For me and other young Jews, the future is no longer in America. What we experienced on campus has a lot to do with it.
“Hello Ms. Weiss, Please excuse any typos, I’m writing this half asleep on a train…”
Thus began a cold email I received in September 2019 from a young man named Blake Flayton. He was a student at George Washington University, he told me. He had just read my book, How to Fight Antisemitism, and he wanted to tell me more about the atmosphere he was facing as a pro-Israel, gay, progressive on campus.
I remember forwarding the email to my editor and saying: This is exactly who I wrote my book for.
A few months later, Blake’s email resulted in an op-ed for the New York Times entitled On the Front Lines of Progressive Antisemitism, which offered a picture of the choice facing young American Jews like him: disavow Israel or be cast out from the right-side-of-history crowd.
Most choose the former. Blake chose the latter, and with the kind of social consequences you can imagine. I wish I could tell you that the situation on campus has changed in the three years since we first started corresponding. Alas, the opposite is true.
What inspires me about Blake and his circle of young American Jews is that they aren’t waiting for the grown-ups to make things right. They’re building a new future all by themselves. For some, that means doing something they never imagined they would do: leaving America to start new lives in Israel. Blake is moving a few weeks from now. In the essay below, he explains why.
I had always felt at home in America. It was my home and my parents’ home and my grandparents’, and it never seemed like it could be any way else. But three weeks from now, I am leaving the place where I was born and making a new life in Israel. The story of why is the story of a growing cohort of Gen Z Jews who see what the older generations cannot yet see: That the future doesn’t feel like it’s here as much as there.
When people ask me what the origin point is—when I knew I would leave—it’s not one particular moment, but a collection. Among them:
- The drunk girl at my alma mater, George Washington, caught on video in November 2019, saying, “We’re going to bomb Israel, you Jewish pieces of shit.”
- The Hillel that was spray-painted with “Free Palestine” in July 2020, at the University of Wisconsin.
- The Chabad House set on fire in August 2020, at the University of Delaware.
- The Jewish vice president of student government at USC who resigned in August 2020, after getting barraged with antisemitic hate.
- The University of Chicago students who, in January 2022, called on their fellow students not to take “sh*tty Zionist classes” taught by Israelis or Jews.
- The Jewish fraternity at Rutgers that got egged in April 2022—during a Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration.
- The Chabad menorah that was vandalized for the fourth time in two years, in May 2022, at the University of Cincinnati.
- The protester who hurled rocks at Jewish students in June 2022, at the University of Illinois.
- The swastikas that turned up in July and August 2022, at Brown.
- The Hillel that was vandalized in August 2022, at USC.
- The innumerable, antisemitic incidents at San Francisco State University, which the Lawfare Project, a Jewish nonprofit, has called “the most anti-Semitic college campus in the country.”
- The two girls recently kicked out of a group that combats sexual assault, at SUNY New Paltz, because they had the temerity to post something positive about Israel.
- The universities, which bend over backward to create safe spaces for most students, increasingly making room for antisemites in lecture halls and at graduation ceremonies (see, for example, Duke, Indiana University, the University of Denver, Arizona State University and CUNY).
- The proliferation of statements and articles and open letters proclaiming support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement—a political movement that has as its stated goal the dismantling of the Jewish state—from Harvard to Pomona to Berkeley to the University of Illinois, along with the conviction, widespread on many campuses, that Jewish students should be barred from conversations about BDS, because, well, they’re Jewish.
In college, for the first time, I began to feel the way Jews have often felt in other times and places: like The Other.
At first, I felt deeply alone in this feeling. I wondered if I was paranoid or hysterical.
But I discovered I’m not the only one. There are many other twenty-something Jews who, like me, had never felt this kind of isolation—until suddenly we did.
“I don’t know a single Jewish college student who hasn’t experienced antisemitism,” one student from Arizona State told me.
“Jewish students on campus are forced to leave an integral and fundamental part of our identity at the door in order to be accepted by the community,” another wrote to me from the University of Oregon. (Both students refused to speak openly for fear of social backlash.)
