The Israel of your dreams has turned into a nightmare: A letter to Jewish students

Israel/Palestine
on 29 Comments

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.

About Simona Sharoni

Simona Sharoni is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at SUNY Plattsburgh and the author of Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Politics of Women’s Resistance. She is currently working on a manuscript titled: Gender and Resistance in Palestine and Israel to be published by Syracuse University Press.

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29 Responses

  1. Kris
    December 8, 2014, 3:55 pm

    I am so happy to read this excellent essay, as well as the also excellent essay by Liz Rose, http://mondoweiss.net/2014/12/sabeel-unlearning-zionism , on the very same day! Thank you!

    • just
      December 8, 2014, 5:42 pm

      Totally agree, Kris.

      Simona~ I sincerely hope that many will heed your story and advice– students, parents, teachers, friends and Rabbis.

      “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 truth is readily available~ increasingly voluminous every single day.

      • Bornajoo
        December 8, 2014, 6:22 pm

        +1!
        Thank you for your wonderful article Simona. From your mouth to (as many of) their ears!

      • Mooser
        December 9, 2014, 8:25 pm

        My only slight quibble with the essay is (and it may have been used to simply make a division between Israeli and non-Israeli Jews, but still…) is in referring to us as a Diaspora. I live in (for better or worse) the US, where I am a citizen, a condition which I believe is common to almost every other Jew in the world (oh yes, except in Israel) in their countries. I am not in a “Diaspora”, thank you.
        I might go so far as to say that I believe I am actually more ‘at home’ in America than a Jew living in a settlement in Israel-occupied territory.

      • just
        December 9, 2014, 8:29 pm

        I appreciate your comment very much, Mooser.

        Very much, indeed.

  2. Annie Robbins
    December 8, 2014, 11:35 pm

    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.

    omg. these israeli kids born into all this. and that the author didn’t even know about the refugees until serving in the military. it’s like another world and so sad, such an abnormal childhood built on fear and programming.

    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

    too young to understand after years of indoctrination. it’s so sad. other generations of youth robbed, and going on right now. and the suffering those kids inflict on others at such a young age, in many cases, scars them for life. and it certainly scars their victims.

    • Mooser
      December 9, 2014, 6:49 pm

      It boggles, me, Annie, so much mis-education, so much of which will have to be painfully unlearned and re-learned.
      And I don’t see how coming to the realization you’ve been handed a load all your life (and one which is killing others, too) is supposed to dispose someone towards respecting and wanting to continue in the religion and culture and identification.
      So much mis-education. So much painful unlearning.

      • ziusudra
        December 10, 2014, 6:02 am

        Greetings mooser,
        ..so much of which will have to be re-learned…..

        Since 45 millions of Germans, like the UK & FR & the US, have realized making war for expansion was & is a hegemonial profitable undertaking for mankind, but killing the Jews was totally horrendous!
        This took place after the crime. We, mankind never learn or re-learn, we realize from our moral conscience that we committed atrocities.
        Would World Jewry be interested in any mea culpa from any German individual then or now? so is it with the Falesteeni when sometime in the future, Israelis wail mea culpa, a la motto: I’ll cry tomorrow & the Falesteeni won’t care!
        ziusudra

      • Mooser
        December 10, 2014, 3:08 pm

        “Would World Jewry be interested in any mea culpa from any German individual then or now?”

        I could ask around, but I don’t get out much. Put it on e-bay, I have seen some incredible prices paid for a German mea culpa depending on condition and provenance.

  3. Steve Macklevore
    December 9, 2014, 5:59 am

    “…the Israel of my childhood and of your dreams has become a nightmare.”

    It always was a nightmare. It was founded on a nightmare of ethnic cleansing.

    It continued on a stinking sewage stream of propaganda where anyone who dared to resist the theft of their land and the killing of their friends and family was an antisemite.

    Then came the attacks on the neighboring countries, Jordan, The Lebanon, Egypt, Syria.

    Then came more land theft and military occupation, accompanied by claims such as Palestinians don’t exist.

    Then came more land theft followed by blockades and an endless “peace process” to cover it all.

    Israel has always been a stinking violent dangerous cesspit. Always.

  4. bilal a
    December 9, 2014, 7:35 am

    Contrast the behavior of the religious Jews in this Brooklyn shooting, peace makers, with the editorial comments of the Israeli ? videographer, ‘ Shoot’ already. How brave and moral are the former, in their trying to prevent the tragic killing of a mentally ill apparently homeless man. Even the police man, frightened of the large man holding what looks like a table knife, is begging for him to drop the knife, and waits to shoot until he lunges at one of the brave hasidic men.

    Israeli stabbed in New York Chabad headquarters
    Victim from Beitar Illit injured in upper body; police shoot assailant after tense standoff caught on tape; attacker dies of his wounds

    Read more: Israeli stabbed in New York Chabad headquarters | The Times of Israel http://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-stabbed-in-ny-chabad-headquarters/#ixzz3LP51wADL
    Follow us: @timesofisrael on Twitter | timesofisrael on Facebook

  5. pabelmont
    December 9, 2014, 9:58 am

    Beautiful article. All Jewish kids (and their parents) in USA should read it.

