Last Sunday, the University of California Student Association (UCSA) voted to divest from, among others, the American government, as well as companies doing business with Israel. As absurd as it was to witness my representatives wasting my time, money, and political voice on resolutions that undermine our credibility as students, that was not what I found most offensive. Listening to public comments, I was shocked at the hate speech uttered in the room. Dehumanizing lies about the only Jewish state have been a constant at divestment hearings. These words are deeply offensive to myself and many students on this campus, and recall a long and ugly history of Jewish people being publicly slandered and then subjected to violence.
One council member made a point of saying Palestinians are Semites just like Jews, meaning divestment cannot be anti-Semitic. The fact is that while it contains a derivative of “Semite,” the term anti-Semitism has only ever meant hatred of Jews alone. Twisting this meaning is an abuse of language that minimizes centuries of anti-Jewish racism in Europe and the Middle East. Divestment against Israel is tied to hatred and anti-Semitism, as we saw at UC Davis where a student senator wrote “Israel will fall” on social media and swastikas were spray painted on the AEPi house.
Other UCSA representatives claimed that Israel systematically imprisons and sterilizes Ethiopians. These issues have come up before so it’s important to make this perfectly clear:
Israel does not and has never systematically sterilized or imprisoned Ethiopians. These accusations stem either from ignorance or dishonesty.
The first slander comes from isolated cases in which an Israeli NGO gave Ethiopian women temporary birth control without communicating its effects. This was entirely unacceptable, but it is not “sterilization” under any definition of that term. One of the women who brought the story to light said no one was stopping her from having children in Israel. Furthermore, Israel is, according to black civil rights activist Anthony Hardy Williams, “the only nation in history to bring tens of thousands of Africans (Ethiopian Jews) out of Africa to be citizens, not slaves.” This is about as far from systematic imprisonment as it gets. And while Ethiopian Israelis face discrimination as a recent immigrant community, many are taking leadership roles within Israeli society. These issues should be openly discussed, as should reports that the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas is profiting from human trafficking of Africans. But all I heard at UCSA’s meeting was demonization of the Jewish state.
The most offensive claim was made by a commenter who accused Israel of “genocide” – a word referring to systematic destruction of entire peoples. While both Israeli and Palestinian civilians have suffered far too much, neither side in this conflict has come remotely close to genocide. The Palestinian population has grown by millions since 1948, and even while Israel fought against Hamas last summer, it delivered humanitarian supplies and gave medical aid to civilians in Gaza. UCSA board members said nothing while the Jewish state was slandered with a term that was literally created to describe the systematic mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians and 6 million Jews.
And while no one called out these dehumanizing statements, a council member told students who opposed divestment to “check our privilege.” This phrase, which is constantly directed at my community, is a condescending distortion of our concerns. We oppose divestment against Israel not because it “challenges privilege”, but because it promotes discrimination against our people. It promotes blood libels against Israel, not so different from the ones Jews were accused of in the Middle Ages.
When divestment supporters tell us to “check our privilege,” it sounds like a demand that we say nothing while our elected representatives contribute to the political agenda of off-campus extremists who seek to make Jews a stateless people. We “checked our privilege” that way when our communities were massacred throughout the ages, while synagogues burned and our babies cried. We “checked our privilege” that way when we were forced out of Spain, France, England, Germany, Iraq, Egypt, Iran and elsewhere. And we “checked our privilege” that way while we were being tattooed and sent to the gas chambers. Those chapters in our history are over. We protested the UCSA meeting and spoke out against divestment because we will not acquiesce in the face of those who slander and dehumanize our people, and seek to deny us our rights. We speak out because we refuse to be silent victims ever again.