Learning How to Speak – Israel in light of Egypt

Written by Michal Rosenoer, program coordinator for Behrend Builders and our 2010-2011 AVODAH fellow.

This past weekend, I got into a discussion with a few friends about how the current unrest in Egypt might affect Israel’s stance in the Middle East. Excitedly, I jumped right into the conversation and afterward was proud of myself for being able to engage in a debate about Israel from a political, historical, and even a Jewish perspective (I didn’t have a lot to say, but hey, I was able to participate). This morning, I read an article on just this issue which helped me clarify in my own mind why I had been so satisfied with the dialogue; not only was I informed enough to speak at least a little, but at no point did the conversation go from being about Israel to being about Jews. Even when we discussed the post-Holocaust value of Israel, nobody claimed that “the Jews” were to blame for any of Israel’s political shortcomings. While there are in fact lots of Jews in Israel, it’s imperative that we remember to distinguish between a country’s politics and its people, and it’s people from their religious affiliation. Right now this is an extremely relevant point to be made; as Egypt chooses a new government (hopefully), it is important that rest of the world, if we are to judge, judges the politics and merits of the group without stooping to xenophobia.

The question of “Israel” – yes, it can be that general and grammatically incorrect – is one that I have been grappling with for about six years. As a college student at the Left Coast University of California, Berkeley I was often confronted with a harsh if not violent anti-Zionist presence on campus, one that actually became relatively dangerous during my junior year when students from a pro-Palestine group and their counterparts in a conservative Zionist organization broke out in multiple fist fights, landing themselves in court. These were my first experiences with anti-Israel sentiment, and for the first time in my life, I found myself surrounded by people that not only spoke about Israel as a political entity, but quite often disagreed with its general existence. Granted, middle ground or at least apolitical Jewish life at Cal definitely existed, but at a liberal school with a history like Berkeley’s, it wasn’t unusual to see fake “checkpoints” set up in front of Sather Gate with young men dressed in Israeli military uniforms, holding fake rifles and Israeli flags, yelling and pushing students as they walked into campus. Student groups like the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as well as a variety of progressive political groups often held rallies that were pro liberation-movement if not subversively anti-Israel throughout my stay at Cal, and multiple times I attended meetings or rallies hosted by these groups just to see what was going on. When I started at Cal, I had never really been asked to define my feelings about Israel, but it was hard to escape it in an environment as radical and outspoken as Berkeley’s.

It was not the anti-Israel sentiment that I minded so much however; while I was unprepared for my own visceral responses to the protests and the often heated debates that followed, I actually think that speaks to the general lack of Israel education we teach our Jewish youth – which is a topic for another post. Regardless,what did bother me and continues to worry me today is that all-too-often, what starts as anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli political movements on campuses often translates to viral, insidious anti-Semitism. For example, not long after the aforementioned SJP vs. Zionist group violence broke out, swastikas were graffited all over campus. This example is almost too concrete for the actions I hope to describe; often times, discussions that started about Gaza often just deteriorated into messy, hateful, religiously-oriented one-upping. In fact, as a testament to how diffuse and caustic this kind of talk can be, even as an AVODAH fellow and JCC staffer, I still feel uncomfortable wearing a Star of David; my resistance to being openly Jewish is, while maybe antiquated, also very real for me in a large part due to the melding of anti-Israel politics with anti-Semitism that I experienced in college.

Thus, while I openly support exploratory, curious, respectful dialogue about Egypt, Israel, and their evolving relationship, I implore people to keep their discussions focused on the facts and away from religious scapegoating. We aren’t going to resolve these issues sitting at our dinner tables here in the States. Allowing our fears or feelings to drag us into stereotyping does nothing but set a bad example for others, complicate the already painful conflict, and hurt people like…me.

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