    So, it seems, a lot of Israeli Jewish kids don’t know what’s going on now and what happened in 1947-50, etc. Don’t know, I dare say, that Palestinians are human beings, either. Nobody told them.

    Well, in the USA, a lot of people don’t know what the threat of global warming is about. Nobody told them.

    The powerful of the world keep a lot of secrets in order that “the people” won’t “make waves”.
    And our business is precisely to “make waves”.

    • just
      December 9, 2014, 10:07 am

      It is our business to “make waves” and inform.

      I fear that in the US, many parents are teaching their children that hating immigrants, others, and especially Muslims is a- ok because they believe it.

      Combating racism & Islamophobia is as important as combating antisemitism. It should not be tolerated~ at all. Yet it is.

      I was just reading about the report on torture that is to be released today…so many commenters still seek to justify its use.

      • Mooser
        December 9, 2014, 8:28 pm

        “I fear that in the US, many parents are teaching their children…”

        You know, it’s always looked like to me that American parents teach their kids just as much about politics as they teach them about sex.

  6. Yossarian22
    December 9, 2014, 10:29 am

    “…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 ”

    Actually, this is incorrect. J-Street openly supported the massacre, only toning it down with some useless paternosters about how they are saddened by the violence and hope for a speedy resolution.

    From their statement: http://jstreet.org/blog/post/j-street-statement-on-gaza-conflict_1

    “J Street strongly supports Israel’s right to defend itself proportionately against the threat of relentless rockets and to destroy tunnels leading into Israel. But it’s now time for Israel to look for a way out of Gaza. ”

    In other words, J-Street wrongfully frames the massacre as a question of Israel defending itself, even though it was Israel which chose to break the ceasefire.

  7. Walid
    December 9, 2014, 11:04 am

    “I fear that in the US, many parents are teaching their children that hating immigrants, others, and especially Muslims is a- ok because they believe it.”

    Just, hard to tell who this phobia is actually aimed at; it could be simple anti-black racism since a quarter of al American Muslims are black while these represent about 5% of all blacks. A substantial percentage of America’s penal population is black and many of those are Muslims, commonly called Black Muslims. Here’s a part of an article from an American Islamic publication discussing the black element in the context of Ferguson:

    “… Ferguson is our issue because, before Muslim-America was “Arab” or “South Asian,” it was Black. Enslaved Muslims constructed the first mosques, observed the inaugural Ramadans, and paved the streets and roads we drive atop today.

    Although our segregated masjids won’t reveal it, Black Muslims comprise the biggest segment of the Muslim American population. More than one-fourth of Muslims in the United States today are Black. While disoriented as an “Arab religion” in America, there are far more Black Muslims than Arab American Muslims. Black Muslims also outnumber South Asian Muslims, and rank as the fastest growing demographic of the faith’s domestic population. Muslims aren’t the “New Blacks,” as many pundits stated after 9/11. Muslims have always been Black.

    Ferguson is our issue because Muslim-America has not learned from its political blunders. Before 9/11, when racial profiling was a Black and Latino issue, few if any Muslim-American leaders or organizations spoke against it. Self-interest, combined with ethnocentrism and anti-Black racism, persuaded us to deny solidarity meetings with MALDEF, the NAACP, and pioneer opponents of profiling. Our seat at that table, until 9/11, was empty. We believed then that “profiling is not our issue,” until the two planes collided into the World Trade Center.

    While Muslim Americans may have forgotten, Black and Latino Americans remember our void at the table. And more vividly, our rush to it following 9/11 when PATRIOT and FISA snuck into our homes, communities, and institutions.

    Ferguson is our issue because the same structures that ruthlessly enforce anti-Black racism also execute and endorse Islamophobia. Long before Muslims bodies were monitored for fear of violence, subversion, and security, these tropes drove the systematic surveillance of Black bodies.

    Black Muslims, who sit at the intersection of anti-Black racism and Islamophobia, endure compounded mistreatment from the state and private citizens. And most damagingly, remain largely excluded from the Muslim American civil rights and advocacy organizations responsible for retrenching racism and religious animus within our communities.

    Ferguson is our issue because during 9/11 and the Boston Bombings, the crises of yesterday and those that are certain to unfold tomorrow, the state’s and society’s fury will again shift in our direction. For those Muslim Americans who turn away from the struggle in Ferguson; argue that, “structural racism is a farce,” “Black on Black crime is the real problem;” or that the “grand jury decision was fair and not driven by racism,” I ask that you apply this mythical reckoning to your own circumstance when the heat and hate is pointed in your direction. Because it surely will, and this shortsighted analysis will not only turn away those allies you deride today, but also expose your self-serving hypocrisy.

