Criticize Israel, but listen to your Jewish peers
In October 2018, I was invited to lead a workshop on “Interfaith Understanding” for students of the National Society for Minorities with Distinction. Standing in two concentric circles, the students courageously shared their experiences with prejudice, prejudice and hatred on their campuses. These were not just accounts of microaggressions and hypotheses formulated; They were mostly fear stories: the fear of seeing a noose on campus. To have fellowship boys pointing their cars at you, only to swerve at the last minute.
I listened. I sympathized. I was an ally. But I was not afraid.
At the airport the next day, I learned of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. An armed man opened fire during Saturday morning services, slaughtering 11 worshipers, including two mentally disabled members of the congregation, who were serving as hosts that day.
I am often a guest at my synagogue, Touro, here in Uptown New Orleans. I was now scared.
In the almost three years since that shooting, my synagogue has received funds to increase our security. We built a fence and installed improved lighting. Along with other board members, I received training (from a former member of the Israel Defense Forces) on how, as an assistant, to recognize and respond to a potential threat. (Tip: Watch out for men in long coats on hot summer days.)
During these three years, anti-Jewish incidents and attacks, according to the ADL, have increased dramatically. As a professor whose teaching and research frequently focuses on the role of faith in intersectional identity and the lessons of the Holocaust for today, I am struck by the paucity of anti-Semitism (prejudices and anti-Jewish hatred) in conversations about racism and hatred, even at a university with a social justice mission, like Loyola. And, as anti-Jewish attacks have escalated following violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians last May (Jewish diners assaulted at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, cries like “Rape their daughters!” Against Jews in London, attacks on men wearing kippahs in several cities, including Times Square in New York), I listened in astonishment to the radio silence of the university community in the face of this racially motivated form of violence.
My grandmother was born in what is now Israel around 1905. Her 1919 emigration papers, issued by the Turkish government just after World War I, declare her from Palestine. When, during a visit to Israel in 1977, my uncle took her on a detour to see the pyramids of Egypt, we discovered that she was fluent in Arabic (or “Arabic” as she put it. ). In her village, she grew up with Arabs, and although the communities largely closed, they were united in their dislike of the occupying Turks.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the actions of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians, are deeply painful to me, and a topic for another day. How to find a solution that respects the rights of Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians on this tiny piece of land, is one of the big questions of our time.
Spoiler alert: I’m not going to fix this today.
Rather, I would like us to think about the rhetoric we use when we have this conversation.
Criticism of Israel is not by definition anti-Jewish, but too often it crosses the line. Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli government minister, developed what he calls “the three-D test” to help distinguish legitimate criticism from anti-Semitism.
Demonization: when Israel is presented as the one and only responsible for the tensions in the Middle East; Israel’s actions are confused with those of the Nazis and Nazi Germany, or are presented as confirmation of Hitler’s hate ideology (see #Hitlerwasright);
Double standards: When Israel is singled out for human rights violations that are ignored when perpetrated by other countries (for example, when Israel is condemned by the United Nations, but not China, the Iran, Syria or Cuba);
Delegitimization: when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied.
The “three Ds” provide a starting point for constructive thinking that can guide us, at a minimum, in developing a stronger knowledge base for discussing this difficult topic. And in fact,
one of the great goals of college should be the occasion for difficult conversations. As a teacher for over thirty years, what I consider essential is not whether you study business, Latin American studies or the music industry, but how you learn to have constructive conversations. beyond differences, to respectfully listen to others with differing opinions (rather than stomping their feet, impatiently waiting for them to finish so you can hold on), to make a workable compromise or at least agree to d disagree when grabbing loaded fries at Dat Dog.
My grandmother, as I said, was born in Israel. And, as a person identified as a Jew born to Jewish parents and grandparents, I could, if I chose, claim Israeli citizenship which is, according to their constitution, my “birthright.” (Again, a conversation for another day.)
But I am not an Israeli citizen, I am an American citizen. And American Jews, like pretty much every ethnic group in this country, are not a monolith, voting at the same rate and based on global concern. Nor, for that matter, Israeli Jews, who have a wide range of feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Let me ask you: because you are an American, would you want to be held personally responsible for every decision of the Trump administration? Or the Biden? Aren’t such assumptions very close to the racial profiling and systemic biases that have finally become a staple of the national conversation over the past year?
Criticize Israel’s policies. Better yet, go learn more about the Middle East by taking one of Professor Moazami’s wonderful courses. (He and I don’t always disagree, but we always get along.) But think about 3-D and how we might evolve into constructive conversation, instead of demonizing (and demoralizing) the disagreement.