“It was at Florida International University in Miami where I witnessed antisemitism firsthand in the form of anti-Zionism,” Meyer Grunberg told me. Grunberg was shocked by the leaflets distributed by the on-campus group Students for Justice in Palestine, which, he said, accused Israel of committing genocide, including the murder of Palestinian children—harkening back to the medieval blood libel.
Rob Greenberg had heard stories from his grandparents about occasional instances of antisemitism they’d experienced—his grandmother’s employer didn’t want to let her leave work in time for Shabbat, and so on. But growing up in Scarsdale, New York, in the early 21st century, he had never encountered any antisemitism himself.
Until he arrived at NYU.
“So many times,” he emailed me, “I would see gatherings outside the library with ‘progressives’ holding up signs and chanting anti-Israel slogans. I will never forget one time going up to one of those students and challenging him on his positions. Within 20 seconds, when he realized I was not on his side, he called over other members of his group, and I found myself surrounded and was told to leave before anything violent breaks out. I realized then that dialogue was not what they were looking for.”
Bridget Gottdank’s mom is Christian, and her dad is Jewish. Growing up in New York, she, too, never faced any overt antisemitism. Until she arrived at college at Coastal Carolina University. She was at a social gathering with a group of classmates near campus when Israel came up. Gottdank said something positive, and then someone she considered a friend became furious and called her a "stupid Jew."
I met Noah Shufutinsky at G.W., where he majored in Judaic Studies. “Academically, I had a positive experience,” Shufutinsky told me. But campus progressives became increasingly strident in their denunciations of Israel, to the point that he felt they were “encouraging antisemitic activity.”
G.W. was the kind of place where it was considered normal for protests about raising cafeteria workers’ wages to involve the Jewish state. In May 2019, for example, students rallying on the quad for a $15 minimum wage for school janitors incorporated strong condemnations of Israel into their speeches—as if janitors in Washington, D.C., not getting paid adequately was somehow the fault of Jews thousands of miles away. To Jewish students, the tethering of Israel to workers not getting their fair share felt insulting and familiar.
Elijah Farkash grew up in a mostly non-Jewish community on Long Island. He spent nine summers at a Jewish sleep-away camp in Pennsylvania. His family was “very Zionist,” he said, and “proudly Jewish.”
Then, like Shufutinsky, Farkash went to G.W., where he’s now a senior and where Jews, he said, were widely viewed as “a core component of white elitism in this country.”
Farkash said that students were mostly ignorant of Israel, its history, and its politics—why anyone had thought to found a Jewish state in the first place. “What they think are innocent Instagram stories can actually be very dangerous and unsettling,” he told me, referring to, among other things, posts that routinely compare Israel to South Africa or the Third Reich. “Generally, I avoid discussing Israel with progressive students. It brings me too much angst.”
Then there was my own experience at G.W., in March 2020. I had been at a Shabbat dinner on campus, and I was wearing a kippah. As I was coming out, some kids started shouting, “Yahud! Yahud!”—or Jew! Jew! in Arabic—and then, for good measure, added, “You started it!”, which I could only assume meant Covid. I had never experienced anything like that growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona.
When we talk to our parents about all this, they’re baffled. They lack the vocabulary to make sense of what’s going on. They don’t get that the language they devised in the 1960s and 1970s—the language of inclusion and tolerance and everyone being free to be yourself—is now being weaponized against their own children and grandchildren.
What they know is the old-fashioned antisemitism of the right. This can be deadly and horrific: The Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, in which 11 Jews were murdered as they prayed. The attack by another white supremacist six months later, at a synagogue in Poway, California.
But for the time being, that violence is on the margins. And the vast majority of Americans abhor it and support prosecuting it. In 2022, no Jew is worried about being attacked by the Klan on a country road.
