Original photos: Amir Levy/Getty Images; Jeff Bachner for NY Daily News via Getty Images
In high school in the early 2000s, I assumed the role of Palestine in our semesterlong “Model U.N.” class. It was, in part, a feeble act of rebellion against spending weekends at a Conservative synagogue during my angstiest years.
Although my comprehension of the Middle East conflict was in its infancy, an innate sense of justice drove me to defend the Palestinian cause. To characterize my choice as merely “rebellion,” then, doesn’t capture the full picture. My mother, a New Yorker with fierce feminist beliefs, raised me with quintessentially progressive Jewish values. I was taught that we, as Jews, stand with the oppressed—because we were the oppressed. This sentiment was often reinforced by my grandparents who arrived in America penniless, the Nazis hounding at their heels.
I took my role seriously, making it my mission to call for an immediate halt to the bulldozing of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Gaza. I plunged into extensive research and armed myself with the knowledge to effectively champion a two-state solution—a belief I passionately held in high school and continue to endorse today.
Later, as a man in his 20s, it was only natural that I found myself firmly situated within the progressive left. I never once questioned my political home. Guided by my Jewish values, during the George Floyd tragedy and the racial reckoning that followed, I wholeheartedly embraced anti-racism initiatives. I read Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, and I even took on the role of facilitating international dialogues on collective sense-making and healing. I strove to be a good “white ally.” Truly, I did.
Then came a flexion point: During a 2021 Bay Area psychotherapy training, in a “processing session” around race, a woman vulnerably shared her firsthand experience with a horrific act of antisemitic hatred. To my astonishment, the two facilitators, both white women, chastised her—yes, chastised—stressing the session’s emphasis on anti-Black racism. This episode unveiled a disconcerting bias in this community that routinely minimized antisemitism, to the point it was no longer considered “legitimate” racism. The young Jewish woman who’d shared was cowed into silence. From within my depths, I could hear my grandfather’s groan from eternity: This, still, here?
At that moment, it became clear to me that “wokeness,” or whatever term we may use to describe the new progressive social justice ideology, didn’t seem fully compatible with the perspective I had developed in a family that was very liberal because of our lineage of Holocaust survivors.
Since then, I’ve struggled to find my political footing while maintaining a commitment to the pursuit of truth and justice. I started noticing the sinister shadow of postmodern progressivism everywhere: a seeming insistence on “pluralism” that, in practice, often lacks genuine embodiment and quickly devolves into its own form of dogmatic and reductive tribalism.
I began to feel as though I had been baited into an a priori virtuous worldview that, in a twisted way, sows more division than it does healing; more concerned, as it is, with retribution than reconciliation. That my Judaism was utterly swept away (even shadow-demonized) in the context of this conversation only left me more disillusioned.
Yet my affiliation with progressivism persisted. Say what one will about the oversimplifications and occasional insincerities of the progressive left, I told myself, their hearts were in the right place.
Then, two weeks ago, Hamas grotesquely murdered 1,400 Israeli citizens, including 270 at a pro-peace music festival, a gathering my friends and I would have joyously attended if we were in the Holy Land. While these events were deeply disturbing to me, and all fellow members of the diaspora, what was even more shocking was the response from segments of the online left back home. These are progressive groups that, ostensibly, should cherish all human life and abhor all wanton violence.
Instead, many celebrated—yes, celebrated—these attacks as a form of “anti-colonialist resistance.” Memes circulated, like the now infamous Chicago #BLM paratrooper, that quite literally glorified an unimaginable slaughtering. Student groups at Harvard decried Israel as “entirely responsible” for Hamas’ attack; groups at the University of Virginia went a step further in saying that “colonized people can resist occupation of their land by whatever means they deem necessary”; and groups at Tufts took the cake by praising Hamas’ ingenious creativity.
The straw that broke my proverbial “progressive” back occurred last Thursday, when students at a high school in the Bay Area, my home for the last 15 years, were seen chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” They marched in the hallways of a public school ringing the jihadist rallying call that implicitly calls for the erasure of the State of Israel. And all those who live within it.
Do these high schoolers, who are the same age I was when I debated on behalf of Palestine in Model U.N., grasp the underlying antisemitic implications of their words? Or might they simply be aligning with a far-left mindset that unreservedly and reductively supports the “oppressed”?
Zooming out, it has become clear to me, and devoid of the Israeli-Palestinian context, there’s a dark reality: Our Western culture is riddled with ambient antisemitism. Screeds by such celebrities as Kanye West testify to the fact. As Israel is pulled into a conflict governed by jihadist game theory—where civilians are intentionally used as shields so that dead children can be broadcast as propaganda puppets on social media—antisemitism has and surely will continue to intensify around the world. In London, antisemitic hate crimes have already risen by 1,350%. Watch it grow, worldwide.
Yet, it’s the latter question—how so many hypereducated students have steadfastly embraced far-left ideology—that raises my greatest concern for our future. This should not have to be said, but if you find yourself mourning some civilian deaths while celebrating any others, there’s an objective problem with your worldview. And you. The notion that one can distill our world’s most complex, historically dynamic, and challenging conflict into simplistic binaries is so utterly absurd that it clearly exposes the shortcomings of “woke” ideology. Or any dogmatism, for that matter.
Outside of lacking vital historical context, I’ve been aghast to learn that this branch of the progressive left does not seem to understand why such horrors were committed upon Israeli citizens. Unfortunately, there is an explanation beyond “colonial resistance”—radical jihadism. Granted, not all forms of jihadism are based on terrorism, and all Muslims are, of course, not jihadists. But make no mistake: The ones who are responsible for these brutal acts of murder, rape, and mutilation are radical jihadists. Groups like Hamas are, quite literally, death cults that are not consequentially distinct from Nazism—the death cult that systematically annihilated my grandparents’ entire extended family. The cult that the Allied West had no confusion about needing to destroy. Hamas’ stated intention is the eradication, first, of Israeli Jews—then all Jews everywhere. That is a genocidal agenda. The IDF, with all its flaws, which are numerous and sometimes deadly, avoids civilian Palestinian deaths whenever and however possible. That is the opposite of a genocidal agenda.
I truly wish it were as simple as reducing this conflict to an oppressor/oppressed dynamic. I am waiting, with horror, as Israel prepares for a ground invasion that will claim thousands of thoroughly innocent lives. I do not want any Gazan children to be collateral damage. My Jewish values, along with what I’ve learned advocating for Palestinian statehood, continue to affirm my belief in the importance of upholding the rights of Palestinian civilians.
Any ideology that “justifies” or minimizes the tragedy of civilian casualties is broken and perverse. That is not to say that all such casualties are avoidable. Reform Jews of my generation are unified in a desire for a two-state solution that provides Palestinians with safety, dignity, and rights. Over the past two weeks, I have heard no American Jew wish violence upon Gazans; I’ve witnessed many American so-called progressives who wish violence upon Jews. In response to raped teenagers and headless babies, a common leftist online refrain has been: “What did you think decolonization looked like?”
That’s not progressivism. That’s bloodthirst.
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Alex Olshonsky, an independent writer living in Oakland, is the co-founder of an addiction nonprofit and a practitioner of somatic psychotherapy. You can follow his writing here.