Daniel Orenstein

Unsolicited Advice for Progressive Zionists on Campus

I don’t envy progressive Zionist college students in North America this fall. By Zionist, I mean those who believe in the validity of, and support, the modern Jewish, democratic state; by progressive, I mean those that hope for a peaceful and equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on mutual recognition and two sovereign states west of the Jordan River.

These students are diving into a political environment rife with bitterness, racism, anti-Semitism, growing extremism and even violence. In Gaza, Hamas revealed their murderous plans not only to fire whatever weapons they could muster against Israeli towns and villages, but to burrow underground and emerge within Israeli communities to capture and murder as many people as possible. Lured into fighting in densely populated Gaza cities, Israel leveled neighborhoods, destroyed crucial infrastructure and killed hundreds of civilians.

But the current Israeli government also continues to expand civilian settlements in the West Bank as fast as possible, making a future withdrawal increasingly difficult and distant, even as they pay lip service to a future two-state solution. Meanwhile, many Palestinian supporters across the globe made it clear that Jews (not only in Israel) are the target of their hatred.

As a college activist during the first Intifada, my campus environment was certainly not friendly to Zionists. Anti-Israel demonstrations were almost a weekly event. A steady stream of proposals in the student government sought to condemn Israel and strengthen ties with Palestine (for cynical reasons). A student-run “Third World” newspaper regularly featured biased, anti-Israel commentary. But by comparison to the current situation, things back then were quite serene.

Today, the anti-Israel crowd seems much broader, composed of an increasing number of university faculty, a larger cross section of students, and a growing number of disaffected Jewish students. The political environment, characterized on all sides by ignorance and narrow-mindedness, makes it virtually impossible to have a civil discussion – much less create an atmosphere for promoting mutual recognition. Good luck getting past buckets of “blood” and back-and-forth accusations of genocide, slaughter, anti-Semitism, terrorism and racism.

So, in this season of scrambling for strategies for campus activism, I offer progressive Zionists students a few strategies from this graying, but still engaged, activist. These strategies were successful in stymieing extremism on my campus and promoted a more civil discourse. By seeking to educate, learn and engage, we created an environment in which a Zionist student could be proud, though not at the expense of denying Palestinians their legitimacy and respect. In short, we worked to create an atmosphere more becoming of an institute of higher education.

Be positive. The current discourse on Israel-Palestine is poisoned. Both sides are stuck in the zero-sum game of our victory or theirs. Unfortunately, many Palestinian advocacy organizations instruct followers to avoid dialogue itself – as such dialogue would help “normalize” their Zionist enemies (as with the BDS movement).

Neither side can currently envision living with the other. Israelis, having endured tunnels across their borders and missiles on their airport, can no longer fathom the implications of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Neither can they imagine that Palestinians will ever accept a Jewish state in their midst. Palestinians, witnessing security barriers, roadblocks and fences, watching ever-expanding settlements and experiencing constant harassment by Jewish bullies can no longer fathom that Israel has any intention other than to expand its borders to the Jordan River while displacing the Arab population.

Other futures exist, and progressive Zionists must present and promote them. The vision of two sovereign states, mutually recognized, is still the most viable, hopeful option. A optimistic, sober vision that benefits both sides will gain support from anyone who understands the legitimacy of each peoples’ claims to national identity.

Be Jewish. One of the most constructive steps we took at our college Hillel was to stop having a campus “Israel Day” and start having a campus “Jewish Cultural Week.” Our logic was simple: The Israeli-Palestine conflict on campus had inadvertently made us focus on Israel’s current activities, completely separate from Jewish life. While we tried to produce pro-Israel publicity, progressive students could only see dissonance between the violent actions of Israel in the news along with the ubiquitous anti-Israel propaganda and the warm, fuzzy Israel we were trying to sell.

The more productive alternative was to celebrate the centrality of Israel within the context of Jewish culture, religion and history. In this way, other students (Jewish and non-Jewish) gained a more profound understanding of Israel and its meaning to Jews. Context is a crucial part of teaching about Israel. The disconnect of Jewish students from their own cultural, religious and historical roots may be a significant factor in their increasing distance from Israel, as Peter Beinart suggested in a recent editorial.

There are other progressive forces within the Jewish and Zionist community, such as J-Street U, Ameinu, the New Israel Fund and even more mainstream organizations, who are actively advocating and working to establish the middle ground of dialogue and mutual recognition. Organize and connect.

Be proud. There is scarcely an action that my government takes that doesn’t make me cringe – whether distancing Arabs from the Israeli mainstream (e.g. proposing to cancel Arabic as an officially recognized language) or funneling an inordinate amount of tax money to the West Bank. But I am also proud of my country, its vitality and liberalism, its ingenuity and the strength of its democratic and social institutions that, while weakened, are still enduring. And I am proud of the engaged and diverse Jewish community around the world.

During my final year of college, five Jewish students who were not observant began wearing kipot as a sign of pride of our identity. The result was cathartic. We felt good that, despite the amount of anti-Israel activity, we weren’t going to hide. Our friends (and others) were happy to see a sign of Jewish life on campus. Unexpectedly, some observers thought that suddenly there had been a huge influx of Jewish students on campus (although we were five of 30,000). I understand that in some campuses such a step may be more uncomfortable in today’s climate. But consider that you may have more friends than you realize.

Be honest. Israel has and is doing some pretty bad things. It looks (and feels) ridiculous to try to deny them – especially when they contradict our opinions regarding current events elsewhere in the world. We gain respect and traction by admitting to our errors, even while maintaining pride in our strengths. Admittedly, I spent a few years muzzled by the claim that Zionists should not “air our dirty laundry”. Then I spent a few years expressing my criticisms of Israeli policy along with my support of the state, and it was not only more honest, but it added credibility in the eyes of my peers and it brought attention to real problems that need real solutions. Let your voices be heard and your concerns considered. Don’t leave the playing field open to the close-minded and the extremists on both sides.

Be respectful and sensitive. This is not a game. Many lives have been lost and many families live in misery because of this ongoing conflict. Palestinians and Israelis are living under threat and enduring real pain and suffering. While there are fanatics at the edges of the conflict, most of us are somewhere in the middle.  What we really desire is a comfortable and secure life for ourselves and our families. The majority of people in the region would willingly compromise on national claims to achieve these things. Acknowledge this when advocating and debating on campus.

With great hope and not a little apprehension for your future, I wish you a great school year and I wish us all a year of greater understanding, peace, respect and comfort. Shana Tova.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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