No, what Jews in 2022 fear is being visible as Jews on the streets of Brooklyn. What Jews in 2022 fear, especially if they’re in their twenties, is outing themselves as a supporter of Israel and losing all their friends. What we fear is being called apartheid lovers and colonizers and white supremacists—and how those powerful smears might affect our futures.
To be fair, it was hard for many of our Jewish peers to see this, too.
“Antisemitism from the left is hard for young people to see, because young people a lot of time align with the left,” a Jewish woman who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania told me. “Left-wing activists only describe Zionists and Israel, so it’s hard for young Jews to see how it threatens Jews in America.”
But we knew this wasn’t just about Israel. Why else were we always getting called Nazis?
In college, we lost a lot. We lost friends. We lost our sense of belonging. And unbelievably, some of us lost that feeling of being permanently American. But we gained something as well: a fascination with the Jewish story.
Soon enough we all came, in our own times, to face some questions: How was this changing us? How was the thinning out of our American identities deepening our Jewish ones?
In the face of all of this, the thought of moving to Israel became an idea that wouldn’t go away—a conversation I kept having.
Marc Rosenberg is the vice president of partnerships at the nonprofit Nefesh B’Nefesh, which helps Jews in the United States, Canada and Britain make aliyah—that is, move to Israel, return to the Promised Land. Rosenberg told me his organization has seen a 53 percent rise in the number of single Jews under 30 moving to Israel since 2009. In 2021, Rosenberg said, 1,380 Jews in this category made aliyah. He expects that number to go up still more in 2022.
Among that number is everyone in this story.
A few years after graduating, Rob Greenberg moved to Tel Aviv. “A job opportunity in tech is what brought me out here and ultimately led to me making aliyah,” he said. Had he not felt threatened and demeaned as an observant Jew walking around Greenwich Village in his kippah, he might not have gone that route.
After graduating in 2019, Meyer Grunberg worked for a couple years in the Miami area, and, in 2022, moved to Jerusalem.
Over the past few years, Shufutinsky, who is biracial, became relatively well known as a rapper who sings in English and Hebrew. (His stage name is Westside Gravy.) Unlike in the United States, he said, in Israel he didn’t feel conflicted about his two interwoven identities: his Jewish and black roots. “I love that when I got to Israel, I wasn’t hounded by people asking ‘how are you Jewish?’ and going on and on about ‘the conflict’ every time being Jewish came up,” Shufutinsky emailed me. “Instead, I was greeted by people who referred to me as ‘akh sheli’ (my brother) and encouraged me to convince my whole family to ‘come home.’”
This summer, Shufutinsky followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Dmitry, and did just that.
Bridget Gottdank finished college at West Chester University of Pennsylvania with a degree in political science—and, in early 2022, moved to Tel Aviv. She’s working at a nonprofit. Elijah Farkash is now a senior at G.W., and is planning to make aliyah when he graduates.
I first tried to get to Israel via a study abroad program when I was still at G.W. That was in 2020, and Covid squashed it. Then I tried to go a second time, only to be foiled again by the pandemic. I tried to go again, unsuccessfully, and then again, also to no avail—weirdly, the Post Office lost my passport. (Was America trying to hold onto me?) When I finally got to Israel—fifth time’s a charm—I didn’t intend to make aliyah. I just wanted to see it.
And then I fell in love. On a beach in Tel Aviv, I held hands with a boy, and I still felt deeply connected to the Jewish people—something I had never experienced in the United States. (If you suspect I’m alone, ask any Jew who’s dared to show up at a Pride march in New York or Los Angeles with a rainbow-colored Star of David on a flag or t-shirt.)
Leaving America isn’t easy—and it shouldn’t be. Right now, I live on the Lower East Side, the onetime home of the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer and of Walter Matthau and of Jackie Mason and so many others. The idea of leaving seems like a betrayal. But I’m resigned to that. It’s a resignation that feels ancient and so much bigger than me.
When I get to Israel three weeks from tomorrow, I’m putting my luggage away. I’ll be done wandering, and I’ll be done asking other people to accept my Jewishness and my Zionism. I’ll be home.