Counterpoint: What work must be done on our college campuses?

Jay Sanderson, president and chief executive officer of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, fears Israel’s government is “stoking the flames” with heavy-handed counterattacks against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on campuses. Judy Maltz wrote in Haaretz, as “it is unusual” for Jewish Federation officials to criticize Israel’s government publicly, Sanderson knew his comments might “get me in trouble.”

I’m fine with Sanderson criticizing Israel; it will survive. He’s right that fighting the boycott demands subtlety — although he shouldn’t blame Israel for all those kaffiyeh-clad, terrorist-enabling, sanctimonious Israel-bashers demonizing the democratic Jewish state. And I reject Sanderson’s other claims, that, “In my generation, Israel may have been the first driver of Jewish identity. … But it’s not going to be anymore in the same way. Israel’s too complicated.” Sanderson’s data are incorrect, his ideology misguided and his solutions wrongheaded. As today’s greatest Jewish peoplehood project, Israel remains one of the Jewish world’s most exciting, inspiring phenomena, presenting a more dynamic, three-dimensional, 24/7 version of living, breathing Judaism than the pale suburban careerist ancestor worship peddled in too many American Jewish homes — and often rejected.

True, Jews often overreact to BDS, exaggerating its importance. Tens of thousands of Jewish students visit Israel via Birthright Israel annually, but 20 Jewish kids yelling about BDS terrifies us. And let’s face it, student politics is to serious governance as Cheez Whiz is to real food.

As a result, having the government of Israel — or the Federations — fighting campus BDS risks backfiring. Students, especially thin-skinned, politically correct, striving, student-government types, resent adult intrusions. If Jewish students need help, let’s coach them quietly. Jewish students should build coalitions and lobby independently, championing academic freedom, defending their dignity and denouncing a movement that targets Israel obsessively, disproportionately, following leaders who traffic in anti-Semitic images and seek Israel’s destruction.

Here’s where Sanderson lost me. He asserts: “The vast majority of Jewish students … about 75 percent … are ‘disinterested and disconnected’ from Israel.” He fears partisan screaming about Israel alienates this “soft middle.”

His “75 percent” figure seems plucked out of thin air. It ignores the Israel Experience phenomenon, the hundreds of thousands of Jewish students who have bonded with Israel, happily.

Sanderson then builds a non-Zionist house of cards on this faulty foundation. He confuses all-Israel-advocacy-all-the-time, which often doesn’t work, with positive Israel experiences that do. And he denies Israel’s centrality in modern Jewish identity-building. Deeming Israel “too complicated,” he wants “to connect these students to Jewish life and then find a meaningful way to engage them with Israel. In other words, first feel good about your Jewish self and then learn about Israel.”

The Cohen Center at Brandeis University’s recent report, “Anti-Semitism on the College Campus,” uncovered an epidemic of campus Jew hatred, with nearly three-quarters of Jewish students experiencing some hostility last year. Yet — thank you, BDS — support for Israel increased. One-third “report feeling ‘very much’ connected to Israel. Another third report feeling ‘somewhat’ connected.” These figures reflect a 16-year trend, whereby 20-somethings connect to Israel more than 30-somethings, thanks to the Birthright bounce.

Israel experiences transform Jewish lives by fostering Identity Zionism, not Israel advocacy. The positive 24/7 Jewish communal life in Israel with “no strings attached” invites young Jews to launch their own Jewish journeys. There are no dictates regarding where to go, simply a “Welcome Home” sign encouraging the once-alienated and those who already feel at home Jewishly to explore.

During high school in Israel, backpacking there, Birthright, Masa, young non-Orthodox millennials, increasingly skeptical about God, connect with their tradition through Jewish peoplehood. They meet a dynamic Israeli Judaism they missed at home. They also appreciate encountering the real, multidimensional, often less-politicized Israel that’s invisible on their Facebook feeds.

By contrast, Sanderson’s labeling Israel as “too complicated” is doubly offensive. It internalizes our oppressors’ contempt. Israel bashers have spent decades trying to make Israel “too complicated,” making Israel all about Palestinians, making Zionism all about occupation. You can criticize Israel’s actions. And yes, some American Jews see Israel only through this Palestinian prism. But I reject it categorically as a distorted educational launch pad. I won’t give our enemies this undeserved victory.

Second, pardon my bluntness, but I smell American Jewish triumphalism’s sanctimonious perfume. Despite its strengths, one could equally call American Jewry, er, “complicated.” Intermarriage is so ubiquitous that it’s not politically correct to call it a problem anymore. The Pew study shows a Jewish identity rooted in — sorry, Hollywood friends — Borscht Belt jokes, toadying ghetto wisecracks and Holocaust angst. The institutional landscape is dotted with hulking, garishly decorated cathedrals empty Shabbat after Shabbat, filled three times a year by the overdressed, underwhelmed masses for High Holy Days that leave many feeling low, drowning in superficiality, materialism, competitiveness and spiritual emptiness. And our ignorance is vast. Despite all our advanced secular degrees, our first-grade Jewish educations make us unable to distinguish Maimonides from Nahmanides, or a dayan, a judge, from the Dayan named Moshe.

Of course, we don’t only define American Jewry by its failures, just like we shouldn’t only define Israel by its shortcomings. Our kids are lucky. They can synthesize the best of both Jewish communities, tempered by liberal Western insights.

Zionism never entailed simply state-building. It always sought to build a new Jew by renegotiating a new, invigorated relationship with our heritage, our people, our land and the world, steeped in strength, dignity and pride.

Beware: Much of this rhetoric, on all sides, risks objectifying our kids. Fellow Jews are neither cattle to herd in particular ideological directions nor tribal trophies to collect. We should engage one another as humans and Jews. And all, young and old, should be owners, not consumers, shaping our own birthrights.

Ideally, we would all have our minds sharpened, our hearts enlarged, our souls stretched, our lives made more moral and meaningful by serious encounters with our people — both spiritually, meaning our Jewish heritage in all its multidimensionality, and practically, meaning Jewish friends, relatives, teachers, heroes, from Los Angeles to Kiryat Malachi, Israel’s City of Angels.

Paralleling Sanderson, I hope my pushback doesn’t “get me in trouble.” I thank him for triggering what we need: a robust, respectful debate about who we are, who our kids are, and where we are going. I look forward to continuing this in the spirit of our ancestors, who built a Talmud on disputations and question marks, not just exhortations and exclamation points.