I am writing to you because the Israel of my childhood and of your dreams has become a nightmare, which we can no longer ignore. The passing of the “Jewish Nation-State bill” by the Israeli cabinet makes clear what Palestinian citizens of Israel have known for years: that Israel is a democracy for Jews only. By legalizing its Apartheid policies, the Israeli government has forced us to re-evaluate our relationship to Israel.
The massive Israeli military attack on Gaza this summer was met with widespread international condemnation, creating confusion and distress among Diaspora Jews, especially those who view themselves as progressive. An unprecedented number of Jews joined such organizations as Jewish Voice for Peace, J-Street, and Open Hillel, which have condemned the Gaza attack and Israel’s ongoing occupation unequivocally. At the same time, mainstream Jewish groups, including Hillel International, and the fringe group AMCHA have intensified their efforts against faculty members like myself who write and teach about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are deeply committed to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. Organizations like AMCHA created and publicized McCarthy-like black lists, urging you to avoid taking classes with us or reading our work.
I am more concerned with the implications of these attacks for you rather than for myself and my colleagues. Your college years represent an incredible opportunity, indeed a privilege, to broaden your intellectual horizons and to expand your knowledge beyond the confines of what you were exposed to growing up. I worry that the recent attacks on academic freedom and especially the labeling of organizing around Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as anti-Semitic will deprive you of the opportunity to learn to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from multiple perspectives, including those who make you feel uncomfortable.
I write to you because it was the discomfort I felt as a student at Haifa University in the early 1980s that changed my life, serving as a catalyst for a journey of personal, intellectual, and political transformation. I was not ready for this change earlier. As a junior in high school I was selected to be part of a youth delegation to England, sponsored by the Jewish Agency. We gave presentations in high schools and stayed with host Jewish families. Half-way through the trip, in March 1978, Israel launched a massive invasion into Southern Lebanon, known as “Operation Litani”, after the terror attack on a civilian bus, traveling from Haifa to Tel Aviv. As pictures of dead and displaced Palestinian civilians from the refugee camps in Southern Lebaon appeared in the British papers and on the TV screens, we had to defend Israel’s actions. The Jewish students and community members we met with were critical of Israel’s aggression, insisting that you cannot fight violence with greater violence. We were unprepared for their reactions. Though some of us were uncomfortable with the images of innocent civilians caught in the fire, we defended Israel’s attack as an act of self-defense and repeated a common argument of Israel propaganda: that Jews who enjoy peaceful and prosperous lives in the Diaspora have no right to criticize Israel’s policy.
A year later, when I graduated from high school, I started my mandatory military service. I served in the Jordan Valley in a role that allowed me to witness up close the militarization of young men. It was only during my military service, that I became aware of the existence of refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and began to grapple with the toll occupation takes on both the occupied and the occupiers. What I learned left me confused and frustrated. More than anything, I felt alone. At the time, I was not aware of any Israeli-Jewish organizations that publicly expressed reservations with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Everything changed when I enrolled as an undergraduate student at Haifa University in the Fall of 1982. I was fortunate to study with brilliant faculty members who exposed me to new ideas and perspectives. Outside the classroom, I began to organize alongside Palestinian students whose commitment to justice and equality was contagious. The change in my political views did not take place overnight and I experienced many moments of discomfort along the way, often when I was confronted with new information about Israel’s aggression. In retrospect, I realize that there were times when what I saw or heard made me feel guilty or ashamed but instead I got defensive, because accepting the truth went against everything I was taught, not to mention my family and community.
The privilege of studying about the conflict allowed me to turn moments of discomfort into learning opportunities. The Palestinian students I met complimented my studies by inviting me to their homes and villages to witness firsthand the discrimination they experienced as citizens of 1948 Israel. My first visit to a refugee camp in the West Bank was a major turning point. The unlivable conditions in the camp made me think of how I imagined the concentration camp my father lived in as a child during the Holocaust. I could not be silent anymore. The risk of not speaking up seemed greater than the risk of being called a traitor. I conquered my discomfort, turning my guilt into a responsibility to act. My father, a Holocaust survivor who, at the age of 13, witnessed my grandfather’s murder in a concentration camp, could not forgive the international community for its silence and for failing to act in time. A militant Zionist, my father used the mantra “Never Again” to justify Israel’s aggression against Palestinians. The exclusive interpretation of “Never Again” made no sense to me anymore. It was clear to me that the traumatic memory of the Holocaust should inspire in us compassion for other persecuted groups, starting with the Palestinians.
I am sharing my story to acknowledge that the discomfort some of you feel on your college campus is real. Though the images and information that you see around may not reflect the Israel of your dreams, they are not anti-Semitic. In fact, labeling your discomfort anti-Semitism, or allowing others to convince you that this is the case, can actually undermine our collective struggle against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. Turning your discomfort and frustration into attacks on Students for Justice in Palestine or participating in the demonization of scholars and movements critical of Israel will not relieve you of your discomfort. The challenges you face are an opportunity to learn and to grow, personally and intellectually, even if you do not change your political views.
Jews have always prided themselves for being the “people of the book.” You can turn your discomfort into an opportunity to expand your knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by paying careful attention to Palestinian narratives, which most of us have not been exposed to growing up. The Israeli cabinet’s adoption of the “Jewish Nation-State Bill” is a rude wake-up call to Jews everywhere. The Israel of our dreams IS an Apartheid state and its leaders seem certain that they have our support. It is time to wake up and speak up, before it is too late. Jewish students on college campuses in the Diaspora can set an example for their Jewish counterparts in Israel by holding Israel accountable and by insisting that it adheres to democratic principles and respects international law.