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Talking Points for College Students Concerning Palestinian Protests

I was invited this May to speak with my synagogue’s graduating high school seniors about how best they might respond to anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators on college campuses when they appear on their college campuses for the first time beginning in August when classes commence.

I emphasized a few points up-front, that the October 7 Hamas massacre and hostage taking is the worst attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust and that the death and destruction in Gaza of thousands of Palestinian civilians is a humanitarian nightmare. I said as well that Hamas must be held to account for bringing this war upon Israel and the Palestinian people and for deliberately using Palestinians as human shields resulting in the death and injury of tens of thousands of innocent human beings. Though Israel in this war of self-defense bears responsibility for harm done to Palestinian civilians too, Hamas is by far the most responsible party in this disastrous war.

We talked about many things together in our two-sessions and three hours of conversation including the harm Israel’s continuing Occupation of the West Bank and of East Jerusalem has had on the Palestinians and upon the soul of the Jewish people and Jewish State. I noted that most protesting students against Israel, however, despite their legitimate humanitarian concerns for innocent Palestinian civilians, do not understand the history and politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more generally the century-long Israeli-Arab conflict, have little knowledge of the nature and character of Hamas as an absolutist terrorist Islamic organization intent on the destruction of the State of Israel and the murder of all Jews. Most students do not understand Israeli democracy and politics, the nature of the current extremist Israeli government as opposed to the more moderate attitudes of the Israeli population as a whole, nor do they understand how the American intersectional movement’s presumptions about victimization have little application to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I urged the students, when they get to their college or university, to do two things: First, find a Jewish community on campus in which they can feel safe and supported in their pro-Israel liberal values and concerns; and second, to take courses on Middle East politics and history with professors who are fair, balanced, moral, critical thinkers, and who present the varying positions and perspectives of Zionism, Israel and Palestine without prejudice.

I presented the following talking points to the students and we discussed each one in depth. The subject of each bullet point is in response to a faulty accusation against Zionism, Israel and the Jewish people. Just as the medieval rabbinic sage Rashi (11th century France) wrote commentaries on the Tanakh and Talmud in response to a koshi (difficulty) in the text, so too are the following responses to difficulties in the debate concerning Israel and the Palestinian people.

