A Trip to USC, and the Stumbling Block of ‘Genocide’

*The following is a sermon delivered by me on 5/10/24 in El Centro, California for my student internship.

140! 140 is the number of college campuses across the United States that have had Pro-Palestinian encampment protests over the last three weeks. Occurring in 45 out of 50 states, the protests have embroiled the news recently, making one feel like there is nothing else happening in the world. In the state of California, protests have occurred at UCLA, UC San Diego, USC, UC Berkley, and many other universities. Described by the Guardian magazine as “perhaps the most significant student movement since the anti-Vietnam campus protests of the late 1960’s,” there is no doubt, my friends, that we are witnessing a historical moment.  

Indeed, the rapid pace of the spreading of the protests across the country and even across the Atlantic indicates a society exercising its fundamental and crucial right of freedom of speech. The influence of these protests has certainly caused many universities to consider more deeply their relationship with the state of Israel. The protests have made headlines and have increased the level of conversation around the war. All these essential aspects of the protests are, in my opinion, worth celebrating, because I cherish the right to freedom of speech above most things. It is the crown jewel of a free society, one in which the people are not subjugated to the whims of a dictator. In the United States of America, freedom of speech was a part of the first amendment to the Constitution, signifying its importance to our founders and their understanding that freedom of speech is necessary for a free and healthy society.  

Yet, even as the part of me that supports freedom of speech celebrates what has been occurring, there is a much larger part of me that is absolutely disgusted by it. I am disgusted by these protests not for existing, but instead for what the protestors see as their reason for existing. While it would be intellectually dishonest to group all of the protests as one entity, I hope you’ll allow me to speak of them as “the protest movement” with the understanding that I am fully aware that they are not all the same, nor are the protestors themselves all aligned regarding their beliefs about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

Nevertheless, there seems to be a common denominator across all these protests: And that common denominator is the pervasive belief that the state of Israel is committing a genocide against the Palestinian people. Let me be frank and unequivocal. This is a lie, and it is a lie that has been weaponized by nefarious forces around the world who wish to turn the public’s opinion against Israel. It is a lie because the Palestinian population, in both the West Bank and Gaza, has been increasing steadily since the year 1948. This is, quite literally, the opposite of genocide. This lie is not new and has been wielded against Israel in many of its past wars and even during non-wartime. This lie of genocide against the Palestinians is used by Israel’s enemies in their public relations war against the state, contributing to their larger long-term goal of the destruction of Israel, ending with the eradication of its citizenry.  

The lie of genocide that Israel has been accused of is especially cruel, considering the Jewish people experienced a literal genocide, by the Nazis just a generation ago. This past week, the Jewish people commemorated this painful moment of our history during Yom HaShoah, sadly occurring during a time when thousands of young people across the world publicly claim that Israel is committing the very same heinous crime that was committed against the Jewish people during the Holocaust. In fact, the historical circumstances of WW2 precipitated the need for a new term that would become the word “genocide.” 

The term genocide was coined by a Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin in 1944, who created the term to describe the Nazi’s atrocities during WW2 and Hitler’s policy of the Final Solution that was the total annihilation of the Jewish people. The definition of genocide is as follows: “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a group of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race.” Crucially, the definition of genocide and the nucleus of its evil nature revolves around intent.  

My friends, the death toll of the Palestinian people from this war is absolutely heart-wrenching. The humanitarian catastrophe that has unfolded across Gaza is horrifying and makes any decent human’s heart shudder. The amount of innocent people who have died or whose lives have been upended and forever changed is horrendous. But none of these horrific things that I’ve just mentioned constitute a genocide perpetrated by Israel on the Palestinian people. None of these circumstances in Gaza are a result of the state of Israel’s intent to destroy the Palestinian people because of who they are, because that intent does not exist. These things are rather the grisly and vicious results of war.  

About two weeks ago, I decided to take a trip to the campus of the University of Southern California, where an encampment had been established for a few weeks. I wanted to see the protests for myself. I wanted to engage in dialogue with students there, both students who were in the encampment and students who were not. Sadly, I was informed by USC students that the students who were in the encampment most likely would not engage in good faith dialogue with me as I was visibly wearing a kippah and would not be shy about being a Zionist.  

After 4 hours of talking with about a dozen students, Jewish, Muslim, and students of other religious and cultural backgrounds, I walked away with the lesson that most students in the encampment truly believed the lie that Israel is committing a genocide. They did not simply utter it as a catchy slogan, but they really were convinced that the state of Israel’s military objective was to perpetrate genocide on the Palestinian people, despite Israel’s clear war aims of destroying Hamas’ military capability and returning the hostages. Of course, this is just my experience on one campus of the 140 that have had similar protests. But I do not think it is too big of a jump to say that many students in the encampments across the country believe the same lie. This claim of the widespread belief in the lie of genocide across the students in encampments is further supported by the fact that in many of the lists of demands by the leaders of the campus protests, the language of Israel committing a genocide is prominent.  

