Member of Knesset Hanin Zoabi entered the lecture hall at Columbia University to the sound of frantic clapping; it was more than a friendly introduction, people were enthusiastic. Eventually some people decided to stand. I was paralyzed; I knew that even the act of standing, of respecting Zoabi would mean a lot. It would identify me, regardless if this were true, as a supporter of every view she had ever portrayed, at least in the eyes of some of the Israelis and Jews in the room. I wasn’t ready to stand, so I clapped from my seat.
Ever since I began my academic journey this spring at Columbia I’ve been struggling to decide whether I’d like to stand for anything. I got into Columbia arguably because of my compelling story about being a lieutenant in the IDF, yet simultaneously was warned by my mother not to voice this out loud in “A place like Columbia.”
A place like Columbia? What does that mean? A place that values intellectual debate and freedom of speech? I think I belong exactly in a place like that.
I’ve been cautious my whole life to not say where I was from. We used to call Israel “Truckee California” as a codename, when we were traveling as a family abroad. I came to Columbia believing that I could put Israel on pause, that I could seek refuge in the intellectual world. I was mistaken. Israel, my home, has been hijacked to symbolize so many things for so many people. It is expected of me, an Israeli on campus, to always take a strong stance, to have an opinion, to voice what is bad or good. To some on campus I am an anti-Zionist because I question the occupation; to others I have committed crimes against humanity for serving in the IDF. I can’t win. So I am left silent. I don’t have the answers; please don’t hate me.
I believe we should be given the liberty at an intellectual place like Columbia to decide when we want to take a stance and when we want to just pause, and live in a paradox. I don’t think taking a pause means caring less; silence is not the opposite of action. Rather it can be used to listen and reflect.
Moments before Zoaabi’s dramatic entrance, I turned to say hello to the girl next to me, a Palestinian who came all the way form Penn University to hear Zooabi speak.
“Where are you from?” She asked.
“I’m from Jerusalem.” I wasn’t going to lie.
“Are you Arab?” Her face lit up.
Oh boy: I was about to disappoint her. I was either going to have an hour-long conversation with the young woman, in which I would attempt to explain the complexity of Israeli identity; or rather answer vaguely, highlighting my internationalism and not my Israeli militant background. I chose the latter. I was doing well I thought; staying out of trouble, unidentified. I wasn’t even sure the Israelis in the crowd recognized I was one of them; I wasn’t wearing ‘Teva Nayot’.
Truth be told, as much as I’ve wanted to stay silent at school, to observe even this provocative speech, I also wanted to say something and fix everything. Armed with a pen and notebook I was ready to truly listen, and then craft the perfect question. Why was it so important to me to ask a question? I wasn’t sure yet.
When I was five years old we used to go once a week with my kindergarten in Jerusalem to play with the children of the neighboring Arab village “Beit Tsafafa”. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a circle next to a young Arab boy, and thinking to myself how important it was to make a good impression on him. Not because I fancied him, but because there was this conflict, and if he liked me he’d see we aren’t all monsters, and one day we’d both grow up and fix this conflict.
I listened to what Zoabi had to say, I really did, but I was more occupied with trying to craft my question. I wanted to make the same connection with her as I did with the five-year-old boy years ago. I wanted her to know that I care, that I want things to be better, that not all Israelis hate her, even if they don’t entirely agree with her.
I wrote out a few questions, trying in thirty seconds to solve the conflict. My hand was shaking and heart was beating, it was time to decide whether I wanted to identify myself.
“We’ll take one last question.” the mediator announced.
My hand was left gripping my pen and I remained silent.