Weekly On-line Rabbi's D'var-Torah
November 23, 2023 10 Kislev 5784 Vayetzei
Like many of you, I’m extremely concerned about the rise of antisemitism on college campuses and how it is impacting our Jewish college students. Some college campuses catch my attention more than others. I happened to come across this letter from a group of Jewish students at Oberlin College, in which they reject Zionism as a racist ideology. I don’t know where to send it, but here’s my response: Dear Jewish College Students, As I read your letter, I was extremely proud of your empathy and kindness. In our tradition, the great sage Hillel once taught that all of Judaism can be summed up by the principle, “Don’t do unto others that which you find detestable.” Indeed, every Jew should be concerned about the loss of innocent Palestinian life in the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. But, then Hillel added the words, “Now, go study.” While your concern for the Palestinian people is commendable, your understanding of the history seems lacking. Now is the time to go study. It is profoundly sad that you think your “schools, shuls, summer camps, sports teams, families, and youth programs” were sources of propaganda, but that somehow Hamas is a source of truth. If you don’t want to trust your parents and teachers, that is totally understandable. We all need to find our way in the world. However, you should be scrutinizing your new sources of information as thoroughly as you do your old ones. We cannot conflate Hamas with the Palestinian people. The Palestinians deserve freedom and self-determination. Hamas is a terror organization taking advantage of the Palestinian cause for their own nefarious purposes. If Hamas really cared about the Palestinians, their leaders would not be living in Qatari luxury hotels with portfolios worth billions of dollars. They would be working to make the lives of Palestinians better. Hamas is not a reliable source of information. Universities in my day had vast libraries. I suspect that they are still there. I implore you to use them. Don’t just believe the first article you read on a topic because someone you like and admire—even a professor!—recommended it. Do the hard work of researching what the terms genocide, colonialism, white supremacy, and apartheid really mean. And then ask yourselves if these terms actually apply to Israel. The population of Gaza has grown from 400,000 in 1967 to over 2.3 million today. Does that sound like genocide? In contrast, the world Jewish population today is still smaller than it was in 1939. We Jews don’t have a monopoly on the term “genocide,” but we know what it means. The situation in Gaza may be tragic, but it is certainly not a genocide. The territory of Palestine was indeed colonized, but it was colonized by the British. The Jews were—and are!—one of the indigenous people of the land (along with Bedouins, Druze, Samaritans, Arabs, and others). Yes, the Palestinians have been treated unjustly and they deserve a state of their own, but it isn’t all Israel’s fault. The British, the surrounding Arab countries, their own leaders and, yes, Israel, all contributed to their terrible situation. This is a regional problem that can’t be solved by Israel alone. Although most of American Jews present as white, Israel’s population is majority non-white. So, the narrative of “white supremacist” Israel versus Palestinians of color is simply false. Furthermore, over 20% of Israel’s population is made up of Arab Muslims—including ten members of Knesset and one Supreme Court Justice. And have you noticed that Israeli Arabs are not protesting Israel’s incursion into Gaza? Many of them now serve in the IDF. Israel is anything but an apartheid state. Do some more research before believing and then throwing around such harmful accusations. Criticism of Israel’s government is fair and often appropriate. Prior to October 7, many Israelis themselves spent nearly a year marching in protest every Saturday night against the current government. However, when that criticism is used as a justification for dismantling the one and only Jewish state in the world, then it becomes antisemitism—even when those words come out of the mouths of Jews. We can criticize Israel without calling for its demise. While you may wish to distance yourselves from policies of Israel that you find distasteful, the truth is that Zionism and Judaism are inextricably linked. Here in the United States, we think of Judaism as a religion. It is certainly a religion, but it is so much more than that. It is a culture, a peoplehood, a nation. We Jews have gotten quite good at fitting in wherever we live, but that does not preclude us from having our own state in our own ancestral homeland. Further, the war in Gaza has unleashed a wave of antisemitism across the globe. If Judaism and Zionism are distinct, then why are anti-Israel activists attacking synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses outside of Israel? Anti-Zionism is merely a code word for antisemitism. One cannot separate Judaism and Zionism because the people who hate Jews make no such distinction. We American Jews have historically moved in progressive circles. Today, many Jews are involved in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive freedom, antiracism, anti-oppression, voting rights, and other noble causes. Unfortunately, many of our friends and allies in those fights seem to think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fits neatly into one of those paradigms instead of trying to understand the unique aspects of this situation—two indigenous peoples, greatly harmed by colonialism and oppression, with competing claims to the same small piece of land. It’s hard when people we agree with on so many other issues see us as villains. The easy path is to give in, accept their narrative, and apologize for the “sins” of our people. The much harder path is to challenge those people to set aside their familiar paradigms and take a new look at the situation through a different lens. As students at a world-class academic institution, you have a unique opportunity to really delve into the complexity of this conflict and learn more about it. As the great sage Hillel once said, “Now go study!” Shalom, RAF.