A few examples of this: from the New York University list of demands: “terminate all vendor contracts with companies playing active roles in the military occupation in Palestine and ongoing genocide in Gaza” or from the protest movement at UCLA: “Withdraw all UC-wide and UCLA Foundation funds from companies and institutions that are complicit in the Israeli occupation, apartheid, and genocide of the Palestinian people.” I am positive that if you researched the list of demands for the hundreds of protest groups across the country, the word “genocide” would be found somewhere in their language.  

So, my friends, why does this language matter? Why is this important? First and foremost, it matters because the claim of genocide represents perhaps the most horrible of crimes and is the utmost example of immorality, cruelty, and evil. Secondly, it matters because it inspires thousands of students who have no real connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to uproot their lives, during finals season I would add, and live outside in tents, chanting slogans in languages they do not speak and to utter phrases they do not understand the full implication of, such as Intifada Revolution. It matters because it pushes students to violently occupy university buildings, deface statues of American presidents, and chant “Death to Israel, Death to America.”   

It matters because it gives students the motivation to commit acts of blatant and violent antisemitism, such as one student, the former leader of the Columbia encampment, saying that “Zionists do not deserve to live” or others telling Jewish students to “Go back to Poland.” It matters because it compels students to disallow their fellow Jewish students from entering certain areas of campus, and in some personal stories I was told at USC, to cut off friendships completely with Jewish students.  

It matters because it is my contention that these protests and the animus of students participating in them would be severely tampered if the students did not believe the lie that Israel is committing a genocide, but rather that the horrible death toll in Gaza is a depressing result of war. I am sure there would still be students who protest the war and its awful humanitarian results, and that there would still be students who hate Jews and Israel. But without the false claim of genocide, the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be more nuanced, balanced, and civil. It matters because the lie of genocide (and apartheid for that matter) makes dialogue and conversation for a better future impossible. It matters, because this lie hurts Palestinians in their quest for freedom and dignity. And of course, it matters because it hurts Israelis and Jews. It matters because it obscures the absolute number one oppressor of Palestinians and the biggest obstacle for Palestinian freedom and dignity, Hamas.  

Without the lie of genocide constantly entering the discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the understanding of the Israeli side of the story could be heard more clearly. Without the lie of genocide, a true criticism of Israel’s military campaign could be advanced and sincere arguments for change in that policy could be put forth. Crucially, without the lie of genocide being obsessively rallied around by college students at the most elite universities on the planet, these students could actually find ways to help the Palestinian people by thinking critically about peaceful solutions for both Israelis and Palestinians. Instead of using their brainpower to repeat lies they’ve been fed, the next generation of thinkers and doers could harness their intellect to truly learn the history of both peoples, their needs and hopes, and help devise a peaceful path forward. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Parsha Kedoshim, we enter the section of the Book of Leviticus known as “The Holiness Code.” It is filled with mitzvot related to living a moral and ethical life, in the domains of interpersonal relations, one’s work environment, family relations, and proper behavior towards the poor and the afflicted. One of the mitzvot mentioned in this week’s Parsha commands the Israelites to treat those with disabilities equally:  

לא־תקלל חרש ולפני עור לא תתן מכשל ויראת מאלהיך אני יי 

In English: “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God, I am the Lord.” 

I want to focus our attention on the language of placing a stumbling block before the blind. This mitzvah has been read both literally and metaphorically. On the metaphorical level, when we place a stumbling block before the blind, we mislead someone. When we get someone’s hopes up even though we know that which they hope for is impossible, we metaphorically place a stumbling block before them. When we give someone bad advice deliberately (Sifra) or provoke a short-tempered person to lash out in anger (BT Pes 22b), we are guilty of transgressing this mitzvah as well.  

When thousands of American students are fed the lie that Israel is committing a genocide against the Palestinian people, and that America is financially responsible for this genocide, this represents a stumbling block being placed before them. This stumbling block intercepts our society’s ability to accurately understand this war and to empathize with Jews who have significant moral misgivings about the death toll in Gaza. The stumbling block that has been placed in front of these blinded college students encourages them to not engage in dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meanwhile creating a generation of students who falsely believe that they are fighting against tyranny and injustice all the while not mouthing any dissent against Hamas and its brutal oppression of Palestinians.  

This stumbling block has been placed before the sea of college students protesting across America by many factions: the governments of authoritarian Arab countries such as Qatar and Iran, faculty on university campuses that are antisemitic and anti-Israel, and the influence of the BDS movement. It is our duty, as both Americans and Jews, to take the mitzvah from our Parsha one step further: instead of only following the injunction of not placing the stumbling block before the blind, we, in this moment, must do everything we can to remove the stumbling blocks that have been placed before the next generation of blinded Americans.  

We can do this by educating ourselves, our communities, and our children about the story of the Jewish people and the story of the State of Israel. We can do this by engaging in good faith dialogue with others who disagree with us, hoping to learn from the other side’s story. We can do this by standing strong in our moral convictions even in the face of tremendous pressure not to do so. May we all find the strength and courage going forward to remove the stumbling blocks in our midst, for the sake of Israel, the Jewish people, the Palestinians, and the world.  

About the Author
Josh Less is a Rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. His interests range from Middle Eastern History and politics to health and nutrition. He is a lover of Torah, hiking, Israel, and music. He studied International Relations with a focus on the Middle East before pursuing the Rabbinate.
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