With the much-anticipated discussion by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who wrote the controversial book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” coming up Friday, it is worth taking an introspective look at the state of campus activism on the Israeli-Palestinian debate. Imagine, for a moment, a campus organization dedicated to promoting the public image of America. What kinds of events might it sponsor? Would it distribute favorite American foods like cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza on the Diag? Or would it issue press releases, declaring America a beacon for unfettered democracy where racism and sexism remain memories of the past?
The absurdity is that if you replace “America” with “Israel,” you are closer to understanding the perspective of the pro-Israel campus community, particularly the American Movement for Israel and Israel IDEA. Unlike most advocacy organizations that endeavor to right some current injustice, I believe that the pro-Israel community seeks to maintain the status quo, be it just, unjust or simply detestable.
I should, however, point out a few noteworthy exceptions. The pro-Israel community offers free samples of the historic staple foods of Eastern European Zionists – falafel and hummus – to masses of hungry college students. Of course, fried food could be the ultimate source of hope for peace in the Middle East. It also sponsors concerts by Israeli musicians.
Pro-Israel advocacy groups try to bring about their goal of a “safe and secure Israel” living next to a safe and secure Palestine. However, these are not the only injustices of the status quo. Israeli soldiers often endure conditions of extreme boredom, so AMI works to raise enough money to purchase a new billiards table earmarked for an Israeli military base. In short, the pro-Israel community wants peace and is willing to distribute hummus, sponsor concerts and buy a billiards table to prove it.
But this community really does want to change the status quo. It wants a discussion with pro-Palestinian groups, only to claim the moral high ground when their counterparts decline their supposedly generous overtures. The microcosm is truly remarkable. If only AMI and Students Allied for Freedom and Equality could just sit down for a meaningful chat, then people in Gaza could have enough electricity to run their hospitals and water plants and Sderot residents enough money to build steel-reinforced roofs on daycare centers and elementary schools.
Pro-Israel advocacy groups also want you to know that Arabs enjoy full participation in Israeli democracy and are even represented in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. They can participate as long as there aren’t too many Arabs in the parliament, lest Israel cease to have a Jewish majority. This is part of the identity struggle of being “American Zionists,” as opposed to real Zionists willing to take one for the team, move to Israel and help solve the imminent demographic threat faced by those Arab parliamentarians. How silly of me to overlook the injustices of identity crises.
Pro-Israel advocacy groups will concede that Israel is far from perfect. This admission is very important for them, but these groups usually neglect to clarify why Israel isn’t perfect and how to change things so that Israel could be. I, for one, would love to help make Israel perfect, but they just won’t tell me how.
Then these advocacy groups accuse people like me of unfairly picking on Israel and the pro-Israel community, calling it a latent form of anti-Semitism, despite the fact that the human rights violations of Israel pale in comparison to other states. My only response is that, to the best of my knowledge, no other state in the world claims to represent me as a Jew, act in my name and defend my interests. No other state so flagrantly privileges me as a Jew over many of its own citizens. No other state will fly me across the ocean, give me citizenship (so long as I can prove I am a “real” Jew), a place to live, language instruction, monthly stipends and a free university education. And in the words of my personal hero, Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
As we approach the much-anticipated Walt and Mearsheimer event, I encourage the pro-Israel community to move beyond the status quo. I believe the problems facing Israel and Palestine transcend hummus, music and billiards. No longer will the peace rhetoric, calls for dialogue, Arab rights jargon and accusations of anti-Semitism get Israelis and Palestinians to stop killing each other. Let’s use the upcoming event to critically re-evaluate our own objectives and strive for some real-world positive changes in the status quo.
-Zachary Foster is a University alum. He is a Graduate Research Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.