How should an Israeli lecturer respond when confronted with a BDS walk-out on an American campus?
Last month, I spoke, together with my friend Mohammed Darawshe, one of Israel’s leading activists for empowering and integrating Arab citizens into the mainstream, at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana.
Mohammed and I were invited by the university’s administration, Chancellor Robert J. Jones and Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Sean Garrick, to model a respectful conversation about the future of Israeli society and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the event began, several dozen students staged a walk-out and held identical signs reading, “Stop Normalizing Genocide.” The following, with minor edits, is taken from the remarks I delivered in response:
There are two warring cultures playing out in this hall. Those warring cultures are not Muslims versus Jews, not even Israelis versus Palestinians. Instead, the war is between those who are committed to sitting together, looking each other in the eye and trying to make peace, and those who are committed to a culture of cancellation, boycott, hyperbole and hatred.
Mohammed and I have many difficult issues to unpack. On some crucial issues we agree, on some we disagree. For us, these are not political debating points. These are life and death issues for ourselves, our families, our peoples. And yet we are committed to unpacking these issues together because we realize that the alternative is much worse.
The deeper issue that’s being played out in this hall is how we deal with our differences. Those differences are tearing apart not only our society but your society as well. Humanity is on the brink of major catastrophe in multiple areas. And yet, rather than drawing us together, we find ourselves being pulled even further apart.
Three years ago, I wrote a book called “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” which was an attempt to reach across the abyss that this walk-out embodies. The book, a series of letters to an anonymous Palestinian neighbor, was an attempt to explain who the Jewish people are, why we returned after two thousand years to a home that we share with the Palestinian people, why we believe this is our home as well.
But it was an attempt not only to explain but to listen. The book was an invitation to my Palestinian neighbors to respond. The book was translated into Arabic and placed for free downloading online, and hundreds wrote responses and thousands downloaded.
In a subsequent paperback edition, I included 50 pages of those letters as an epilogue: letters from Palestinians to their Israeli neighbor. Many of those letters were difficult for me as an Israeli to read. Many challenged some of my most cherished assumptions about my Jewish and Zionist identity. And yet I felt not only the need to include those letters in a book that I had written to defend my people’s narrative, but to end the book with the Palestinian counter-narrative.
In the current political climate – what we saw this afternoon is only an example – that’s counter-cultural. You are not supposed to grant your political opponent space in your own book, let alone the final word. And yet I felt that, if I were serious about trying to model a new kind of conversation that would somehow break through the walls, literal and metaphorical, I needed to take that risk. It was a painful decision to make, as a writer and as a Jewish Israeli.
But what I’ve come to realize is that you can’t cancel a people. You can’t cancel the Palestinian people, you can’t cancel the Israeli people. Both the Jews and the Palestinians are indigenous to the same little tortured piece of land.
The Jewish people returned home after two thousand years of exile, but we encountered a new form of exile – exile from the Middle East. My deepest hope is that we find our place in the region to which we’ve returned home.
A final word about the walk-out. The slogan imprinted on the posters was, “Stop Normalizing Genocide.” The attempt to turn Israel into a monstrous country will have only one effect: to strengthen those forces in Israeli society that want the status quo to continue. What we’ve seen today is exactly what those elements thrive on.
What we’re modeling here today is a painful conversation. It’s a conversation about injustice, about fears for existence. Everyone has grievances and wounds. We can continue along the path of feeding those grievances and wounds and we see where that has brought us. Or we can try a different way. This alternative way is painful. It is less emotionally gratifying than the walk-out.
But we’re committed to sitting together and doing the hard work. And hopefully presenting a model – not only for the issues that Mohammed and I have no choice but to deal with, but perhaps for other issues in other parts of the world.