Is Brooke Davies the American Jewish Establishment’s Worst Nightmare?

By | Jun 12, 2017
Jewish World, Latest

It was early afternoon on New Year’s Day 2016, and the streets of Jaffa were quiet in anticipation of Shabbat. There was a breeze, but it was warm enough in the bright Israeli sun that Brooke Davies’s jacket was unzipped over her pink tank top. As she exited a shop with her mom trailing a few steps behind, Brooke saw a group of boys walking toward her. She guessed they were in their early teens, except for a smaller one—perhaps somebody’s little brother—who looked to be eight or nine. They spoke Arabic and made eye contact with Brooke as she continued down the street. Then one of the teenagers nudged the younger boy in her direction. He had olive skin, brown eyes, and dark hair, cut straight across his forehead. He reached into the pocket of his hoodie as he approached, his crooked smile revealing several baby teeth that had yet to fall out.

Brooke glances down and smiles sadly. “He was a cute kid,” she says in a soft voice, remembering the boy who tried to stab her with a butter knife.

It’s jarring to hear someone describe her assailant as “cute,” even if he did lack the muscle to cause any serious physical harm with his makeshift weapon. But it’s consistent with the impression Brooke gives off—that of someone who is positive, empathetic, and reflective; who, in the words of one friend, “overthinks everything—in a good way.” 

Brooke, 21, graduated in May from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she received a full scholarship through the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program and earned her degree in Peace, War, and Defense. She is also the outgoing president of the national student board of J Street U, the campus arm of J Street, a progressive organization that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And half a century into Israel’s occupation of the West Bank—last week marked the 50th anniversary of Israel’s triumph in the Six-Day War and, on the seventh day, the start of the occupation—she embodies a generational divide that poses a growing danger to the pro-Israel establishment and could deprive the organized Jewish community of some of its most promising young leaders.   

Founded in 2008, J Street calls itself “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure, democratic, and the national home of the Jewish people.” Yet within the Jewish community, the group is highly controversial. Animated by the core belief that a two-state solution is the only way to ensure Israel remains both Jewish and a democracy, J Street has spent much of its existence supporting former President Barack Obama in a series of increasingly bitter spats with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As a result, it became widely disdained among supporters of the influential American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which reliably lines up behind Netanyahu, and sometimes pit it against less overtly political groups like the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which support a two-state solution but have historically shied away from J Street’s tactics.

Despite its stated principles, J Street’s most strident critics have long accused it of being “anti-Israel” and even, at times, “anti-Semitic.” David Friedman, before his appointment as President Trump’s ambassador to Israel, once described J Street supporters as “worse than kapos,” a reference to Jews who carried out Nazi orders at concentration camps during the Holocaust.   

Whatever one thinks of J Street’s brand of politics, such labels are difficult to reconcile with Brooke’s personal experience or her path to J Street U.

Tall and thin with wavy brown hair and a hint of a lisp, Brooke grew up in suburban Charlotte, N.C., the only child of parents who divorced before she started grade school. Brooke’s father, a West Point graduate, converted to Judaism when he married her mom, Shelly, who hailed from a big Jewish family. When Shelly was little, her parents served Shabbat dinner and took their kids to services every Friday night. Brooke’s grandfather was president of the synagogue; her grandmother was president of the sisterhood.

Asked about her Jewish upbringing, Brooke says she was raised in a Conservative congregation. Yet the whole story, according to Shelly, is more revealing. In elementary school, when Brooke heard about a Jewish sleep away camp in Georgia, she begged her parents to go. Upon returning from her first summer at Camp Ramah Darom, Brooke asked if they could switch from the Reform synagogue they were attending at the time to a Conservative one. “I didn’t know the prayers,” Shelly remembers her daughter saying. “I want to be more Jewish.” 

“She was, at a very young age, really pushing to learn more, to be more culturally Jewish, and to be able to participate more,” Shelly says. “She loved it.”

