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Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author
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From a Columbia Alum Israeli Peace Activist

If you from abroad want to demand something, demand a resolution of the conflict, not the annihilation of one side
At our local Standing Together-Women Wage Peace demonstration
At our local Standing Together-Women Wage Peace demonstration

Dear Student Activists,

As a graduate of Columbia College (Class of 1991) and a peace activist who lives in Israel, I am watching videos and reports from my alma mater’s campus and wondering what I would have done if I were a student there now.

I am an activist and have been all my life. I believe strongly in the ability of grassroots movements and peaceful protest to change the world.

Since well before the current extremist right-wing Israeli government was elected, I have been demonstrating against the occupation (later also the Nation-State Law declaring Israel officially a Jewish state) and working for Jewish-Palestinian partnership within Israel’s borders. My debut novel, “Hope Valley,” is about the friendship between a Palestinian Israeli woman and a Jewish Israeli woman in the Galilee with the alternating points of view.

I am a very active member of Standing Together, a movement of Palestinian-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis working in complete partnership towards an end to the occupation, Palestinian self-determination and a more equal, just and peaceful society within Israel. I am involved in a variety of groups and organizations committed to a vision of peace, justice and equality for all people on the land from the “River to the Sea.”

I remain active in these groups even after Hamas’ brutal attack on Oct. 7. I am even out on the streets now calling for a mutual ceasefire and a return of all the hostages (many of whom it seems are tragically no longer alive), as well as for the resignation of government officials and early elections.

At our local Standing Together-Women Wage Peace demonstration: “Only Peace will Bring Security!”

And so, if I were studying at Columbia today, I would ask myself: Should I join your protests? After all, I, too, am pro-Palestinian.

But I am also pro-Jew.

And when you chant, “There is only one solution, intifada revolution!” and “From the Sea to the River, Palestine will live forever!” you are not calling, as I and my Palestinian-Israeli friends are, for peace, justice and equality for all humans within those borders. You are calling for the violent destruction of the country where we live, and the murder of its citizens — including the Palestinian ones. As we saw on Oct. 7, Hamas has no more sympathy for other-than-Jewish Israelis — not even for Muslim ones — than it does for Jewish Israelis.

When some of you proudly declare, “I am Hamas!” and/or align yourselves with that regime and celebrate their unbelievably brutal acts as “freedom fighting”, you are showing no sympathy or compassion for innocent civilians, including children and seniors who were massacred and kidnapped by Hamas, nor for the women who are being raped in captivity (according to eyewitness accounts from hostages who were freed). Even my Palestinian Israeli activist friends strongly condemned Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 and say Hamas is terrible for the Palestinian people.

And when you call out, “Say it loud and say it clear, we don’t want no Zionists here!” you are fomenting violence against and silencing other Columbia students. You may disagree with them, but does that mean they have no right to inhabit your shared campus — or even live? Do you think I, an activist in the struggle for peace and equality for all in Israel-Palestine, have a right to live?

Make no mistake; I have no problem with the keffiyehs you wear or the Palestinian flags you wave. But why is nationalist self-determination good for Palestinians and not Jews? Why is living in the Diaspora good for Jews and not Palestinians? And why do Palestinians have a right to live in security, but Jews do not? Unlike you, I do not even consider myself a nationalist. But I do believe in people’s right to live in safety, and I do not believe in double standards.

While I am an activist advocating for Palestinian rights, I also advocate for Jewish rights. While I march for a ceasefire, I also march with the families of the hostages and am volunteering to translate into English testimony from the Oct. 7 massacre — which is absolutely horrifying, even if there are those who deny it happened. Think what a powerful statement it would make if you wore yellow ribbons and held signs for the hostages, too, along with kaffiyehs around your shoulders (and not wrapped around your faces like criminals). And please forgive me if a good number of you are doing this already and I am just not seeing those images.