  • As a liberal Jew, liberal Zionist, and supporter of the State of Israel, one can be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian, meaning that one can support two states for two peoples even as both peoples claim the same land as its national home. A 2-state solution will require compromise by Israel and the Palestinians that includes establishing clear borders, sharing Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel and the capital city of Palestine, security guarantees for both states, a demilitarized State of Palestine, shared water, economic and cultural relations. Hamas is not capable of compromise and neither are the extreme right-wing messianists in the Israeli ruling government coalition and settler community in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and so they should not be at the table when negotiations take place. True peace will require that Israelis and Palestinians not demonize the other as illegitimate in their respective educational systems. Two states for two peoples is necessary as a matter of justice for the Palestinian people who deserve, like the Jewish people, to have a nation-state of their own, and for Israel’s self-interest to remain democratic and Jewish.
  • In 1900, there were 80,000 Jews living in the Land and 600,000 Arabs. By 1939, there were 450,000 Jews and 1.05 million Arabs living in Palestine. Jews had flocked to Palestine as European antisemitism intensified. Many thousands of Arabs came from surrounding Arab lands seeking work that became available because of Zionist building projects. Those Arabs who emigrated are called “Palestinian” if they only lived in Palestine for at least 2 years (according to the PLO’s designation). Many have no historic connection to Palestine beyond the past 80 or 90 years. Jews have lived in the Land of Israel continuously since antiquity and the Land was never devoid of Jews since the time of the Biblical Judges (circa 1200 B.C.E.).
  • Zionism is defined generally as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and is, at its heart, the Jewish people’s social justice movement (see below). Zionism began in the late 19th century as part of a European movement in many countries to establish nation states. Zionism was a response to the “problem of the Jews” (i.e. antisemitism) and the “problem of Judaism” (i.e. that Jewish and Hebraic culture would save the Jewish people from disaffection and assimilation). The Zionist movement is highly diverse today from secular to ultra-Orthodox. Zionism presumes that Judaism is far more than a religion; that it is a civilization inclusive of a long history, a Homeland, languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Aramaic), law (Torah, Talmud, Codes, Responsa literature, etc.), ethics, a sacred literature, faith, theologies, rites, rituals, holidays, customs, culture, and the arts.
  • The State of Israel is the modern political expression of Jewish nationalism and is NOT a colonial power, nor is it a foreign element in the Middle East, nor an oppressive racist state inside the Green Line (the armistice line after the 1948 War). The majority of Israelis come from the Arab world, North Africa, Ethiopia, Latin America, Asia, and are people of color. Therefore, it is not a “racist” nation, though there are plenty of racists in Israel. Israel is also not an Apartheid State as was South Africa because every Israeli Arab citizen has equal rights with every Jewish Israeli citizen. Palestinian Israelis, however, living inside the Green Line are treated as 2nd class citizens with respect to services given by the state and, in many cases, there is discrimination. However, unlike Apartheid, in Israel there are no separation laws. Arab Israelis are lawyers, physicians and health care workers, business people, and Members of the Israeli Knesset. There is also an Arab-Israeli citizen on Israel’s High Court. Those Arabs living in the West Bank and in Jerusalem, however, are not Israeli citizens and live under an often harsh military administration. Those Palestinians do not enjoy the same rights as Israeli Jews and Arabs.
  • Judaism is both a universal and a particular tradition, and Zionism serves not only the rights and security of the Jewish people but is the social justice movement for the Jewish people. The ancient Biblical Prophets of Israel, though expressing universal humanitarian values, were speaking specifically to the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Tikun Olam (translated as “the repair of the world,” originally a mystic concept, is understood today as “social justice”) has universal humanitarian application, but it was never divorced from the peoplehood of Israel (Am Yisrael). The Jewish State has become an arena in which, for the first time in 2000 years, the Jewish people has been able to test our tradition’s ethics and moral principles in the context of our attaining sovereignty and power. Those Jews who focus only on Judaism’s ethical tradition, however, while ripping it from the peoplehood of Israel have done a gross disservice to the nature of Judaism itself.
  • In 1948, 600,000 Jews were expelled and/or fled from antisemitism in Arab Lands after rioting against them was provoked upon the establishment of the State of Israel. The same numbers of Palestinian Arabs fled or were driven from Palestine-Israel after the 1948 and 1967 wars. The former settled in the new State of Israel and the latter settled into refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gaza Strip. However, thousands of Palestinians remained in their villages and cities inside the new State of Israel and were not forced to flee. Both groups of Jews and Palestinian Arabs also left the region and settled abroad. Whereas Palestinian leadership is demanding on behalf of Palestinian refugees the rightful return to their homes and villages that they vacated in the midst of an aggressive war prosecuted against Israel by the surrounding Arab states (the purpose of which was to destroy the Jewish state of Israel), Jewish refugees from Arab lands have never made a comparable demand upon those Arab nations from which they fled nor do they wish to return to their homes in those Arab nations.
