Jewish students in America are being confronted by daily incidents of antisemitism, the proximate cause of which is the recent war between Israel and Hamas. Passions are inflamed by an endless stream of images and commentary entering our homes and offices.
College students have always been more radical than their elders, but recent expressions of antisemitism on campus, tinged with violence, are not benign expressions of political or other beliefs. And rather than coming from the hard right (as was the case in Charlottesville, where the “Unite the Right” marchers openly chanted Nazi slogans) the antisemitism on American campuses comes largely from left, and, I believe, is related to the larger “woke” and identity-based politics that have pervaded campus life for well over a decade.
There are two underlying tensions currently being played out on American campuses. The first is the larger struggle between liberal democracies and autocracies, pitting the West against political entities that resent and reject Western civilizations and the democratic order. The second, and perhaps more potent, is what has come to be understood as “white privilege.” Jews are seen as white, Arabs as non-white and therefore underdogs, victims of centuries of European colonial oppression, and deserving of support and contrition on the part of white America.
Despite what appears to be a conflagration of grievances that cannot be easily calmed, surely the following six observations should be considered in any dialogue between Jewish and anti-Zionist student groups.
- The State of Israel is not perfect, but nor is any other country. The United States, for example, exists on land that was stolen from its original inhabitants, most of whom were either killed by white settlers or died of starvation and disease. We are human beings and like all humans fall short of the ideal. That said, Israel is a moral country that seeks to live in peace with all its non-Jewish neighbors. There are only seven million Jews in Israel, surrounded by hundreds of millions of largely Muslim neighbors. If Israel were not strong, it would not be permitted to exist.
- Gaza is a tragedy. But it is not a tragedy that was caused by Israel. In 2005, Israel voluntarily withdrew from Gaza turning it over to its Palestinian inhabitants. They demolished all houses built by Jews as well as the farms, greenhouses and other means of livelihood that had once helped sustain them. Israel made a mistake in withdrawing from Gaza without safeguarding its future and preparing the way for an orderly transition. As recently as the 2000, Yasser Arafat, then the leader of the Palestinian cause, walked away from a peace agreement that included statehood for his people. Neither Jordan, which borders and once ruled the West Bank, nor Egypt, which borders and once ruled Gaza, are willing to help their co-religionists by either taking them in or supplying humanitarian aid.
- The lives of most Palestinians in Gaza are hard. There are two million people living in a small area lacking natural resources and the means of economic advancement. Even more critical, since 2007, Gaza has been ruled by Hamas, a terrorist organization that uses its funding not to help the people of Gaza, but to amass a system of violence in order to destroy the state of Israel. Despite this ever-looming threat, until the recent Hamas atrocity, Israel continued to supply water and electricity to Gaza and to allow tens of thousands of Gaza workers to enter Israel each day to earn a living.
- Israel’s military response to the recent Hamas slaughter of civilian Jews in Southern Israel is not a war against Islam, but an effort by Israel to defend itself against Jihadist and other terrorists who seek to eliminate anyone who does not share their extremist views, which include not just the wish to wipe all Jews off the face of the earth, but to kill those of their own faith who do not share their extremist beliefs. They also endorse the killing of homosexuals, lesbians, and others who do not fall neatly into the heterosexual category, deny women the basic rights that men enjoy, and oppose both the rule of law and democracy. These are neither Jewish nor Muslim values, but those of fanatics who seek to rule by bloodshed and mayhem.
- Israel is a country of many shades and hues. About 20 percent of its Jewish citizens are from Middle East countries such as Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Egypt. They or their ancestors were forced to leave their countries of birth when Jews were expelled from the primarily Muslim countries in which most had lived for generations. Even so, two million Israeli citizens are Palestinians. Israel has a population of about nine million, making their Palestinian minority far larger than various minority populations, combined, in the United States (white people in America account for over 75% of the total population). Palestinian Arabs have 20 seats in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). There are Arab members of the judiciary including the Supreme Court of Israel. Israel’s universities have a disproportionately large number of Arab graduate students. Road signs in Israel are in Arabic and Hebrew. The sound of the muezzin, calling the faithful, is heard throughout Israel. In sum, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where all ethnicities and religions are free to maintain their own identity and live as they choose.
- Israel could do a better job serving its Arab neighborhoods. Unfortunately, like some ultra-Orthodox, many Israeli Arab citizens do not pay their fair share of taxes, stretching municipal budges.
The above are talking points only. But they are important, because many of those students who express various forms and shades of antisemitism on our campuses are either uninformed, or actively being misled on the history of Jews and the State of Israel. But shouting doesn’t help. Quiet listening — and the presentation of accurate history — does. So does reaching into the depth of our shared humanity. I propose that students engage in quiet dialogue based on historical fact, while pointing out the importance of past collaborations on common issues such as abortion rights LBGT issues, religious freedom, and artistic expression.
Those who seek to educate themselves for a higher purpose have more in common with each other than the current headlines show.