    Ferguson is our issue because we have failed our faith, falling short of its unequivocal commitment to racial tolerance and justice. Our missteps are many, and mistakes too numerous to list. Ferguson offers an opportunity to rebuild, and construct that missing pillar of cross-racial commitment that will make us worthy of our faith, and – one day – trustworthy to our Black brothers and sisters.”

    http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/why-ferguson-is-our-issue-a-letter-to-muslim-america/

    • just
      December 9, 2014, 12:02 pm

      thanks, Walid.

      I hear adults talking derogatorily about illegal immigrants, AA, the President, and Muslims “over there” nearly every, single day.

      just saying.

    • ziusudra
      December 10, 2014, 6:14 am

      Greetings Walid,
      It is not my interest to polarize on this issue, bu i have a question. The constant arguement of the Police is that the suspect resists arrest. If so, why don’t Blacks in general acquiese to the invested power of the Police for law & order? US Blacks of every geneartion have witnessed enough to know of what is going to happen upon resistance. M.L.King & Malcolm X never resisted arrest & they survived. Maybe a %tage would survive if they calm down in such a situation?
      C’mon back, Tks.
      ziusudra
      PS We can’t fight City Hall, if we do, we lose civilization.

      • Mooser
        December 10, 2014, 3:49 pm

        ” The constant arguement of the Police is that the suspect resists arrest.”

        Gee, wouldn’t it be? What the police say, I mean?

  8. jaspeace2day
    December 9, 2014, 5:53 pm

    “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. ”

    – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/12/nightmare-letter-students#sthash.GLkiH5nm.dpuf

  9. Real Jew
    December 9, 2014, 6:52 pm

    This essay does a fantastic job of encouraging the Israeli public to do some soul searching and question the ideological flaws in Zionism. I hope every israeli citizen reads this article.

    There is a problem though. I just spent 2 months in israel staying in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Jerusalem. From what i observed most israeli jews could care less about the occupation and who could blame them. There lives are completely unaffected by the occupation. Tel Aviv is thriving and from what I observed the occupation seemed like it was on a different continent. Imo, the majority of israeli jews won’t take the initiative to question State policy toward non jews unless their lives are in some way negatively affected.

    • ziusudra
      December 10, 2014, 6:36 am

      Greetings Real Jew,
      …Israeli Jews won’t…… unless their lives are…effected……
      Psst, Bibi & his cohorts have pumped up so many false flags that if push comes to shove, he or another would consider having Tel Aviv annihilated to prove his point that Israel is in danger so as to save the rest of Israeli or his designs of hegemony in a greater religious state. There are only ca. 400K in Tel Aviv with a 30K bunker capacity reserved fo the higher echelon. Were i an Israeli or even Jew, i wouldn’t trust or believe him.
      ziusudra
      PS Bibi could spare 400K, if it serves his purpose of his self fulfilling prophesy of Jewish annihilation!

      • Mooser
        December 10, 2014, 3:52 pm

        “he or another would consider having Tel Aviv annihilated to prove his point that Israel is in danger”

        This is very alarming news, “ziusudra”! Can you direct us to any quotes or evidence that Nettanyahoo is considering this, and you aren’t posting while drinking?

      • oldgeezer
        December 10, 2014, 4:19 pm

        I never post while drinking. I use the same hand for both the mouse and glass.

      • Real Jew
        December 10, 2014, 9:56 pm

        Ziusudra, at this point, after witnessing netanyahu’s insatiable lust for destruction nothing would surprise me.

  10. genesto
    December 9, 2014, 8:04 pm

    I see the rude awakening many Jewish children experience in learning about the true history of Israel as part of the natural maturation process. Unless one is intentionally ‘shut down’, he/she will reach a time in life when the teachings of his/her elders must be questioned. Once critical thought is applied to these teachings ,a person is able to come to his/her own conclusions and make well-considered and heartfelt decisions. By going through this process, one much more able to understand and empathize with others, including those whom he/she has been taught to fear or even despise. However, those who resist this critical part of the maturation process continue to live in a sort of arrested development state of fear and ignorance, a tormented existence that can never lead to the inner peace we need to live a truly good life.

  11. catporn
    December 9, 2014, 8:56 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story Simona, I hope many get to read and learn from it. Hearing first hand accounts of how someone found their way through all the half-truths, omissions and fallacies is always more resonant.

    The passing of the “Jewish Nation-State bill” by the Israeli government 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.

    A simple, straight forward statement with ample empirical evidence to back it up, yet most of those that have been indoctrinated will read it then continue to shrug it off as an out right lie or Arab propaganda, and label us as anti semites for agreeing.

  12. eGuard
    December 10, 2014, 9:06 am

    The title is itching. The Israel of your dreams has turned into a nightmare suggests that the real, existing Israel has become a nightmare. While actually, as the article describes, it was ill-based all along. (There is a double opposition in there: dream vs. real, and now vs. historical. That leaves a mental escape that in the old days, Israel had no nightmare facts. Nakba-denial).

    • michelle
      December 11, 2014, 10:56 am

      .
      sometimes
      dreams are uninformed views subject to change with experience
      .
      G-d Bless
      .

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