As a politically active, Jewish Zionist, my opinions differ from what seem to be popular opinions on campus, and I want to express my disappointment with our community when I saw the Israeli apartheid wall display last week. When I Googled the word “apartheid,” every definition I found described the history of racial segregation in South Africa between 1950 and 1991. In none of the definitions did I find any reference to Israel, Palestine, or the occupation. This indicates that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is not defined as apartheid; rather I define it as an unfortunate product of Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians. This incident has made it more apparent to me that Wesleyan is not always true to the values it proclaims to hold dear, specifically inclusion and diversity, which makes me question the acceptance I previously felt here.
I want to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism. Judaism is a religion with a long history of oppression and an inspiring reputation of overcoming adversity. Zionism is the belief that Israel should, and has the right to, exist as a Jewish state. Not every Jew is a Zionist and not every Zionist is a Jew. I happen to be both. My connection to the land of Israel is deeply rooted in my religious upbringing as well as in my personal journey of self-definition. My experiences traveling there have been religious, spiritual, and intellectually stimulating. I respect the decisions of anyone who identifies as a Jew and speaks against Israel, but personally, because I cannot separate my Judaism from my Zionism, the apartheid wall display struck me as a hate-filled personal attack. Wesleyan is supposed to be a place of inclusion, but the display felt like it was meant to ostracize certain community members.
I feared the return of this display because I remember seeing it in the lobby of Olin last year when I was a freshman. Coming from a community of mostly pro-Israel Jews, I had never been exposed to so many people who shared such an opposing viewpoint. When I saw the Israel apartheid display last year I was shocked. I saw it as an insensitive and dramatic representation of a complicated issue, which only stood to spread hate. As much as this display upset me again this year, I was surprised that my reaction was less intense. That fact that my view changed so dramatically is of concern. Have I become so desensitized by hate speech against Israel that this no longer shocks me? What does it say about our campus climate that someone like me, a Jewish Zionist, no longer finds such fault with the same presentation?
This year the display had a new addition, which a connection between Israel and Ferguson, Missouri. The display read, “From Ferguson to Palestine, Occupation is a Crime.” This artificial connection is offensive and completely nonsensical. Ferguson is experiencing civil unrest due to discrimination and violence perpetrated by police forces against African Americans. Although the display’s comparison between Ferguson and Palestine was not directly related to Israel’s treatment of its black population, this potential comparison is especially unfair considering that Israel does have its own minority population, Ethiopian Jews, and has put significant effort into incorporating Ethiopian Jewry into Israeli society. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Israeli government sent the Israel Defense Forces on numerous covert missions to bring Ethiopian Jewish refugees to Israel. They were given places to live and were taught the Hebrew language so they could be incorporated into Israeli society. To this day, no other country in the world has ever conducted a rescue mission of this nature and scale.
The military occupation of the West Bank by Israeli security forces began due to the tremendous increase in suicide bombings in Israel during the first and second Palestinian intifadas in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The terrorists perpetrating these crimes against innocent civilians were entering Israel from the West Bank. The security forces remain in place currently to protect those living in Israel, but in Ferguson, Missouri the police forces seem to lack this protective intention. Comparing the disturbing racism in Ferguson to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank delegitimizes any racially based argument against Israel, both by ignoring Israel’s efforts to rescue the endangered Jewish population of Africa, and by rejecting the country’s basic right to self defense.
The accusation that Israel is an apartheid state is easily refuted when compared to the realities of apartheid South Africa. For example, in South Africa, blacks had specific areas in which they were allowed to live. To my knowledge, in Israel, Arabs are permitted to live anywhere they choose. Arabs are an integrated part of Israeli society and share the same rights as every Jewish citizen. There are Arab doctors, police officers, army commanders, Supreme Court justices, and parliament members. In apartheid South Africa all of this would have been not only illegal but also unfathomable.
Israel is by no means the perfect society. There is still discrimination against Arabs in Israeli society but so too is there discrimination against people of color in the United States, not to mention the recent eruption of anti-Semitism in Europe. For those who condemn the mistreatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, it is important to note that most of the Palestinians living in the West Bank are under the administration of the Palestinian Authority. Some also refer to Gaza as “occupied territory” when in fact the Israeli military “disengaged” from Gaza in 2005. The Palestinians living in Gaza are ruled by Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization. All of this is to say that while it is true that the Palestinian people suffer injustice, it is most often not at the hands of the Israeli government.
Finally, and perhaps most disconcerting to me, is the decision to present this display during WesFest, a time when our campus is full of prospective students and families. It is important to note that the display was outside of Usdan, a high-traffic area, rather than inside Olin as it was last year. The apartheid wall reflects poorly on our campus and sends a message of hatred in the presence of our visitors. I am hurt by the rejection I feel now, but I value the emphasis on free speech at Wesleyan. It would benefit our campus to engage in productive dialogues about how we can improve the lives of those living in the Middle East while not alienating members of our community. I look forward to discussions about Israel and Palestine without the interference of hate.
Rubin is a member of the class of 2018.