“Don’t go there.” It’s a phrase I’ve gotten used to hearing. Not from those who disagree with me on the internet or from my parents who want to make sure I’m safe at school, but from Jewish professionals charged with protecting students like me.
Since The New York Times published my story about being a Jewish college student and experiencing anti-Semitism in left-wing circles on campus, I’ve had the opportunity to write for a number of publications and speak in synagogues, high school classrooms, and Jewish community centers. Many of those who host these talks call me ahead of time and use that ubiquitous phrase: “Don’t go there.” They are warning me to avoid certain topics. They don’t want me to emphasize that anti-Semitism is one of the key features of today’s new leftism. Too often when I talk about anti-Semitism with Jewish liberals like myself, both on and off campus, they are terrified by this new and all-too-popular trend, but they are unwilling to speak freely about it. They are asking me not to tell the truth.
“Don’t go there” means stop bringing up the new form of social justice that flattens all individuals into steps on a privilege pyramid, a strict hierarchy of who is oppressed and who is oppressive, who has access to truth and justice, and who must be told to shut up. In this ideology, Jews, Jewish peoplehood, Jewish culture, and the Jewish state are placed at the tippity-top of the privilege pyramid. It’s therefore completely acceptable to demonize all of these things, for you are speaking truth to power, comrade! You are dismantling unjust systems. It is acceptable, and in fact encouraged, to insist that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinian children, to insist that pro-Israel students are merely pawns of the “Zionist lobby,” a cabal that is flooding the corridors of academia with cash to silence professors. It’s fine to insist that Judaism is only a European religion, that Jews are not their own nation, not their own people, or are indigenous to Poland. These canards not only score you a place in any progressive circle, but maybe even a book deal too, not to mention a speaker’s slot on a Zoom panel for the Democratic Socialists of America. But take issue with any of them? You’re a white supremacist, babe. Go Sieg Heil somewhere else.
In this new world order, nobody is surprised when a majority of students at Tufts University vote to pass a referendum blaming racist police violence in the United States on the State of Israel. In this new world order, it’s not cause for alarm when an Israeli restaurant in Portland, Oregon, is forced to remove all mention of Israel from its menus and signs, but still gets vandalized with graffiti that reads “eat shit” and “falafel is from Palestine.”
In this new world order, no one blinks when the organizers of a rally against police brutality in New York City say it’s “open to all, minus cops and Zionists.”
In this new world order, the first draft of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum listed the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions Movement as a domestic civil rights issue and defined the Jewish people through the lens of colonialism and whiteness.
In this new world order, a professor at the University of Bristol can accuse his own Jewish students of being henchmen in a Zionist plot to silence left-wing professors, and still win the support of hundreds of “progressive” colleagues around the world, including Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler.
In this new world order, a man can walk into a kosher supermarket in Michigan and taunt its Jewish customers by asking them to read “Free Palestine” on his phone, post the video to Instagram, and receive hundreds of thousands of likes and comments from adoring fans.
This is the insidious hatred students like me are dealing with on campus. Yet I’ve had professionals call me, their voices shaking, worried that they might get shamed on Twitter by college students if I use their platform to speak freely about what is actually causing anti-Semitism at school. This is all part of a desperate need to sit at the table with those who style themselves as fighting for justice. The adults in the room beg us to reason with them, to explain to them what Judaism means to us and why we have a connection with Israel. “Allyship,” they preach, because the only way we’ll be accepted is if we are conceived as oppressed.
I’m sorry. If a Jew is called a Nazi on campus, is it really his or her responsibility to invite the offending student to share a bagel on the quad? If someone bans me from their organization, is it really my responsibility to, as one individual put it to me recently, “internalize ways in which I am not welcoming, and strive for a more intersectional approach to dialogues about oppression and power”? What the hell does that even mean? What other minority community would be forced to endure this jargon-filled hellscape? Every time Jews speak out about anti-Semitism, we’re immediately told to endure a corporate diversity training seminar, one which concludes that it’s still our fault for causing all the drama.
And yet for many in the Jewish community, this is a tolerable price to pay to sit at the table. Well, I don’t want a seat at that table. I don’t want to be anywhere near that table. I am in fact determined to flip that table over.
This is the spirit of New Zionist Congress, an organization recently launched by Jewish college students. Decades ago, a movement of Jewish students like us fought to free Russian Jews from the suffocating grip of communist hegemony. Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry fought against the anti-Semitism that attacks the Jewish soul and spread prayers of “Let My People Go” until the refuseniks were eventually liberated and allowed passage to their homeland.
We want to rekindle that flame. We seek to inspire Jewish young people, with education and advocacy, to build pride in their Zionism, to nurture their passion for self-determination, and to rebel against the forces that tell us these things must be traded away for a false sense of safety. We no longer wish to be included in spaces where we aren’t welcome. We want our own space.
I do not want a seat at that table. I don’t want to be anywhere near that table. I am in fact determined to flip that table over.
The New Zionist Congress will educate: hosting weekly discussions on all issues pertaining to Jews worldwide, promoting a book-of-the-month for members to read and discuss, and producing a new podcast where young Jews will speak with leaders of our community about the complexities of our people. New Zionist Congress will charter campus chapters, and send speakers to individual universities to mobilize and inspire Jewish students to be fierce activists and teachers. We will sponsor debates, lectures, movie nights, and trips to Israel. We will advocate for Jewish people, not only in the United States, but everywhere in the world, and spearhead efforts to oppose BDS resolutions, fight for the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, and combat the new incarnation of Soviet-style conspiracy theories that manically obsess over Zionism and target the only Jewish state as the root of all earthly evils.
I’m not going to beg for scraps in exchange for tolerance. I stand on the shoulders of those who realized that self-determination was the only solution to the Jewish question: Theodor Herzl, Golda Meir, and Natan Sharansky, who said that “when Jews abandon identity in the pursuit of universal freedom, they wind up with neither.” Go ahead, ask a Jew in the United Kingdom what it looks like when anti-Semitism masquerades as equality, and what happens when it is left unchecked.
It is my Zionism that compels me to build my own spaces, amplify my own community, and to vociferously reject any movement that mandates I sacrifice part of myself in order to be righteous. I’m no longer trying to convince anybody of my humanity, I know my humanity. I’m not interested in your interpretation of my history, I know my history.
Jews have had a terrible habit of thinking we can wait out these storms of illiberalism by taking care not to be overdramatic or reactionary, by placating our enemies, and by hoping to win over enough allies along the way. It never succeeds. The only way through this period in our history is to honor the Talmud and ask again the ancient question: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
Blake Flayton is a senior at George Washington University and the co-founder of New Zionist Congress, @newzionists on Twitter and @newzionistcongress on Instagram.