Between Tikkun Olam and Self-Defense: Young Jewish Americans Debate the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


  • Ella Ben Hagai
  • Eileen L. Zurbriggen


In this study, we examined processes associated with ingroup members’ break from their ingroup and solidarity with the outgroup. We explored these processes by observing the current dramatic social change in which a growing number of young Jewish Americans have come to reject Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. We conducted a yearlong participant observation and in-depth interviews with 27 Jewish American college students involved in Israel advocacy on a college campus. Findings suggest that Jewish Americans entering the Jewish community in college came to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a lens of Jewish vulnerability. A bill proposed by Palestinian solidarity organizations to divest from companies associated with Israel (part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions or BDS movement) was also interpreted through the lens of Israel's vulnerability. As the college’s Student Union debated the bill, a schism emerged in the Jewish community. Some Jewish students who had a strong sense of their Jewish identity and grounded their Judaism in principles of social justice exhibited a greater openness to the Palestinian narrative of the conflict. Understanding of Palestinian dispossession was associated with the rejection of the mainstream Jewish establishment’s unconditional support of Israel. Moreover, dissenting Jewish students were concerned that others in the campus community would perceive them as denying the demands of people of color. We discuss our observations of the process of social change in relation to social science theories on narrative acknowledgment and collective action.