More times than I can count, Brown University students, Jewish and non-Jewish, have decried Israel in what they call “a critique of nationalism” or the state system. On the one hand, I agree with their theoretical point: nationalism and the state system are extremely problematic and have resulted in enormous grief, bloodshed, and displacement across the globe. On the other hand, I have never heard any student suggest the dismantlement of any state other than Israel. As we sit comfortably in American classrooms, safe within a country buttressed between allies and oceans, my classmates choose a single target, over and over again, upon which to play out their thought experiments -– a country that happens to be surrounded by genocidal enemies on at least three borders, that happens to stand in the midst of a region in turmoil, that happens to be the only Jewish State in the world.
If my classmates have decided on a better global political framework, they should advocate for it locally. If they want to dismantle state institutions, they should do it in ways that affect them, and they should suffer the consequences. They should not return to the 20th Century practice of global superpowers drawing arbitrary borders in Southwest Asia, forcing rival factions into single, unsustainable states and watching the Semitic peoples about whom they pretend to care die by the hundreds of thousands in multilateral civil wars. Certainly, those of them who are Jewish should acknowledge more nuance in the ways in which Israel and Zionism are unique.
While Zionism has taken on the form of a nationalist movement, its essence is far deeper than that. Zionism is the Jewish liberation movement, the call for Jewish solidarity, justice, and equality on the world stage. As of now, the world’s political order is comprised primarily of nation-states, and as a result it is through the possession of a nation-state that Jews have found a voice. In a different global system, Zionism would take a different form, but it would still embody the same basic principles: the Jews are entitled to all of the same rights and representation as everyone else in the world, and we will stand up for those rights. We are not passive victims, but active, free people who make decisions for ourselves and fight for each other.
The State of Israel is Zionism incarnate. It is a country in the historic Jewish homeland, for which Jewish scholars, writers, worshippers, storytellers, and dreamers have pined for centuries. It is a seat for the Jews at the United Nations, a refuge when we are tormented in and expelled from parts of the Diaspora, an army that defends us against formidable foes. It is at the heart of Jewish industry, knowledge production, and culture.
Certainly, I disagree with many Israeli policies. The Jewish people are diverse and its members hold a wide range of opinions. Israel represents that range, and I am often frustrated, even offended, by the outcome. But that does not change the basic importance of Israel to Jewish existence. I still love Israel for providing a home to Jews from all over the world. I still love its beautiful melding of Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Sephardi, and other cultures; I was moved when an Israeli dancing presentation organized by Brown’s Hebrew Program featured both the klezmer music of my childhood and Southwest Asian drumming rhythms. I still love its contributions to Jewish academia; I understand my own history and culture that much better because of the work of Israeli scholars. I still love that the Jewish state is at the cutting edge of irrigation and water conservation technology, humanitarian aid projects, medical research, and so much more. Israel, for all of its faults, is for me a source of pride.
When Brown students advocate for Israel’s demise, they are misunderstanding all of that. They are refusing to see Israel as the nuanced, complicated country that it is, instead choosing the Jewish state again and again as the scapegoat against which to vent their frustrations with the global political order. So obsessed are they with the idea of engineering Israel and Palestine along the same outside-imposed, one-state model as previous orientalists and imperialists did Syria and Iraq that they have lost all sense of critical thinking around this issue.
One particularly dangerous outgrowth of that simplistic portrayal of Israel is the delusional conflation of American anti-Zionism with support for the Palestinian nationalist cause. In effect, the most direct result of American anti-Zionism, especially among Jews in the United States, is to minimize the prospects for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After disastrous withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and Southern Lebanon, and as it becomes increasingly clear that had Israel withdrawn from the Golan Heights decades ago Israeli citizens would today be threatened by ISIS bombs, it is easy to understand Israeli apprehension at the idea of withdrawing from the West Bank. When Israelis seek peace, they are putting their lives, their homes, and their children’s futures at risk. Naturally, it is more likely that they will be comfortable making such serious gambles if they feel that the United States, and especially American Jews, understand them, appreciate their struggles, care about their security, and will support them if the Palestinian leadership betrays them yet again. Those of us who truly care about coexistence, who genuinely want to end the occupation and pave the way to Palestinian statehood, must empower Israelis to make sacrifices for peace.
The charged and buzzword-ridden topic of Israel and Palestine is prone to oversimplification. An anti-Zionist campaign against nuance has established a sharp dichotomy between support for Jewish liberation, on the one hand, and Palestinian liberation, on the other. I would like to see my classmates rise above that dichotomy to think not only about Palestinian concerns but about Israeli concerns as well, to see both the good and the bad in countries that they do not inhabit, to criticize thoughtfully rather than condemning blindly, and to work toward a productive dialogue and a two-state solution.