Subscribe To our E-Newsletter
August 27, 2014 By:
Reframing the Israel Conversation on Campus
We Jewish students need to change the way we look at Israel.
I’m a native Philadelphian, raised in the left-leaning milieu of Mount Airy’s Reconstructionist community. I am a member of Habonim Dror, a Jewish, progressive Zionist youth movement. Where I come from, it is clear that to love Israel, one must be willing to criticize it and fight for its most ideal state.
I entered Oberlin College last fall after a year in Israel on Habonim Dror’s Workshop program, where I studied Jewish history and taught English to Israeli Arab teenagers. Workshop helped me understand the reasons behind Israel’s existence, as well as the complex human dimensions of Israeli society.
I was eager to join the Oberlin student body, which has a reputed passion for politics and social justice. It was exciting to meet so many people interested in social change and activism. After a few days on campus and many meetings, I began to see that words like “justice” and “oppression” were being used to bunch causes together into a jumble that a friend once called “the liberal checklist.”
My fellow Obies and I were expected by our peers to join them in denouncing a plethora of social evils, including capitalism, racism, fracking, transphobia — and Israel.
Student activists used strong words and bright visuals to paint the Israeli government and people as oppressive, Eurocentric and illegitimate. When some Jewish students brought up Jewish self-determination, Jews involved in Students for a Free Palestine declared that because they, too, were Jewish, it was wrong to disagree with them in the name of Judaism. One speaker drew laughs when she said that “Zionists should be burned at the stake.”
When faced with such extremes, the easiest response is to stretch toward the other side, to denounce SFP and their demands for Palestinian rights, to place the highest priority on Israel’s security. There were moments during heated debates when I spoke more defensively about Israel than I had imagined possible in my critical, liberal Zionist circles.
But such responses only bring the debate full circle. When one people’s right is delegitimized, one can hardly bring up the cause of another’s. I cannot deny my fellow students’ calls for justice — because there is justice to be had. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is inexcusable; Israel’s mistreatment and dehumanization of Palestinian civilians is a disgrace to Jewish tradition.
Judaism has something to say about how to treat “the Other.” The commandment to be just and compassionate to “the stranger in your midst” is the most-repeated law in the Torah, which Jews are told to enforce because we, too, were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our tradition demands of us to take a hard look around and empathize with our neighbors.
If we want to change the conversations, we must change our outlook. To fight for justice in the tumultuous region of Israel and Palestine is to recognize the essential rights of all people for self-determination and, more immediately, for basic survival and dignity. To be Zionist, today and always, is to take responsibility, not to take extremes.
The toxic climate at Oberlin around Israel was one of the reasons why I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania this year. Although these issues go beyond Oberlin, I am hoping that with more voices, and more diversity among the student body, I can take this responsible approach to Israel and Zionism.
The first step to changing the dialogue on campus is to address the tone of our interactions. We must see each other as legitimate, and challenge each other with respect and empathy.
We also must think constructively about the region. Ask: What values do we want to guide the Jewish state? Who is “the Other” and what do they need? How can different groups within Israel find common ground? How will Israel and international bodies meet the basic rights of Palestinian citizens? How can we encourage American Jews to confront these questions? Let us make this approaching new year a turning point toward peace and equality in Israel.
Anya Friedman Hutter, a graduate of Perelman Jewish Day School and Abington Friends School, is a sophomore at Penn.