Marching with my local Standing Together and Women Wage Peace chapters, for an end to the war and the return of all the hostages in the Arab northern Israeli city of Shefa-Amer.

While you in the United States demand that we be sacrificial lambs, you inhabit and benefit from a country unequivocally acquired through colonialism and grown through slavery. This is not the case with Jews in Israel (although the British may have had colonialist aspirations by being here), even if agenda-driven pseudo-historians try to convince ignorant students that it is.

Israel is far from perfect. I am outraged at the Jewish-supremacist, messianic, theocratic, anti-democratic direction in which the country is currently headed. But the answer is to try and change that direction, not call for the country’s destruction.

I understand and relate to your show of solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza. The situation there is heartbreaking and devastating. But so is the situation here in Israel — with 133 hostages still in Gaza; missiles being shot from three fronts; over 100,000 displaced families; an entire country still in mourning and traumatized by Hamas’ atrocious massacre on October 7th; a huge portion of the population on reserve duty; tourism dead’ the economy a mess; and terrible unemployment (especially in the Arab sector).  The scale is just different, for a variety of reasons that are as much the fault of Palestinian leadership as Israeli.

Our political leadership on both sides are using us all as pawns in this bloody conflict. It must end. They must agree on a political solution, and we, the grassroots from both nations, must demand this.

If you from abroad want to demand something, demand a resolution of the conflict and peace in the region, not the annihilation of one side.  Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership is showing a desire for either of these goals at the moment, but this is what the people must demand if we are to achieve long-lasting peace.

The situation here is so much more complex than you care to understand. There is a bloody conflict going on, with people suffering and dying on both sides in brutal ways, not just in the past months but for the past century. One who studies the history and present will know that both sides are culpable and responsible for the conflict and its resolution.

Student activists, I too question the Zionist project. I grew up on the Zionist narrative. But when I discovered I had been told only part of the story, my answer was not to believe the Palestinian narrative over the Zionist one — because it, too, is only part of the story. The answer is to acknowledge both stories and both people’s suffering and try to find a way to hold it all and everyone’s humanity.

My ideal is for us to all live in peace and dignity on this land from the River to the Sea. That means two states, with perhaps down the line more open borders and cooperation — if we do the work to reconcile and heal. That is what my Zionism is about. Not Jewish supremacy or theocracy or even having a Jewish state; it is about having a safe place for Jews to live. But not at the expense of another nation. And so, my vision for this place would have to be safe for everyone.

And so, if I were at Columbia today, I would not join your protests. Because now I know I do not have to choose sides. I do not even have to buy into the idea of “sides.” This is a battle between those who support violence and an all-or-nothing approach to this conflict, and those who want to find a way for us to all win out by sharing this land. It saddens me deeply that you are choosing — perhaps out of latent Jew-hatred — the way of violence and hate instead of cooperation and mutual understanding.

There are people living here in this very real place. We are not a theoretical idea. And some of us are Palestinians and Jews who are working together tirelessly to make our vision of peace and equality a reality. If you want to promote peace on this land, please support our work. What you are doing now undermines it.

With deep concern,

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David

Note: This piece is a slightly edited version of an article that first appeared in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: https://www.jta.org/2024/04/26/ideas/an-open-letter-to-the-columbia-university-gaza-war-protesters-from-a-pro-palestinian-activist-in-isra

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two novels, three spiritual journey memoirs, and the first and only children's book on mikveh. Her memoirs include: Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual companion (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. Her debut novel, Hope Valley, is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Hope-Valley-Haviva-Ner-David/dp/194929059X/ Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Dreaming-Against-Current-Rabbis-Journey/dp/1949290751/ Yonah and the Mikveh Fish is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Yonah-Mikveh-Fish-Haviva-Ner-David/dp/196037320X/ Her new and second novel, To Die in Secret, is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Die-Secret-Haviva-Ner-David/dp/1960373099 Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: Preparing for your Life Together with Ancient and Modern Wisdom, is slated for publication in 2024. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.
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