Growing up in the South, being “more Jewish” wasn’t always easy. The local Jewish community was small, and the kids in particular confronted a fair share of anti-Semitism. “We’d get on the bus and someone would yell ‘Jews to the back!’” Brooke recalls. “If we were wearing a baseball cap, they’d knock it off our heads and ask where our horns were.”

Shelly vividly remembers one incident when a friend of Brooke’s at school told her that his parents said she was going to hell. While Brooke’s feelings were hurt, Shelly was livid—and she wanted to let the boy’s mother know it. But Brooke, who was only in fourth or fifth grade, insisted on handling it herself, saying she wanted to teach her friend about Judaism. Similar events in her own life had made Shelly hesitant to advertise her religion, but with Brooke, she says, “It was kind of the opposite. It made her feel more Jewish and more proud to be Jewish.”

I cannot be in the Jewish community—I cannot be a Jew—I cannot be anything in this world right now if I’m not working to solve this conflict.”

Israel, according to Brooke, was “pretty front and center” throughout her Jewish education, both at Hebrew school and especially during the ten summers she spent at Ramah Darom, where she remembers AIPAC presentations and visits from American Jews who served in the Israeli army. During her final summer, when she was 16 and entering her senior year of high school, Brooke visited Israel with a group of fellow campers and felt an immediate connection. “I remember the first time that I went to the kotel, and I put my hands on those bricks, and I felt like something had just glued the palm of my hands to the bricks,” she says. “There was this feeling that I was inextricably bound to this place, and that it’s my job to protect it.”

Like she had after her first summer at Ramah Darom, Brooke returned with a new outlook toward her Jewish identity. “She absolutely fell in love with Israel,” Shelly says. “She became a huge Zionist.”

Of course, while the campers had unwittingly visited settlements in the West Bank, Brooke’s introduction to Israel didn’t include any discussion of the contentious issues at the heart of the conflict. And in the rare cases when she had been exposed to criticism of Israel up to that point, Brooke’s experience at camp had conditioned her to respond with contempt. “I hated people who used the word ‘Palestinian’ or ‘occupation,’” she says.

Brooke Davies speaking at a J Street rally. (Courtesy of Brooke Davies)

Upon arriving at UNC in the fall of 2013, Brooke had never heard of J Street, so she didn’t know it was controversial. But when she became friendly with a few J Street U members through Hillel, the concept of a progressive pro-Israel organization captured her interest. Soon, Brooke found herself reckoning with perspectives that took her by surprise. She recalls watching the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, for example, and being shocked to hear former Israeli security chiefs speak candidly—and critically—about the occupation.

Though still in its early stages, Brooke’s political awakening came with unanticipated consequences. Shelly supported her daughter’s involvement with J Street U, but other members of their extended family did not—and they made no effort to hide it. During the spring of her freshman year, Brooke returned to Charlotte for a cousin’s bat mitzvah and was welcomed by, as she describes it, “a line of my family waiting to tell me how disappointed they were.” Shelly doesn’t recall that incident specifically, but it’s consistent, she says, with similar occasions—including one family gathering when Brooke was cornered by a distant relative, who told her that she didn’t “deserve to call herself a Jew,” and got so frustrated that she locked herself in an empty room and cried.

Regarding the tension, Shelly’s mother, Leah, who is close with Brooke, strikes a conciliatory tone. But she also makes clear that she believes it’s not her granddaughter’s place, as a sheltered American Jew, to judge Israel’s policy choices. “Am I upset with Brooke? Not at all. I appreciate what she does,” Leah insists. “[But] I think as someone who has never, never, never, never, never been denied anything, it’s hard to look at somebody else’s country and say this is what you should do.”

