Nearly two years ago, the three of us arrived on this campus as Jewish teens inoculated with an intense fear of the Israeli/Palestinian debate. We had been told for years in day school and summer camp that we would be provoked by anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric—presented to us as synonymous—and warned that we would be made to feel ashamed of our Jewish identities.
What we actually found ourselves confronting when we arrived at Columbia, however, was the way our education and socialization in the mainstream Jewish world hadn’t prepared us for the conversations about Israel/Palestine happening on college campuses. We had been lied to and deceived by our teachers, parents, camp counselors, role models, and community leaders. We came to realize just how much the Jewish community has yet to reckon with the violence and dispossession that American Jews are complicit in perpetuating.
When we first came to this campus, we felt that Israeli Apartheid Week was an affront to our very existence as Jewish students, because we had been taught to conflate criticism towards Israeli apartheid—the practices of systemic discrimination and state violence against Palestinians—with criticisms of Jewish identity. What we hadn’t learned from our combined 26 years of Jewish day school, countless hours spent in Hebrew school and synagogue, and years of Jewish summer camp, was that Judaism could flourish without the need for ethnonationalism—the supremacy of Jewish ethnic identity in the State of Israel—or racist apartheid policies. We hadn’t learned that that those policies were being enacted in our name and in the name of all Jewish people.
We had been lied to, but more than that, we had been raised in a community that failed to face the anti-democratic reality of the State of Israel. Rather than being taught to pursue justice for all—Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and non-Jews—we had been told to defend Israel at all costs. Some of us who grew up in liberal Zionist communities had been taught a watered-down version of this: that we should care for others, for the Palestinians, and that we could criticize Israel’s racist policies so long as that criticism didn’t threaten the ethnoracial makeup of our Jewish-majority state.
Retrospectively, it’s hard to justify why we fell for this narrative—how we could somehow stand against racism while defending a state’s ideology that privileged us as Jews above all others. It makes sense, though, because, to quote a recent monologue from the Israeli television show “Good Night with Assaf Hare,” “It doesn’t take much to sedate the satiated side of the apartheid.”
What we really needed as we were growing up was a community that confronted Israeli occupation, dispossession, and violence. We needed a community that could shout with their loudest voices against apartheid policies, racist immigration laws, and human rights violations. We needed a community that taught its children that particularistic ethnonationalism and Jewish exceptionalism have no place in Judaism, a religion that acknowledges its own liberation as inherently linked to the liberation of others.
We needed our community to stop conflating anti-Zionism and criticism of the State of Israel with anti-Semitism and to recognize that one can criticize Israel as a geopolitical player without criticizing the Jewish people at large. This conflation only served to drive us further into our chauvinistic shells of violent nationalism and obscured the very real and increasing threat of genuine anti-Semitism on the rise.
We deserved an upbringing that didn’t hide from its complicity in Israeli apartheid, that didn’t rely on ethnonationalism as the answer to Jewish communal suffering, and that didn’t tie our very existence as Jews to a political ideology rooted in ideas of national exclusivity. But we can’t change our childhoods and our years of socialization in Jewish communities, so we must look to our campus as a place to learn, unlearn, and grow.
Because of this, when we came to campus, we cringed at the word “apartheid” when it was used to describe Israel; we shied away from political debates surrounding Israel and Palestine. This year during Israeli Apartheid Week, we saw our fellow Jewish students do the same. We heard countless excuses for why students don’t engage, for why they don’t support Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, and for why they disagree with the rhetoric of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, causing them to turn their backs on campus discourse surrounding Palestinian liberation.
We, as Jewish students of Columbia, Barnard, and Jewish Theological Seminary, must be better than this. Our history is one that is rooted in dispossession, fear, loss, and diaspora. We are Jews with lasting generational trauma. We must confront this and reckon with it; we must work with those facing similar traumas of dispossession, similar fears, similar losses, and similar diaspora today.
It makes sense why Jewish students on this campus see Israeli Apartheid Week as an affront to their Jewish identities. However, it is not because JVP, SJP, or even the BDS movement wish to delegitimize Jewish existence or peoplehood. Rather, it is due to the fact that for years the Jewish community has chosen to cover its eyes and plug its ears, screaming “I can’t hear you” at any mention of human rights violations, apartheid, state violence, expulsion, or ethnic cleansing, and has chosen to label the people who do make those claims as anti-Semites and self-hating Jews. Not only is this wrong, it dangerously conflates the violent policies of the Zionist state with a meaningful Jewish existence in the diaspora.
We have a responsibility to engage in the difficult conversations that were highlighted during Israeli Apartheid Week, to reject the status quo in Israel/Palestine and in Jewish communities here. Perhaps when we wake up, we will realize that events like Israeli Apartheid Week can be tools for self-reflection, growth, education, and change. Israeli Apartheid Week isn’t an insult to our identities as Jewish people. It’s a week dedicated to demanding that our Judaism be a Judaism of morals, that our Judaism not be tied to ethnic nationalism, and that our Judaism be a religion and culture of liberation and redemption for all.
The authors are all members of Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace. If you’re interested in engaging further with this subject or with JVP’s work, reach out to any of the authors. Sophie Edelhart is a sophomore in the double degree program between the Jewish Theological Seminary and Barnard studying history and modern Jewish studies. Jack Snyder is a sophomore in the joint program between the Jewish Theological Seminary and School of General Studies studying Jewish literature and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. Eliza Moss-Horwitz is a sophomore at Barnard studying religion and education.
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