Middle East studies in the News
Why Jewish students are really silent
by Guy Spigelman
The lack of activism among Jewish students has as much to do with pro-Israel dogma as with anti- Israel sentiments, and will result in long-term damage to Israel's status among left-wing opinion leaders worldwide.
In bemoaning the rise of anti- Semitism and anti-Zionism on campuses in the U.S., Minister Natan Sharansky claimed (as reported in Haaretz on February 7) at the screening of the film "Columbia Unbecoming" that "The future leaders of American Jewry are becoming `Jews of Silence.'"
"Columbia Unbecoming" is a documentary, produced by a pro-Israel group from Boston, that highlights the general rise in anti-Israel and anti- Semitic sentiments on campus and portrays claims by pro-Israel students of intimidation by pro-Palestinian academic staff.
Sharansky accurately labels Jewish students as silent - but this is not only because of intimidation by anti-Israel forces, as he would like to believe.
At universities across the world from Europe to Australia to the U.S., Jewish students - inclined, as are all students, to lean towards the left during this period of life - are in a bind. They are torn between the communal message of unquestioning support for the state of Israel and their real concerns about the corrosive effects of occupying another people. There has been no room for a middle ground, one that says: "I love and support Israel, our fundamental rights to settle in the land of our forefathers, to live securely, etc. And at the same time I do not and cannot support Israel's continued status as an occupier."
So these Jews remain silent. With no place to feel "at home" ideologically they feel there is no point in confronting their anti-Israel professors nor debating the leaders of official Jewish organizations, most of whom defend Israel's every action.
Isn't it amazing that pro-Israel advocates repeatedly shout from all possible podiums that we are the only democracy in the Middle East (even though this claim may be a little out of date), yet as soon as we go out into the world we are only allowed to express one point of view?
Recently I visited Australia and took the time to visit some powerful and militant unions. When I walked in the door at one union, the first thing I saw was a large poster that shows a boy about to be trampled by a tank and has "Free Palestine" plastered on the bottom. The general secretary of the union explained that they have had two presentations to their executive about the Middle East, one from the PLO and the other from the Palestinian Labor Federation. Needless to say their public statements about Israel aren't exactly filled with praise for us.
Not feeling bound by the policies of Ariel Sharon's government (it was before Labor joined the coalition) I told him that Israel would be a lot better off if we left Gaza and the West Bank and I pointed to the polls that said that a majority of Israelis would agree if they could be guaranteed peace and security. He was shocked.
When he asked about the fence I responded by saying it is a "non-violent way to stop terror" as Senator Hillary Clinton so eloquently said after the ruling against Israel in The Hague (it's a pity our official spokespeople do not know how to string a punchy sentence like that together).
By relentlessly attacking Israeli policies and our right to defend ourselves, unions, academics and politicians around the world are doing a disservice to the cause of peace, as it weakens the left camp in Israel. "Where is the solidarity for our suffering?" I challenged the union's secretary general. He hadn't heard this perspective. At the end of the meeting he invited me to address his executive: a first, the Australian Jewish community told me. This is not rocket science, it simply shows that presenting a plurality of views can convince opinion leaders, especially those on the left, that Israel has a complex story and outright rejection of everything Israel does is unjust and unhelpful.
A few days later, at a local meeting, a group of students and young Jews associated with the Australian Labor Party expressed frustration at not being allowed to be proud of what they believe in: proud of Israel - yet critical of some of its policies. Some of their colleagues in Labor are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people, so the local Australian Zionist leaders accuse them of selling Israel out.
There are not enough members of Jewish communities prepared to enter into a dialogue with the left, let alone able to engage them empathetically. Israel and official Jewish organizations should be supportive of those on the Jewish left who are attempting to do the tough work of engaging those who are expressing anti-Israel views. It is a lot more difficult than speaking to the pro-Israel Christian right.
Minister Sharansky - if you want the future leaders of the Jewish community to stop being silent, to stop feeling like they are in Soviet Russia - encourage criticism and all streams of Jewish thought, left, right and in between to get out and make their many voices heard. Let them speak about Israel for good and for bad, warts and all. You may not like some of what they say - but if you don't let them say it, you may alienate them forever and be left with no foot-soldiers in the battle for public opinion, especially amongst academics, unions and left-wing politicians - who used to be Israel's greatest supporters.
The author is a candidate for the Labor list to the Knesset and edits Revival, the English-language news magazine of the Israeli Labor Party.
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