In July 2014, Israel went to war with Hamas, which had been firing rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip. It was a brutal conflict that dominated international headlines for weeks and brought out divisions in the American Jewish community. As much of the world expressed shock at images circulating in the media of dead Palestinian children and bombed out schools, the pro-Israel establishment sprang into action. They insisted, first and foremost, on Israel’s right to defend itself, and they pointed out that Hamas deliberately operated near schools and hospitals in order to maximize civilian casualties that would provoke anti-Israel outrage. Taking on Israel’s critics in The Washington Post, the conservative writer Charles Krauthammer declared, “Rarely does international politics present a moment of such moral clarity.”

Yet many liberal Jews still believed that Israel acted recklessly. “A provocation does not relieve one of accountability for how one responds to it,” wrote Leon Wieseltier at The New Republic. “For this reason, the war has filled me with disquiet, which my sympathetic understanding of Israel’s position has failed to stifle.” Wieseltier went on to say he was “surprised by the magnitude of the indifference in the Jewish world to the human costs of Israel’s defense,” concluding: “It is not sickening that Israel is defending itself—it is, by the standard of Jewish historical experience, exhilarating; but some of what Israel is doing to defend itself is sickening. Is our identity so infirm that such complication cannot be introduced?”

The war became a defining moment for many of Brooke’s peers in J Street U, who saw the bloodshed as a call to action. Meanwhile, Brooke was spending the summer with fellow Robertson Scholars working at a “freedom school” in the Mississippi Delta. Every morning, they woke up at 4:30 a.m. and drove an hour from Cleveland, Miss. to the Sunflower County Freedom Project, where Brooke helped teach civil rights and rhetoric to middle schoolers growing up in a place where extreme poverty and gang violence were prevalent. One of her lasting memories from that summer is being asked to remove the Star of David hanging around her neck because, among her students, the six-pointed star was better known as the sign of a local gang. So, while the war in Gaza was unfolding, Brooke was fighting a different kind of battle entirely. And as a result, she says, “The whole conflict and the occupation felt very far away.”

That would change for good the following school year, when Brooke, now a sophomore, enrolled in a course at Duke on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (As part of her program, Brooke spent a semester studying at Duke, where she also organized a new chapter of J Street U.) Her professor invited a variety of guest speakers to class, among them a Palestinian man from Gaza who shared his story over Skype. “He just started talking about his life. It wasn’t political,” Brooke says. “And very plainly, he was like, ‘My parents and my wife died in a rocket attack. I’m still looking for my brother. I’m caring for my two children. I can’t get out of Gaza.’”

Perhaps what Brooke remembers the most is how calm he remained. “But he was describing such devastation,” she says. “And I just ran out of the room and was sick in the bathroom.”

Brooke starts to get animated, her green eyes growing big and glassy. “I just remember this feeling in my gut, like, I can’t walk away. I have to do something. Because I cannot be in the Jewish community—I cannot be a Jew—I cannot be anything in this world right now if I’m not working to solve this conflict. I felt that so deeply in every fiber of my body. That was the moment when I think I became truly politicized.”

Today, the conventional wisdom is that American Jews are drifting away from Israel—and that younger Jews especially hold less pro-Israel views than their parents and grandparents.

While there have been many surveys of Jewish opinion over the last several years, a Pew poll conducted in 2013 offered perhaps the most compelling evidence to date. It found that American Jews aged 18-29 are less emotionally attached to Israel than older generations, less likely to say that caring about Israel is an essential part of their Judaism, and less convinced that Israel’s government is sincerely interested in making peace with the Palestinians. They are also more likely to believe a two-state solution is possible.

There are competing explanations for this trend. Some on the left attribute it primarily to the persistence of the occupation and Israel’s rightward shift under Netanyahu, but there are clearly other factors at play as well. Rabbi Eric Yoffe, a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, blames “a government-sponsored Orthodox religious establishment” in Israel that alienates American Jews, most of whom are secular. Given that younger Jews overwhelmingly lean to the left politically, intense partisanship in the U.S.—and the politicization of Israel in recent years—is another possible culprit, as is Netanyahu’s boosterism of Republican politicians, including Trump.

