Op-Ed: Thinking critically when criticizing Israel

Monday, November 20, 2017 - 12:44pm

As a Jew who staunchly supports Israel’s right to exist, I will always have serious doubts about the intentions behind divesting from Israel. Yet, it was clear to me as I listened to appeals for creating a committee to investigate divestment at the Central Student Government vote last Wednesday that there are students on campus who are truly motivated by a deep-felt desire to uplift Palestinians without the intention of harming the Jewish people. Some I know personally, and I believe they did not take lightly the concerns for anti-Semitism voiced by Jewish and pro-Israel students. Despite this, they could not look past Palestinian oppression, and could not give up the opportunity to express their solidarity through divestment. 

While some might call their conviction admirable, I see it as flawed, dangerous and hurtful. To me, the debate over the resolution represents the crisis of our generation: having a compassionate heart, without the willingness or means to think critically. Even when intentions are pure, the failure to think critically when taking a stand on an issue can inflict damage and be counterproductive to the advancement of a cause.

The pro-divestment argument is fundamentally flawed in its failure to confront the disingenuousness of uplifting one group while hurting another. I believe the failure to engage seriously with this moral contradiction stems from a lack of understanding or belief in the reality of anti-Semitism. While it may not seem so from the perspective of our campus bubble, the Jewish people have suffered from a long history of oppression that still exists and will continue to exist. Israel is our security from that oppression, for history has shown that we cannot rely on anyone but ourselves to prevent another Holocaust.

Divestment is not merely critical of the occupation (as I am). Rather, it is an unfair attack on our haven, subjecting it to the same double standards and scapegoating that have plagued the Jewish people throughout history. A more thorough understanding of the history of the conflict would demonstrate that there are more than two players involved, and that many hold a measure of guilt. A refusal to engage with history, as evidenced by the shameful silencing of professor Victor Lieberman, leads to the double standard that points an accusatory finger solely at Israel.

Being silenced is not a form of oppression reserved solely for Palestinian students. A supporter of the resolution attempted to silence my voice by saying Jewish students have no right to tell Palestinian students what is an appropriate way to speak out against oppression. Says who? I have a right to criticize the way someone speaks out against oppression when that speech oppresses me, when it denies my homeland the means to the right of self-defense, when it seeks to insidiously damage the name of a country that is my source of pride and hope. A lack of critical thinking allows for simplistic dichotomies that pit oppressor against oppressed, paving the way for hypocritical moral indignation.

To me, this vote represents a failure to think critically about social justice in the era of President Donald Trump. I believe the resolution passed this year and not the past 11 because of the tidal wave of fury and indignation unleashed in the wake of Trump’s presidency. The tragic irony is that students striving for a symbolic victory for the resistance unthinkingly channel their fury and activism against a historically victimized people. Instead of trying to understand this factual historical narrative to make sense of an overwhelmingly complex conflict, in this political moment some students of color turn to an alternative social justice narrative of brutal colonizers, privileged bystanders and a victimized indigenous population, thereby excluding Jews from intersectional solidarity. Allies who stand in solidarity for justice for Palestinians: There is another way to do so without standing against justice for the Jewish people.

Finally, there was a failure to see why this resolution is unproductive in doing anything to actually improve the lives of Palestinians. This failure stems from an ignorance of the greater Arab-Israeli conflict, one filled with war and terror and has traumatized Israel and forces it into a position of vigilant military defense. It is hypocritical to allow terrorism to be explained away by an environment of oppression, while military force and resulting human rights abuses cannot be explained in part by a region of hostile neighbors seeking to destroy the Jewish state. Continuing to push Israel into a corner will do nothing to loosen its stance on military defense.

If the intentions of divestment are pure, why does standing in solidarity with Palestinians necessitate an unfair attack on Israel and my Jewish identity? Justice for Israel and justice for Palestinians are not mutually exclusive, as evidenced by various organizations working toward both goals while distinguishing between being critical of Israel’s government policies and negating its right to exist.

I think most supporters of this resolution got what they really wanted: a symbolic victory for Palestinians that requires a blow to Israel. I call on the ones who truly do not mean to harm Israel or single it out to come together with the Jewish community and think critically about how we will build real peace — between our communities on campus and for Israelis and Palestinians.

Avi Mendelson is a public policy senior.