For Students Like Me, Anti-BDS But Critical Of Israel, There’s No Place On Campus
All eyes have been on University of Michigan, my university, these past few weeks, thanks to some controversial incidents: two professors refusing to write recommendations for students seeking to study in Israel and a required seminar class comparing Israel’s Prime Minister to Hitler.
Even though I was warned, before I started at Michigan, about the divisive Israel debate on college campuses, I naively thought I’d be fine. I held a nuanced, thoughtful perspective, and assumed I’d find like minded people.
I grew up with a deep love for Israel. I visited Israel multiple times growing up, including a semester of high school and my gap year. I’m one of the few whose parents did “tell me” about the conflict with the Palestinians. I was taught that my love for Israel required honest engagement, not blind obeisance. I also went to protests and rallies advocating for gay rights, immigration reform, and human rights at home. I was taught that my Jewish values demanded that I not stand idly by in the face of injustice, especially against marginalized people, whether in the US or Israel, including Palestinians. I see no inconsistency in supporting Israel as a strong and secure Jewish state, while also fighting for human rights and self-determination for the Palestinians.
When I arrived on campus, I simultaneously threw myself into the outstanding Hillel community and desperately tried to avoid the Israel debate. I had just finished my gap year in Israel where, as one of the few progressive students, I was exhausted from defending my perspectives. For my first year and a half on campus I was fairly successful in avoiding the conversation. During my first year, I watched the live stream of the BDS vote and was relieved when it was defeated. Sophomore year, after the BDS vote passed, I grappled with the fact that BDS activists were allied with groups like the Black Student Union and La Casa, a Latinx group on campus, groups I allied with in racial justice struggles. As I watched Black Lives Matters speakers stand with UM Divest, I felt lost and confused. When did I, someone who aggressively believes and fights for racial equality, become the oppressor?
Last week was the annual protest organized by the Palestinian rights organization when students build an “apartheid wall” at the center of campus to protest the occupation and the West Bank security wall. This year, they joined with La Casa to draw a comparison between Trump’s abhorrent family separation policy and the security wall.
This touched a nerve. Last summer I worked for Congressmember Karen Bass and spent much time listening to heart-wrenching stories of parents whose children were torn from their arms at the border. This is an issue I care deeply about.
But I found myself unable to join La Casa’s protest against the family separation policy because it was now conflated with the complexities of the situation in Israel-Palestine. In one notable moment, a student standing at the wall approached me and shouted, “Support undocumented immigrants, end family separation and Free Palestine!” I was faced with an excruciating choice: being forced to decide between my identity as a progressive Zionist and my identity as a social justice activist. Dialogue did not seem like a realistic option, so I stood there, torn apart.
I walked away from my fellow Jewish students who had gathered to protest the wall, and I began to cry.
I am in turmoil. On one side, there are the vehemently pro-Israel advocates who unabashedly support Israel and its government and condemn all critics as traitors or anti-Semites. They often lack empathy for the plight of the Palestinians, and sadly, they are often the only option on campus for people who love and support Israel. On the other side is the social justice universe. These organizations are increasingly uninterested in engaging with anyone who has not disavowed the state of Israel, out of fear of “normalizing” the conflict.
I am not right enough for some, and not left enough for others.
I hope and believe there is a silent majority of those who are wrestling with these same issues.
One thing that is clear to me: I am no longer comfortable sitting on the sidelines. I need to figure out where my voice will be heard and valued. After BDS passed, I described this inner turmoil in a Facebook post, and many students reached out to express gratitude for saying what many felt but were afraid to express. The American Jewish Establishment, while professing concerns about losing young Jewish support for Israel, refuses to acknowledge the moral complexities that leave many students alienated on campus.
My peers and I don’t understand why American Jews, who are overwhelmingly progressive on most issues, are unwilling to criticize Israel’s government when it repeatedly acts in ways that betray our Jewish values time and time again. We must see the occupation for what it is, not a “necessary evil,” but a cruel, self destructive and dangerous set of policies and systems that violate our core Jewish values. If we are unable to hold the Israeli government accountable for its 50+ year occupation of Palestinians, then who can?
Universities need to be places for honest and nuanced conversations, not grandstanding and absolutes. If this false binary continues to grow, my peers and I will eventually have to pick a side. And it is not likely that we will side with the American Jewish Establishment if it continues to insist that we forsake our values when it comes to Israel.
Emma Wergeles is a student at the University of Michigan.