“Did you think that my Judaism and that my connection to Israel were so fragile that you had to build up this illusion for me? Did you really think that the values you had instilled in me were so breakable that the occupation could just make me run away from it?” 

Interestingly, there is agreement on both sides of the political spectrum that one big reason for the generational shift has nothing to do with Israeli policies but is rather a matter of American demographics. “Perhaps the biggest reason why young American Jews tend to be more dovish and more critical of Israel is because they are much more likely than older Jews to be the offspring of intermarried couples,” Dov Waxman, a professor at Northeastern University, wrote in his 2016 book, Trouble in the Tribe. “Intermarriage undoubtedly has an impact upon the political attitudes and opinions of the children of such unions. Young American Jews whose parents are intermarried are not only more liberal than other Jews, but also significantly less attached to Israel.”

In his 2012 book, The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart, a prominent critic of the occupation, reached a similar conclusion. Citing the high rate of intermarriage, Beinart reasoned that young Jews “are not especially connected to Israel because they are not especially connected to being Jewish.” And writing in Mosaic magazine last year, Elliot Abrams, a former adviser to Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, argued that, in part because of intermarriage, “The American Jewish community is more distant from Israel than in past generations because it is changing, is in significant ways growing weaker, and is less inclined and indeed less able to feel and express solidarity with other Jews here and abroad.”

The problem with this line of argument is not that it’s necessarily wrong; there is a lot of truth to it. The problem is not even that it reduces the occupation to an afterthought. Rather, the problem is that it does not account for Brooke. It does not account for the “hundreds of students in J Street U who would not be in the Jewish community right now,” she says, “if not for a place that lets them be Jewish and engage the occupation at the same time.” And, therefore, it fails to adequately reflect what—and who—is at stake. 

Yes, only one side of Brooke’s family is Jewish, but that didn’t prevent her from developing a deep connection with Judaism or Israel. Her road to J Street U ran straight through Hillel, the center of Jewish life on college campuses around the world. And as far as Brooke is concerned, her Jewish identity is not in question. “I love being Jewish,” she says. “Being able to carry on a story that has spanned thousands and thousands of years and has so much tragedy and triumph and resistance and resilience makes me feel empowered.”

Put simply, Brooke doesn’t fit the stereotype of a young Jew whose growing distance from Israel is the predictable result of apathy and assimilation. Until a few years ago, she more closely fit the mold of a future leader in the pro-Israel establishment. And yet the distance is growing nonetheless.

Ultimately, the primary source of the tension is less the occupation itself than Brooke’s anger over what she views as a betrayal. “Did you think that my Judaism and that my connection to Israel were so fragile that you had to build up this illusion for me?” she asks. “Did you really think that the values you had instilled in me were so breakable that the occupation could just make me run away from it?” 

In an interview, Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer at Tablet who speaks frequently to Jewish audiences on college campuses, says that Brooke may not be typical of her generation—at least not statistically speaking—but she’s not an anomaly either. “If you look at the people who become the most disillusioned, it’s often the ones who have been sold the hardest sell,” he says. “People who discover that things are not as clear cut as they were taught very often then react in the opposite direction.”

In some cases, he notes, the reaction can be even more extreme, as evidenced by the rising numbers of young Jews affiliating with groups on the left like If Not Now, which opposes the occupation without taking a stance on Israeli statehood, and Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement (BDS). Unlike J Street, these groups have demonstrated little interest in building relationships or gaining influence within the Jewish establishment: They’ve declared war.

As a result, explains Amna Farooqi—Brooke’s predecessor at J Street U, who made headlines its first Muslim leader before graduating from the University of Maryland in 2016—it’s not uncommon for students to criticize J Street U for being too far to the right. “On the more left-wing campuses, there’s always the pushback of ‘You’re pro-Israel,’ ‘How can you support Zionists?’” she says. Farooqi worries that J Street U could struggle to stay relevant because the politics on campus are “moving so quickly to the left” that many students won’t be willing to engage with the nuances of J Street U’s pro-Israel, anti-occupation philosophy.

