There are nuances within the umbrella category of anti-Israel sentiment. I’ve talked with people who think that Israel is a white, European colonialist nation but who still believe that a Jewish state should exist; I’ve talked to Jews who think the idea of a Jewish state is ridiculous; I’ve talked with people who love Israel but hate what it’s doing, and I’ve talked with people who hate everything about the state.
Anti-Zionists and Zionists alike come in many shapes and sizes. However, at the end of the day the loudest opinion on campus falls under the umbrella category of anti-Zionist or anti-Israel. In addition to being independently anti-Zionist, campus activists tend to lump divestment from Israel along with important issues such as divestment from the American prison system and the fossil fuel industry, which means that to support one of those issues is often to support all three. Although the latter two are undeniably contentious and important issues, their importance does not make them equivalent and it certainly does not place them in the same category as the highly complex state of Israel. This conflation of issues creates a paradigm in which the existence of the state of Israel and the various stances of the Zionist movement are in direct opposition to human rights, equality, the environmentalist movement, and efforts against the institutionalized racism that is rampant in the United States. This is is reductive, counter-productive, and a real shame: it seems to me that the Wesleyan community could actually make a positive contribution to changing the dialogue.
Let’s first stipulate two things: the Palestinians aren’t leaving the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and neither are the Jews. They’re both fated to live there, and for obvious reasons they can’t live together right now. They need a space to develop their own nationalities apart from each other. People advocating for the destruction of Israel—because that is in fact what ultimately so many people aligned with the BDS movement seem to want: the actual elimination of a United Nations-recognized state—are advocating for a situation that would only lead to bloodshed and endless war. Here at Wesleyan, we could treat this issue as the complicated problem it is. As students at a liberal arts university, we are taught to see grays, to see nuance, to see tragedy, and seek solutions. We could change the conversation around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and make it an actual dialogue with people on both sides of the divide listening to each other and learning from each other. A reflexive response (Israel is unequivocally bad) is by definition a thoughtless one, and we are not here to be thoughtless, we are here to learn and be critical. Why not apply that critical and nuanced mindset to Israel?
From what I have gathered from my semesters on campus so far, the majority of Wesleyan students (or perhaps just the people with the loudest voices) seem to believe that Israel is an apartheid state, that Israel enthusiastically oppresses the Palestinian people, and that Israel is, generally speaking, a racist and colonialist nation. There does not seem to be a lot of room for doubt when it comes to these opinions, and I have encountered strong opposition when offering up an opposing opinion about the Jewish state. Two things about this stance are alarming to me. The first is that from my perspective as a liberal Zionist, this dominant view of Israel seems harmful and misguided. The second is a more general fear about the educational climate on this campus: The lack of dialogue, of critical thinking, and the conformity that seems to govern this discussion suggest an anti-intellectualism that should be alarming to everyone on a campus devoted to the pursuit of a liberal education.
Why, of all the people in the world, should the Jews not have a state in their ancestral homeland? Most people seem comfortable with the idea of the Poles having Poland and the Japanese getting Japan, but there is something about the Jews that makes some people take exception to the idea of us having a national homeland rooted in our history and tradition. I would like to propose that this is just anti-Semitism: a manifestation of hostility against the Jews cloaked in the acceptable terms of anti-Zionism. This is not the only bizarre thing about people’s focus on Israel. As I said, I believe that the Palestinians should have their own state just as the Jews should have their own state (an idealistic stance to be sure, but perhaps one worth having). The Palestinians and the Jews, however, are small peoples and not the only ones in the world struggling for territory.
“Anti-Zionists” care about the Palestinian claim to this controversial strip of land theoretically for larger reasons of justice and human rights. There is a whole movement dedicated to boycotting, imposing sanctions on, and divesting from the state of Israel in order to halt what people perceive as Israel’s crimes. Fine…but what about Tibet? The Tibetan people have lost their national homeland to Chinese occupation and been oppressed and abused by that nation, but the same people who are BDS-focused “anti-Zionists” and are so focused on human rights do not seem to care. The same could be said for the Kurds in Turkey and many other peoples throughout the world. These self-proclaimed activists on the side of human rights, however, are fixated on—or in stronger and more accurate terms—obsessed with Israel and its actions. It would be almost flattering if it wasn’t so anti-Semitic.
I believe that the Palestinians should have a state just as the Jews should have a state. I think that the Israeli government should stop the spread of settlers, do its best to ameliorate living conditions in Gaza, and eventually give fuller autonomy to Gaza and the West Bank. I also agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, who said that “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect her right to exist, its territorial integrity and the right to use whatever sea lanes it needs. Israel is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality.” It is possible to think both things, to have sympathy for both Palestinians and Israelis, but I do not see this moderate view on campus.
Goldberg is a member of the class of 2019.