Oren Kroll-Zeldin at a co-resistance action near Hebron, in the West Bank, in June 2022. (Emily Glick)
Oren Kroll-Zeldin at a co-resistance action near Hebron, in the West Bank, in June 2022. (Emily Glick)

‘Unsettled’: Meet the young activist Jews standing up for Palestine in USF professor’s new book

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Oren Kroll-Zeldin has been studying and writing about Israel/Palestine for his entire academic career. Now he has written his first book about it. “Unsettled: American Jews and the Movement for Justice in Palestine,” published this month, delves into the subject through interviews with young American Jews active in the Palestine solidarity movement.

Kroll-Zeldin, 43, is the assistant director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco, where he is also an assistant professor of theology and religious studies. He identifies as anti-Zionist, as do many of the 70 or so young adult Jews he interviewed.

His book is an ethnographic study, but it’s also a polemic, as Kroll-Zeldin is himself an activist who took part in some of the same campaigns as his interview subjects.

His thesis is that these young activists, ages roughly 18 to 40, engage in Palestine solidarity work to express their Jewish identity; they understand Jewish values as demanding a deep commitment to social justice that necessitates distancing themselves from Israel and Zionism. They are active in four main groups: IfNotNow, which protests mainstream Jewish institutions’ support for Israel; All That’s Left and the Center for Jewish Non-Violence, which try to engage diaspora Jews in co-resistance actions with West Bank Palestinians; and Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist organization that promotes the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement against Israel. This book may not be a comfortable read for older generations of American Jews — but it describes a phenomenon that is real and happening right now.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

J.: Why did you write this book?

Oren Kroll-Zeldin: I had always been interested in the generational shifts in American Jewish connections to and support for the State of Israel and for Zionism, and I had personal experiences interacting with the groups that I focused on. I knew that this was a project that was politically important, that was personally meaningful, and that academically was worthy of  inquiry.

You interviewed young American Jews active in four main groups.  Despite their political differences on whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state, they all seem to have found a space to “be Jewish” in their activism. How does this work?

A lot of the young activists that I worked with and then interviewed for this project expressed a hesitation in connecting with their Jewishness, at least in mainstream Jewish spaces, because they saw those spaces as upholding certain values that they didn’t agree with vis-a-vis Zionism and the State of Israel. Some removed themselves from Jewish life altogether. Others found Jewish life in places where they could feel connected politically to others based on their anti-Zionism or their anti-occupation political stance.

For many of them, participating in these direct actions on the ground alongside Palestinians, leveraging their privilege as American Jews, was a really important way for them of performing a Jewish identity rooted in the values that they were taught in the Jewish educational spaces they grew up in.

They very intentionally engage with their activism, and they articulate it in Jewish language. They’re engaging in Jewish rituals, having Passover seders at the encampments on campus, reciting Kaddish at protests, as a way of saying we are doing this to perform our Jewish identities.

But there’s another really important part of this. They’re saying we don’t want to end synagogue life or ruin institutionalized Jewish life in the United States. No, we want it to be better, because being Jewish is important to us, and here’s how we think it can be better. You — our Jewish day school, our summer camp, our youth group, our synagogue Hebrew school — you taught us about certain values of peace, of freedom, of equality, of justice. We are enacting these very things that you taught us because we think it is important to apply these values to everyone — not only to Jews, to everyone, and that includes Palestinians. 

You often mention the need to “disentangle Judaism from Zionism.” What does that mean?

These activists learned Zionism as a Jewish value in their Jewish upbringings, that being Jewish means, in part, believing in the importance of a Jewish state and a Jewish homeland. What they were not taught is the impacts that that political ideology has had on Palestinians. And in a process of what I call in the book “unlearning Zionism,” which I borrow from other scholars and activists, they went through this very deep process of learning about Palestinian narratives, about Palestinian experiences that were largely hidden from them in their Jewish educations.

A lot of people growing up as Jews in the United States would plant trees in honor of someone through the Jewish National Fund and were never taught that the trees that they were planting were, for the most part, being planted over the remains of destroyed and depopulated Palestinian villages. So liberating Judaism from Zionism is a way of disentangling the Israeli state violence done in the name of Judaism, in the name of Jews, and saying: Our Jewish identities are not intertwined with nationalism, with an ethnonational project.

American Jews have stood up for Palestinian rights for decades, but it’s different with this generation. You write about the importance of lived experience in creating that difference. What are the defining moments for those you interviewed? 

This generation of Jews is very far removed from the Holocaust, and that is very significant. This is one of the foundational narratives of the State of Israel, and this is not a lived experience for them. Likewise, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war is not something that young American Jews today can relate to. They only really have experiences seeing news clips and consuming social media, where Israel is the aggressor, where Israel is an occupier, where Israel has all of the power, a country that is supported by the United States government. They don’t see Israel as the underdog; they see the Palestinians as the underdog. 

Also, older generations were less likely to encounter Palestinians on campuses or in their communities. Now, it’s very likely for Jewish students to encounter Palestinians on their campuses, for them to become friends, for them to meet each other’s families and to know each other quite well. People are able to travel to Israel and to the Palestinian territories much more easily than previous generations. They can consume alternative news sites like +972 Magazine or Mondoweiss or Al Jazeera and see things that they wouldn’t have seen before. All of this helps to expose people to different narratives than previous generations. 

Now there’s a couple of really key mobilizing moments, cataclysmic episodes that transformed this generation of American Jews. The 2014 Gaza war really is the biggest one in the last 10 years [until Oct. 7 and the subsequent war]. That is what led to the founding of IfNotNow and the dramatic rise of membership in groups like Jewish Voice for Peace.

The Trump electoral victory in 2016 forced a lot of young American Jews to rethink their priorities and to mobilize them into activists. The Gaza war in May 2021 was another really significant factor, and again today, what we have seen over the last nine months, since Oct. 7, has really shook the foundation of American Jewish life and has catalyzed a lot of young American Jews to participate.

You finished writing this book before Oct. 7. Would you write the same book today? 

Everything has changed since then, and nothing has changed at all. Everything remains the same, only more so. The destruction of Palestinian life is more intense. The violence in Gaza and the West Bank is more intense. The power of the right in Israel and the settler movement are only more intense now. The divisions in the American Jewish community were always there. They’re only more intense today. So I don’t think that I would write anything different.

“Unsettled: American Jews and ‎the Movement for Justice in Palestine” by Oren Kroll-Zeldin (NYU Press, 280 pages)

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].