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  • Lev Kotler-Berkowitz ‘27

Proudly Jewish on the Street

Author’s note: This piece was written on December 31, 2023.


I woke up this past Shabbat morning in a place of comfort. I felt physically safe and knew that the people residing nearby cared for my well-being, respected my opinions, and were open to conversations about difficult topics. While this sounds like the environment that would be present at a liberal arts college, it was not. I was lying in my cousin’s bedroom in Jerusalem, where I was spending ten days of my winter break to provide support and to volunteer for Am Yisrael. I was thousands of miles away from Brown University, a place in which none of the previous descriptors felt true.


How I got to Israel is a short story. Just twenty-eight days earlier, I texted my mom: “Is it totally ridiculous to want to go to Israel over winter break?” My inclination to come to the country was piqued by the rampant anti-Zionist sentiment at my school and spurred on by my wish to support and show solidarity with my people in Israel. The text was the climax of my Zionist passion which had been steadily growing throughout the semester. 


My mom was instantly on board. While the process was routine in some respects—we had searched for tickets on El Al and prepared for the ten-hour flight on numerous occasions—this trip was different in many other respects. My previous trips had never been so impromptu and had only once taken place during the school year. And while earlier visits were meant for spending time with family and touring the country, this one carried with it a deeper, existential purpose of supporting Israel in any way I could. 


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Entering college this fall, I had anticipated that my Jewish practices would change. College would be a tremendous shift from my small Jewish high school in the Boston area. I would be presented with a range of perspectives, ideas, and practices relating to Judaism broader than I had previously encountered. I expected that the removal of the so-called “Jewish bubble” in which I had been brought up would impact me as well. I had anticipated that my religious practices would become less rigorous, but I had never predicted that my underlying Jewish values would noticeably change. I was mistaken. While my religious practices became more relaxed—I abandoned Shabbat observance as I found it increasingly hard to balance the intense workload of classes, extracurriculars, and social commitments—my passion for the Jewish state multiplied. 


On October 7th, while still processing the terror that tore through Israel’s southern communities, I knew that it was only a matter of time until the narrative would be flipped away from sympathy for Israeli and Jewish suffering and toward detestation of the impending Israeli response. A mere four days later, the Brown University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) set the tone for what seems to be the mainstream campus view. In a public Instagram post, the group described that it held “the Israeli regime and its allies unequivocally responsible for all suffering and loss of life, Palestinian or Israeli.” The post continued, “We stand in solidarity with Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation.” I was appalled. The group was issuing condonation and even encouragement of the October 7th massacre that targeted and claimed over 1,000 innocent Israeli lives and took hundreds captive, an act which achieved no military goals and brought Gazans no closer to the goal of a “free Palestine.” While I mourned the loss of life and worried for the safety of my family and friends, my classmates celebrated Jewish suffering. 


In the week that followed, I organized a card campaign for IDF soldiers. The idea was to write cards of love and strength to the young men and women who were risking their lives for the security of the Jewish homeland, boosting their morale and showing them support from abroad. I oversaw the table on Brown’s Main Green with the help of Brown Students for Israel (BSI) members. While the table was successful in allowing students to do something of value—however small—for Israel and in solidifying a Jewish Zionist presence on campus, the hateful response that the table evoked was overwhelming. Several students made spiteful comments to the table supervisors, numerous posts on Sidechat (an anonymous online posting platform made up of Brown students) questioned why we were making cards for “genocidal colonizers,” and a student posted a photo of the table on their Instagram account with a scathing description of our efforts. Other Sidechat posts called all Zionists on campus “genocidal pigs,” echoing the disturbing language used by Hamas to describe Jews. To put it simply: our table—and any Zionist sentiment—was not well received on campus. 


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In the face of such hatred, I had a choice to make. I could shy away from the issue or latch onto what had become a mainstream condemnation of Zionism, joining many of my classmates in their conformity. Alternatively, I could enhance my Jewish and Zionist pride while increasing my education about the conflict, the attacks, and the war. Determined to make up my own mind, I chose the latter. In a reversal of Judah Leib Gordon’s instructions to his fellow Eastern European Jews of the 19th century to “be a man in the streets and a Jew at home,” I put a mezuzah on my doorframe, purchased and proudly wore a sweatshirt with the words עם ישראל חי, and found a necklace with a Magen David, belonging to my grandmother, to wear every day. While I was perhaps becoming more of an ordinary man—a less religious man—in my personal life, I embraced my Jewishness “in the streets” by displaying my values and identity around campus with pride. 