  • The expression “From the River to the Sea – Palestine will be free!” (Referring to the Jordan River on the east to the Mediterranean Sea on the west) is essentially an anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and antisemitic declaration because it denies to the Jewish people what every other people in the world are entitled to claim for themselves – the right of self-definition, self-determination and a nation state of their own in their ancestral Homeland.
  • Some Jews are anti-Zionists but are not necessarily self-hating Jews or antisemites. These include extreme orthodox Jews who believe that a Jewish state can only come with the coming of the Messiah, and anti-nationalists, such as those affiliated with The Jewish Voice for Peace. We may not understand them or agree with their perspective, but their positions do not necessarily mean that they are self-hating Jews or antisemitic, though many harbor positions and attitudes that may indeed bleed into antisemitism.
  • Hamas is an extremist, intolerant, anti-liberal, misogynist, anti-LGBTQ, Islamic, autocratic, and theocratic Palestinian terror organization that, before October 7, fired tens of thousands of missiles into undisputed Israeli territory indiscriminately from Gaza since it took over the Strip in 2007 in a violent coup de etat against the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas’ first order of business in 2007 was to march leaders of the competitive PA to the highest buildings and throw them to their deaths. They execute Palestinians frequently who speak against the Hamas regime, deny the rights of LGBTQ individuals, and according to their extremist interpretation of Sharia law, punish girls and women with beatings if they express individuality and resist the patriarchal order. They subject girls to clitoral mutilation and women are required to wear the Burqa or Nijab or Hijab as a sign of submission to male dominance and power. Before October 7, Hamas had the approval of less than 30 percent of Palestinian Gazans. No election has been held since 2005. Hamas must be distinguished from the Palestinians as a whole. Many protestors of this war do not distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinian people thereby indicating their lack of understanding of the Palestinians and the historic nature and character of the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Hamas conflicts.
  • The Biden Administration has been the most supportive American presidential administration of any in Israel’s history. President Biden has a life-long deep affinity for the people and State of Israel and has a vision of a united regional pro-western coalition that includes Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates, and a reconstituted Palestinian Authority against the Islamic extremist Iran and its Muslim proxies (e.g. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, among others). Biden has called for a pathway to a 2-state solution, and Saudi Arabia has agreed to make peace with Israel if Israel accepts an eventual 2-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To those who criticize Biden as not being pro-Israel enough or as anti-Arab fail to understand the nuances of this conflict, the nature of Hamas and Islamic extremism, and the international stakes for America and western civilization.
  • The current Israeli government is the most extreme, right-wing, supranational, supremacist, and racist government in Israeli history. It is against a 2-state solution and believes that Palestinian-Israeli citizens should not enjoy equal rights with Israeli Jewish citizens. There is still a strong minority of Israeli opinion, however, that recognizes that only in a 2-state solution can Israeli democracy and the Jewish character of the only Jewish state in the world be sustained over the long term. To be pro-Israel and anti-Israeli government is therefore legitimate, especially in a democracy.
  • Diaspora Jews have the right to share our opinions with Israeli leaders based on the premise that we are one people and one greater Jewish family living in the Jewish State and Jewish Diaspora with strong links of affection and identity. Though Diaspora Jews are not citizens of the State of Israel, do not pay taxes, and do not send their children to the Israeli army, what Israel does affects Diaspora Jewish pride and security nevertheless, and we therefore have a right to share our ideas with Israel’s leaders. That is different than our demanding that Israel follow policies we believe it should follow. For the first time during the pre-October 7 protest demonstrations against the anti-democratic judicial overhaul by the current Israeli government, opposition leaders called upon Diaspora Jews to support them and be part of the conversation concerning what Israel’s democracy required.
  • There is a strong minority of extremist and violent West Bank Jewish settlers whose goal is to force Palestinians to leave the West Bank so that Jews can expand the borders of the Jewish State to include all the land between the river and the sea as part of the State of Israel de jure. These extremists are a destabilizing force within Israel.

In the past few weeks, I posted several blogs that help to clarify the difficult issues facing Israel and world Jewry since October 7. See www.rabbijohnrosove.blog. I discuss there anti-Zionism, anti-Israel sentiment, and antisemitism on college campuses, the charge of genocide against Israel, and why Israel is worthy of our love and support in light of this war and all that Israel has contributed to the Jewish people and humanity as a whole.

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and a past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of 3 books - "From the West to the East - A Memoir of a Liberal American Rabbi" (2024), "Why Israel Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to the Next Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Revised edition 2023), and “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (2017). All are available at Amazon.com. John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has two grandchildren and he lives in Los Angeles.
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