A different Jewish approach to countering “Israel Apartheid Week” on campus

Israel Apartheid Week on campuses around the country could be coming to a school near you, or maybe already has. These one-sided and often insidiously anti-Semitic demonstrations do nothing, in my view, to further the cause of peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. They serve to further the divide between people, serve to deepen the hatred and mistrust that already abounds and serve to weaken opportunities for greater dialogue and relationship building. And yet, they exist, will be happening and could get loads of PR because they are provocative, sensationalist and often draw protest, which is what our media-frenzy feeds on. So, this year, I am proposing a different strategy in response to these actions from the Jewish community.

One of the real agitations of these demonstrations for Jews is that they don’t tell the whole story. And their descriptions are inaccurate. Israel proper, inside the Green Line, is in no way, shape or form an apartheid state or regime. The real issue is what happens in the occupied territories. I know that there will be people who stop reading now because I used the word occupation, but the vast majority of Israelis know and acknowledge that this is what is happening in the West Bank.  By no means comparable to South Africa, we must acknowledge that there are separate roads, separate sewage and water systems, separate legal systems and separate rights for Jews living in the West Bank then there are for Arabs living there. The settlements in the West Bank enjoy a life of much greater luxury and protection than the Arab villages, even though Israel is technically in charge of those villages too. And the Arab residents are not able to vote so they have no way to raise their voice about civil and human rights abuses that they may suffer. This is not to say, at all, that the Palestinian Authority is a shining light of democracy and civil rights, for it is not. I am by no means the first to say it, but there are two “Israels” and they are not the same. One has strong democratic values and one does not. This might be hard to swallow for some, but it is the truth, and most Israelis I know acknowledge it. Some are trying to do something about it and others are not.

So, it bothers me that it is called “Israel” apartheid week, because that is a lie.  But, here is my suggestion. Rather than protest, scream, or call the organizers names, lets try to talk with them and use facts, real facts, to have a conversation. I recommend to any Jewish defender of Israel when speaking with the protesters to be clear what apartheid actually was and how Israel is not that, but acknowledging the truth of what is happening in the territories. Compare Israel’s professed ideals as written in her Declaration of Independence to the list of grievances they have, or think they have. This would mean risking hearing things that make us uncomfortable as Jews. Yet, wouldn’t it be fascinating and more productive to engage in dialogue and try to peel away some of the layers of hate and mistrust rather than just scream or protest back?

What if the Israeli ambassador, and all of the Israeli Consuls General, in all of the regions of the United States, visited the campuses where these actions were taking place, met with the Jewish students to assure them of their support and protection, and then lead a delegation of Jewish students to meet with the activists engaged in Israel Apartheid Week?  Arab and Muslims leaders and officials are invited too. What if the Jewish delegation was able to empathize with the pain of those being oppressed in the territories, which are under Israeli control, while also expressing their own pain and frustration for the lies and misconceptions that these actions bring to campus? Who knows what kind of dialogue could transpire? And rather than this be a media stunt, I would urge these meetings to happen behind closed doors so that honest and serious dialogue could take place. And a student-only session would be crucial as well.

The protestors need to be asked about their own motivations for being a part of anti-Apartheid week. Are they hateful of Israeli policies in the West Bank, or are they in favor of the elimination of the State of Israel? If the latter, that is what Jews consider anti-Semitism. If the former, then we can work towards a two-state solution where these problems would be no more, while continuing to work on strengthening justice and equal rights for non-Jewish Israeli citizens, and the same for all citizens of a future State of Palestine.

In my mind, the Jewish and rabbinic value of peaceful engagement with those we disagree is a mandate for us to make this attempt. We may be rebuffed, to be sure, and that would be a shame. But in my experience of interfaith dialogue, reaching out and seeking to dialogue is the healthiest, most productive and often most satisfying, and ultimately successful, way to bridge differences. Lets take the facts, the honest facts, to the table and seek to start these conversations. If these activists are going to be on campus anyway, what do we have to lose?

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater has been the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, California since 2003. He is an executive committee member of the Board of Directors for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, co-founder and co-chair of AFPI, Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative and is co-chair of J-Street's Los Angeles Rabbinic Cabinet.
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