More importantly, I immersed myself in articles, historical sources, and infographics relating to the war. I spent more time reading The Times of Israel and The New York Times articles than I did on my schoolwork, and I engaged with information shared on social media—which overwhelmingly supported the opposing view—to understand the anti-Zionist perspective. My learnings affirmed the beliefs I had grown up with. Israeli and Palestinian lives mattered, yet neither group could live in freedom with terror groups like Hamas in power. I was resolute in my support for Israel as a Jewish state and for Israel’s actions in dismantling Hamas, and my resentment for the danger that groups such as Hamas put both Israelis and Palestinians in grew more informed and intense. With newfound determination, I attempted to engage with anti-Zionists on campus to exchange perspectives—a difficult task given many SJP chapters’ anti-normalization policies, which instruct members to avoid conversations with Zionists. Engaging primarily online, through social media and Sidechat comments, I communicated with friends and peers about the issue. Despite what I believed to be my best efforts, even semi-productive conversations were few and far between. Those whom I engaged with were quick to dismiss my arguments and reasoning, choosing to end our conversations instead of persevering through the challenging yet meaningful topic. Though disappointed, I remain determined to let my Jewishness shine in public and to continue to pursue fruitful conversations with others. 


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My experiences with Zionism at Brown have produced positive results: my values have

been strengthened, my Jewish pride has been enhanced, and I’ve met a small yet strong community of Israel supporters. However, the experience has been isolating on two fronts, both from many fellow Jews on campus and from my fellow progressive thinkers. 


I thought I had experienced the diversity of Jewish practice in high school. A self-described pluralistic school, Gann Academy catered to students across the religious spectrum; for example, they provide minyanim that took the form of traditional services and others that were based on spirituality, writing, and art. We were taught—and I strongly believed—that acceptance and diversity are important values. It was easy to accept others’ practices: a classmate’s decision to spend Monday morning minyan time in the writing minyan didn’t affect my decision to daven in the egalitarian service. At Brown, however, the diversity among the Jewish population reached new heights. A month after the October 7th attacks, a group of Jewish Brown students formed, calling themselves Jews for Ceasefire Now (JFCN) and associating themselves with SJP’s views and demands. I hadn’t ever experienced such an anti-Zionist constituency of Jews; at Gann, despite differences in practices, we were united by a predominant love for Israel that was not mutually exclusive from caring about Palestinians. And while the differences in opinions and practices at Gann were largely individual and personal, the ostensible hatred toward Israel from many Jews at Brown feels like an attack on the people I care about. When I hear my Jewish classmates call for a ceasefire without vocally advocating for the release of the hostages and Hamas’s surrender, I wonder how they can have such disregard for my friends, family, and all of global Jewry whom I hold so intimately to my heart—and whom I expect them to care for as well. I wonder how, at a place of higher education, the members of JFCN could not realize the detrimental effects that an unconditional ceasefire would lead to, including continued attempts to massacre Israelis as well as the continuation of Palestinian suffering under Hamas’s authoritarian rule. Though I encourage a healthy debate of opinions, I believe that these stances are in many instances the result of dangerous ignorance regarding what a world without Israel would look like for the global Jewish population. Their strong presence on campus, coupled with their hostility toward the Zionist Jewish constituency, leads to a fissure within the Brown Jewish community that is hard to overcome. 


JFCN's large membership and widespread support amongst non-Jewish students isolate the active Jewish Zionists at Brown as a minority group within the Jewish community; my Zionist stance has likewise left me isolated from mainstream progressives, with whom I typically identify. I always have—and still do—consider myself a progressive, believing firmly in LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and equality for all. As the only democratic country with progressive laws in the Middle East, Israel holds many values that I believe should prevail throughout the world. Further, the protection of the global Jewish population as a minority group should be a progressive value, yet Israel is now inexplicably seen as one of the world’s Goliaths that must be overthrown rather than as I see it: as a stronger and more capable version of David. While I aspire to join my classmates’ progressive efforts, it’s difficult to do so when such efforts are aligned with anti-Zionism. An email from Brown’s Stop Torture RI chapter advertised a “Rally for Palestine”—my hopes of fighting for prison reform with the group were disheartened by the group’s anti-Zionist campaign. 


Many of my fellow progressives opt to approach the conflict as a zero-sum game: either the Israelis are in power and the Palestinians lose, or the Palestinians are made “free” and Israel relinquishes its land and sovereignty. This type of thinking doesn’t align with my aspirations for the future; I believe there can be a world in which Israel is a haven for Jews and there is true equality for Palestinians. I wish the anti-Zionists on campus, both my fellow Jews and my fellow progressives, could reject the zero-sum-game framework and realize this nuanced vision for society. I won’t stop striving for a world of peaceful coexistence. 


Israeli actress and activist Noa Tishby describes herself as “pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, and anti-Hamas.” I hope for a world that takes after Tishby’s framework, in which Israelis and Palestinians are no longer perceived as being in opposition to each other and as undermining each other’s interests. I hope that one day, the Middle East will see the mutual freedom associated with Jewish and Palestinian self-determination. I dream of a world in which open dialogue is widespread among my peers, and opposing perspectives are seen as opportunities for exchanging ideas and growth rather than as taboos to be avoided. I, for one, am eager to initiate that dialogue.


Illustration by Ella Goodman.

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