the West Bank.

But on a symbolic level, I think that co-resistance activism is very significant because, among other things, it builds strong alliances on the ground based on shared political commitments. And provides the framework for what a shared future based on equality for all might look like.

48HILLS What is that future? What’s going to happen now? I feel like there’s now a generation of Palestinians who’ve seen 40,000 of their neighbors killed, and are not going to be easily convinced to make peace with Israel. And Netanyahu has energized the Israeli right, and now you have the right in Israel that doesn’t want to make peace with the Palestinians.

The concept of a two-state solution has been so damaged by the settlements. I see so much anger on both sides, anger among Jews at the attacks of October 7 and the deaths and the hostages and anger among Palestinians over the wildly disproportionate response.

What’s the best outcome? Is there a two-state solution. How do we make this? What would you like to see happen?

OREN KROLL-ZELDIN: Yeah, we’re in a really difficult moment, that’s for sure. This book and my research is not about pointing to solutions, or offering solutions. I’m offering research that talks about the ways that young American Jews are changing the conversation in the American Jewish community, which has a tremendous amount of power over what happens in Israel and Palestine.

There is no consensus among activists over what should happen. And October 7 and the actions of the Israeli military in the months since then have changed the game completely.

The actions of October 7 I think in a day really undid a lot of the work of peace activists and justice activists that people have been working on for the last quarter of a century. In the intervening weeks after that, people who were fully in support of Palestinian liberation, all of a sudden turned very hard against that. And then the actions of the military since then has changed people back.

There are many Jewish Israeli peace and justice activists out there. They do not get the necessary attention; they don’t get the media coverage that others get. Both Israeli and Palestinian societies are struggling right now themselves, so anytime there is the advancement of these Palestinian nonviolent actors, they are either beaten by soldiers or settlers, or they are arrested and put behind bars and held in administrative detention to silence them.

Israel has basically criminalized armed resistance. They have criminalized nonviolent resistance. They, in conjunction with institutions and politicians in the United States have criminalized boycotts and divestments and sanctions campaigns.

So what is the recourse? If every action, every form of resistance has been criminalized. Where do we go from there?

I think we need to work very hard to highlight those who are engaged in co-resistance activism and to build up the profiles of these nonviolent actors, both Palestinian and Israeli Jews, and to highlight the voices of the American Jews who are participating in that work of upholding those voices.

Find out more about Unsettled here. Full disclosure: I teach at USF and run into Oren Kroll-Zeldin in the halls every now and then.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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