This week, Aryeh, Columbia and Barnard Hillel's pro-Israel advocacy group, is holding a series of events "to highlight aspects of Israel [they] are especially proud of"—its humanitarian aid work, sustainability efforts, and start-up culture.
Aryeh claims that its week-long advocacy for Israel is "apolitical." However, Israel Week omits many harsh truths about Israel that Aryeh doesn't bring to the attention of the Columbia community. In fact, there can be no such thing as an "apolitical" celebration of Israel so long as the aspects of Israel that Aryeh would celebrate—humanitarian aid, scientific progress, and economic opportunity—are systematically denied to Palestinians and asylum seekers.
The fallacy of an apolitical Israel Week is evident in the discrepancy between the aid Israel provides abroad and the dire need for aid in Palestine. On Monday night, Aryeh hosted representatives from the humanitarian organization IsraAID to speak about their efforts to help Syrian refugees in Europe and Jordan. But any discussion of Israel's aid to refugees without mention of the Palestinian refugee crisis—a crisis that Israel created and continues to sustain—is hypocritical.
This hypocrisy is borne out by Israel's actions both past and present. Upon the founding of the state in 1948, Israel expelled 700,000 Palestinians from its borders, causing a refugee problem that has expanded alongside the state to this day. Now, through military and juridical land seizures, Israel continues to expel Palestinians from their land. Israeli courts regularly deny Palestinians in the occupied West Bank the building permits required to repair and maintain their homes. These Palestinians are then evicted by the Israeli military and are forced to find shelter elsewhere. Their land is often turned over to Jews settling the area. If Israelis were serious about offering aid to refugees, as Aryeh suggests they are, they might begin by helping those whose villages have been and continue to be leveled.
Besides the Palestinian refugee crisis in the West Bank, Israel commits a multitude of humanitarian offenses that Aryeh does not acknowledge. The same items—food, medicine, shelter—that IsraAID provides to refugees, the Israeli state restricts in its unending blockade of Gaza. Moreover, rather than admit or aid asylum seekers coming to Israel from Eritrea and Sudan, Israel detains them in camps where they are treated as prisoners and prevented from working. The refugees' only alternative is to self-deport and return to their home countries, where they may face violence and persecution.
Humanitarian aid is a laudable and much-needed endeavor. But Aryeh's event failed to draw awareness to the plight of refugees. Instead, it touted IsraAID's merits, focusing far more on Israeli aid workers than on the refugees themselves. Aryeh subtly but deliberately co-opted the relevance and importance of the Syrian crisis for its own advocacy goals. By inviting IsraAID, an Israeli NGO providing aid to Syrian refugees, Aryeh diverted attention from Israel's ongoing oppression of asylum seekers and Palestinians. Aryeh is capitalizing on a common humanitarian impulse in order to garner and reinforce ideological support for a state whose actions are far from humanitarian.
In response to accusations of political insensitivity, Aryeh reiterated that the IsraAID event would be "apolitical." But no honest discussion of Israeli humanitarian efforts can be severed from Israel's mistreatment of asylum seekers and Palestinians. It seemed that even the IsraAID speaker, Yotam Polizer, could not avoid making poorly masked references to the conflict. On several occasions during the event, the irony of Israelis helping Arabs was pointed out. That explaining IsraAID's humanitarian work required references to the conflict demonstrates the fallacy that Israel Week could ever be apolitical.
Aryeh attempts to present an image of Israel beyond the conflict by highlighting elements of Israeli society that are seemingly unrelated to Palestine. Such events don't present an image of Israel beyond the conflict, but rather an image of Israel without one. This is simply dishonest and inaccurate. Aryeh's "apolitical" Israel Week misinforms Columbia students by offering a sanitized representation of Israeli society and concealing Israel's oppressive policies. The reality is that all sectors of Israeli society—political, economic, and social—benefit from and are complicit in the ongoing violence enacted by the state. Selectively withholding information that is key to understanding Israel's role in global politics does a disservice to the students on this campus who are looking to learn.
During the event, the notion that Jews have a particular responsibility to aid refugees and victims of humanitarian crises everywhere was emphasized repeatedly. We agree. But that includes the crises perpetuated by the state of Israel. Jewish Voice for Peace believes that as a people who have been historically oppressed, Jews have a responsibility to support efforts to dismantle oppression wherever it appears. It is crucial that students on this campus continue to ask questions and think critically about the way Israel is portrayed. We feel that wherever groups like Aryeh obscure or hide oppression, we as Jews and as human beings have a duty to expose essential facts.
Max Fineman is a Columbia College sophomore studying philosophy. Marina Hansen is a Columbia College sophomore. They are both members of Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace. This piece is written on behalf of Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace.
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