Neither, however, are many on their right. For instance, Brooke recently led a delegation from J Street U to the “Ambassadors Against BDS” summit at the United Nations in New York, which was organized by Israel’s Mission to the UN along with leading pro-Israel groups including Hillel, AJC, ADL, and the Israel Action Network. Sporting tee shirts that read, “I’m anti-BDS, anti-occupation,” the students came with a simple, if somewhat provocative, message: the most effective way to fight boycotts against Israel is to fight for a two-state solution that ends the occupation. In response, a Republican lawmaker (who is not Jewish) called them “anti-Semitic.” It was “the most popular line of the day,” reported Haaretz, eliciting “whoops of support and a standing ovation.”

Following the summit, Israel Action Network, Hillel, and ADL disavowed the attack on the students. Yet, as Brooke wrote in response to the incident, she is less concerned about one politician’s words than she is about communal leadership that, in her view, continues to marginalize American Jews who care about Israel but criticize its policies. “The only result of such an approach,” she warned, “will be more and more young people giving up on Israel’s future.”

Brooke Davies at a J Street conference (courtesy of Brooke Davies)

In spite of everything, Brooke isn’t giving up yet, and the deep connection she felt on her first visit to the kotel hasn’t gone away. “I still can’t help wanting to protect and to love this place,” she says. “I still feel that feeling like I can’t take my hands off this wall.”

Brooke has since returned to Israel twice—with Birthright during the winter of her sophomore year and with Shelly a year later. It was on the last day of the latter trip that Brooke encountered the baby-toothed boy in Jaffa, a frightening experience that left her with a ripped tank top and a diagnosed case of what she now describes as “light PTSD.” Initially, it also left her upset, Shelly remembers, because the boy was one of the people Brooke was trying to help.

While Brooke was shaken, however, her determination was not. Last August, she was elected president of the J Street U national student board, a role in which she worked with student leaders across the country to organize and engage young people on college campuses, while devising new strategies to engage Jewish organizations to speak more forcefully about the importance of ending the occupation. According to Ben Elkind, who oversees J Street’s campus initiatives full time, Brooke served the “dual function of being tapped into the heart of J Street U and also being part of the head—thinking about what to do, where to go, and what the strategy and politics are that we want to move forward.”  

At the same time, she seems to be grappling with how to move forward, on an intensely personal level, as a progressive Jew who opposes the occupation.  

“I think for Brooke there are some very alive questions about her relationship with her Jewish community that this work is a means of getting clear on,” Elkind says. “She’s taking some real risks by actually taking action around some of those questions.”

For her part, Brooke says the experience has left her “longing for a Jewish community” that feels like the one she had growing up. After four years of “trying to engage with this community on why, morally, they should stand up for what they taught me to believe in,” she adds, “I don’t quite believe them anymore.”

Nonetheless, as she prepares to leave campus activism behind (she will remain in her position until a replacement is elected in August), Brooke’s desire to fight for democratic values, in both Israel and the U.S., is stronger than ever. To that end, just a few weeks after graduation, she moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue a career in the political arena.

In late February, on the final day of J Street’s annual conference in Washington, Brooke sat on a panel titled “Rising to the Challenge: American Jewish Leadership in the Trump Era.” She was the youngest person on stage by some three decades and clearly the crowd favorite. As she spoke, it was evident that she is no longer worried about gaining the approval of her Jewish elders or anyone else. Instead, she issued a promise—or, perhaps, a warning—and extended an invitation.  

“J Street U and young people are going to be out there, they’re going to be marching, they’re going to be in the streets, we’re going to be thinking about power, and we’re going to be thinking about how we can use that power that we have to get closer to a two-state solution,” she declared. Waiting for the applause to die down, Brooke flashed a sly smile.

“If the American Jewish establishment wants to join us, that would be great.”

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