Contrary to what Students for Justice in Palestine would have you believe, the pro-Israel community on college campuses is made up of activists from different colors, backgrounds and countries.
Just as more students realize that Israel advocacy and Zionism aren’t solely Jewish causes, but human ones, so too has the pro-Israel community diversified and expanded. Take a snapshot at what the pro-Israel movement on campuses looks today and you’ll be surprised to find not only Jews advocating for Israel, but you’ll see African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, the LGBTQ community and students from all shades of the political spectrum uniting to support Israel.
It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
But, take a closer look. What you’ll find missing in the picture is the absence of a diverse group of people that has been widely untapped by the pro-Israel world, despite having powerful, deep and nuanced connections to Israel and Zionism. They are a people from a region that even Israel has begun to turn to as new economic and cultural allies: Asians.
I am a Japanese-American who has grown up for the most part of my life in the suburbs of Tokyo, Japan. When I became a pro-Israel advocate on my campus, it became clear to me that despite the pro-Israel community being inclusive of students from all backgrounds, I as an Asian-American, was an anomaly.
This lack of Asian-American representation in the pro-Israel community I find to be bizarre, considering that the values our diverse communities have developed over generations in the diaspora can connect directly with the struggles of the Jewish Diaspora. By acknowledging our similarities, the Asian-American experience in the United States can create a concrete case for the existence and continued support of Israel as the Jewish homeland.
After decades of being treated as the scapegoat for America’s social, political and economic problems, Asian-Americans who acutely understand the effects that anti-Asian sentiment has had on our community should see the urgent necessity for the self-determination of the Jewish people as established in Israel.
As written in Karan Mahjan’s piece “The Two Asian Americas,” in the New Yorker, Asian immigrants — from Korea to Vietnam — came to the United States to escape colonialism, persecution and economic hardship, only to find that they faced racism from a greater America that viewed them as a nuisance. Despite these immigrants coming from vastly different parts of Asia, these experiences with anti-Asian racism in the United States were universal and have manifested in the form of internment camps and violent acts of murder.
Much like the Jews, Asian-Americans were often stereotyped as being weak, subordinate, and powerless. As evident with the brutal murder of Chinese-American Vincent Chin in 1982 and the subsequent acquittal of his killers’ crimes, this structural racism has historically denied Asians basic civil rights afforded to Americans. Vincent Chin’s murder was yet another sign that America still saw Asians as the “other” and feared them as such.
Even as Asian-Americans have embodied the American Dream through phenomenal economic and social success after nearly a century of being relegated as second class citizens, anti-Asian sentiment continues to persist through political pundits like Bill O’ Reilly promulgating dangerous myths of “Asian privilege” and “Asian power.” In fact, just as Asian-Americans have ascended to become “highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States,” we had also become subject to the same assumptions of “power,” “privilege” and “control” that classic anti-Semitic myths have referred to Jews with.
As a consequence, the last 20 years has seen Asian-Americans become the fastest growing targets for hate crimes and violence. Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean youths have increasingly become targets of violent beatings, ethnic slurs and threats because of the Asian “high achieving student” stereotype. When Jason L. Riley wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Asians were the “New Jews,” while he meant that Asians were now the subject of the racial quotas that Jews faced in their Ivy League applications, it was perhaps this subtext he wanted to relay.
There is a persistent feeling among the Asian-American community that while we are Americans and have lived here for generations, to a wider America, no matter what we do, we are seen as foreigners, invaders and are treated as such. Perpetual “otherness” is a feeling that pervades all Asian-American communities.
This history of the “other” is something we can hold similar to the long history of persecution and anti-Semitism experienced by the Jewish community in the Diaspora. When Jewish immigrants and refugees fled to the United States from the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and other hostile parts of Europe to escape anti-Semitism, they again faced anti-Semitism in their new homes that relegated them as second class citizens. Many still identified as Americans, despite hateful calls for them to “go home” because there was no other home to return to.
During World War II, Japanese-Americans suffered similar racism during the conflict with Japan and endured calls of “No Japs Wanted” and “Go home Japs!” During this turbulent time in history, Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps and in their absence, many had their land sold or stolen. An injustice that may seem all too familiar to Jews. However, many young second generation (Nisei) children of immigrants volunteered in the United States military. Despite this discrimination, they felt they were Americans, and they had no home to return to other than America.
Where does Israel fit into all of this? In Japan, when we welcome someone back home, we say “Okaeri,” to which the person coming back home will say “Tadaima,” meaning “I’m home.” These are powerful words of comfort. The importance of coming home to one’s family and roots is a powerful one unique to Japan and to Asian-American families. For those who have survived a history of persecution, the one place where Asian-Americans could feel safe and self-determined were spaces where they could say “Tadaima” to and be welcomed with “Okaeri.” Self-determination for Asian-Americans only existed because our communities valued family and community as home. No matter where anyone goes, as long as they have a family, homeland and community, they too can succeed and rise.
In a world where anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, on American college campuses, and in the Middle East, Israel exists as a homeland for the Jewish people; a sign that no matter what happens, the Jews will be okay because they will always have a home to say “Tadaima” to and they will always have Israel to welcome them with “Okaeri.” Every people deserves to have a home, and a land in which they can thrive without the persecution. Israel remains as a powerful rebuke to anyone who sought to deny the Jewish people self-determination.
And, Israel must continue to remain so with Asian-Americans who “get” Zionism and the connections between both communities. But, where are these students?
Where are the Korean-American students who understand that early Korean Christians, after being dispelled into the Diaspora following Japanese colonial rule, had adopted Zionism and the Jewish people as a model for their own self-determination and return to their homeland Korea? Do they know that these early Diaspora Korean Christans prayed “next year in Korea,” just as Jews were praying “next year in Jerusalem?” Do they know that colonial-era Japan would have wiped out their distinct language, heritage and customs if their families hadn’t left Japan-occupied Korea? Do they know that Jews faced a similar persecution by enemies who colonized their land and sought to erase their culture and heritage?
Where are the Vietnamese-Americans who understand that they are a result of their immigrant predecessors living as refugee “boat people,” escaping persecution from oppressive governments and violence?
Where are the Indian-Americans who know that India’s security is directly connected to Israel’s? Do they know that when India was attacked by Pakistani militants during the Kargil conflict, Israel was the one of the first to offer its military and technological assistance? Did they know that aside from a strong military alliance, that India, a Hindu-majority state, reveres Israel as an example of how a persecuted minority can achieve self-determination? According to Israels Foreign Ministry, India is the most pro-Israel country in the world with 58 percent of Indians expressing friendly sentiments towards Israel. Do Indian-American students understand this deep connection? Do others see this?
My community’s unique experiences with racism and intolerance in the diaspora should instill within us a deep sympathy for the Zionist cause and Israel.
But, time and time again, I have to ask myself: Where are the students who see the struggle to establish and secure Israel’s place as the Jewish state as synonymous with their values and histories as Asian-Americans?
It’s time for us to reach out to this vital community. For the pro-Israel Asian-American students who have already figured it out, please stand up. We need you.
We must do everything in our power to make a genuine and compelling case for Israel within the context of the Asian-American narrative and to make students realize that advocating for Israel isn’t only a Jewish issue — it is a social justice one that every minority should be invested in.
The future of Israel advocacy hinges on Asian-American support so that Diaspora Jews who find themselves returning to their indigenous roots in Israel can say, “Okaeri.” I am home.