Editor's note: This piece is by a Harvard student who requests anonymity.
The Harvard Crimson ran an oped yesterday entitled “My Israel,” written by law student Lee Hiromoto in response to a recent panel at Harvard Law School on the question of “Boycotting the Israeli Occupation.” The piece itself is a rather unremarkable recycling of standard tropes of pro-Israel propaganda. It does not engage the core issues of equality and colonialism at stake in the conflict. Instead, Hiromoto extols Israel’s generosity, dropping anecdotes about Israeli doctors treating Palestinians and natives coming to work at the West Bank settlement of Qedar (or, as Hiromoto describes it, an “Israeli community … outside Jerusalem”); he reminds us of Israel’s “full, painful withdrawal” from Gaza (by which he presumably means painful for Israel) as evidence of its peaceful intentions; indulges in some pink-washing by celebrating Jerusalem and Tel Aviv’s “cosmopolitan diversity,” complete with gay pride parades; claims the Palestinian citizens of Israel “participate in Israeli democracy at all levels”; and ends by celebrating Israeli tolerance with an anecdote featuring “an Arab adolescent talking about attending his best-friend’s bar-mitzvah—and understanding the Hebrew far better than most American Jews.”
Whatever its flaws, “his” Israel is a liberal, peace-loving, and economically advanced democracy; that it may be none of these things to the millions who live under Israeli rule but to whom the state does not belong because they are not Jews is forgotten. As with most Israeli propaganda in the US, Hiromoto implies a similarity between the two countries built on a shared forgetting (perhaps more willful in the Israeli case since there are still too many natives around) of settler colonialism. Or, as Christine O’Donnell might put it: “I’m not a racist state … I’m you!”
What makes Hiromoto’s article only slightly distinctive is that it derives its authority in part from his service in the Tsahal (Israeli military). But even here, Hiromoto’s piece is not unique. It is part of a quirky genre of Israeli campus advocacy: the student-soldier perspective. Of course Tsahal veterans have long been a regular fixture of speaking tours organizing by Zionist advocacy groups, in some cases prompting successful protests. But unlike these one-time visitors (whose appeal is mostly limited to the already-converted), these students are advocates in their own universities, writing to a broader audience of their own peers. They are also often leaders in organizing campus activities.
Let us take Harvard as an example of this broader phenomenon. In the past decade, The Crimson has published at least six op-eds in which the authors are students also identified as Tsahal veterans (this, of course, in addition to dozens of other pro-Israel screeds). In 2008, Shira Kaplan, a Harvard veteran of AMAN (Tsahal’s military intelligence branch) argued that in light of an increasing regional threat from Iran and its proxies, resolving the conflict with the Palestinians can take a back seat. “As we say in the Israeli Intelligence community,” Kaplan intoned in a rather extraneous bit of name-dropping, “it is not that these questions are not important; they are simply less urgent.” In October 2002, Avi Heilman penned a first-hand account of the occupation around Jenin in the months before “Operation Defensive Shield”:
I know I saved lives without ever pulling a trigger. It is hard to imagine, but sometimes the Palestinians we refused entry into Israel would stay around for a while, and we would share our dinner with them, and we’d talk about a future where they’d never have to see us again, where the Palestinian authority would take care of its own people, protect them and us from a war brought on by terrorism. …
We do not want to rule over three million Palestinians, we do not want to prolong a war that kills children and women and soldiers. We do not ever want to see apartheid in Israel. But we also will not put our country at risk and we will not be bullied by terrorism; we will not turn a blind eye when our families are slaughtered and immolated at their weddings, Passover meals, shopping malls, and on their buses. Israel’s soldiers are in the territories only because they are, in the face of Palestinian police collaboration with terrorism, the only thing that stands between terrorists and their targets. And we’d rather be anywhere else.
As mentioned above, these pieces (see also here, here, and here) have little else to commend them in terms of argumentation, research, or analysis. Any number of junior Dershowitzes and aspiring AIPAC interns can compile the same clichés and obfuscations. But the soldier-student lament is a particularly interesting form of propaganda in several respects:
First, it almost goes without saying that a member of any Palestinian armed group would likely never be allowed to even enter the United States, let alone attend a university like Harvard. Yet Harvard has hosted numerous high-profile Israeli officers with war crimes records over the years.
Second, a background of military service is an important source of authority in Ivy League settings where the vast majority of students have never had to contemplate a draft and are likely to be very deferential, even intimidated, when encountering peers who are veterans. In these environments, Tsahal veterans are generally older than their colleagues and viewed as possessing the gravitas of having lived in the “real world.” Hiromoto invoked this books-versus-guns trope in an article he wrote for his undergraduate newspaper, the Yale Daily News:
This critical difference between the necessity of self-defense and the barbarity of terror, like the stark contrast between academic theory and palpable reality, empowers me and all other peace-seekers to continue to hope, pray and, if necessary, fight to create a better world in our three-dimensional real time so far from textbooks and lectures.
Third, the student-soldier narrative normalizes Zionist violence as rational, necessary, and morally self-aware (and implicitly furthers the delegitimization of all Palestinian or Arab violence, even when it is directed against military targets). It is easy for most Harvard students to imagine war criminals as “Third World” types – Africans, Arabs, and so on. But to think of peers and friends as participating in the armed defense of a discriminatory state regime is (and should be) deeply unsettling. It is often easier to avoid the topic and settle into a comfortable moral inertia that ignores or resists evidence and arguments about Israel’s human rights abuses or its colonial structures.
In the many discursive battles taking place in universities and elsewhere over Israel/Palestine, there are of course many stereotyped “roles” that are familiar to us. Facing off against the soldier-student, one may find the Palestinian nationalist/victim, the moderate Arab, dissenting (Zionist or not) Jew, the do-good liberal internationalist, the raving Marxist, and so on (for a tongue-in-cheek take on this, see this). Almost anyone involved in these debates has struggled with how to master or resist the expectations associated with such roles, either with regard to oneself or to others. Inevitably, the particular circumstances will dictate which course of action is best. But in all cases, those tactical questions should be guided by the broader strategic one: how to cut through the noise and help audiences understand the basic tension between Zionism and equality.
[P.S. Apropos of Qedar, in Hiromoto's piece. Human Rights Watch gives some sense of how settlement-driven segregation around Qedar impacts the lives of Palestinians : “In Muntar, adjacent to the Qedar B settlement, two kilometers south of Ma’ale Adumim, there is no electricity, water, or roads. When there is a medical emergency, locals walk to Azariya (a four-kilometer distance) to get a vehicle. But a resident explained that the direct road goes through the settlement of Qedar. According to Israeli military orders, settlements are “closed military zones” to Palestinians, who require special permits to enter them, including in cases where roads pass through settlements. The Bedouin have to go around the settlement, he said, which takes longer.”]