Living Contradictions

mixed signals

One sunny day last April, I found myself, for the first time in my life, scared to speak up. A very vocal girl from a tender age, even among those smarter, louder and meaner than myself, I never had any trouble expressing my views about anything, especially politics. So when I realized I was afraid to speak, I knew there was something wrong.

A born and bred lefty who's only gotten lefty-er in her early adulthood, you might imagine I was in a sea of Klan members or a Christian Coalition meeting or even a Republican-dominated dinner party. I wasn't. I was participating in a political prisoners conference at my liberal college. The panelists included anti-imperialists and black liberationists, and the attendees were students I knew from my sociology class, activists I had supported in their various causes, and friends. I doubt there was a bone right of liberal in the entire room.

Everything started fine, but when the talk turned from prisoners to Palestinians, the atmosphere changed and my historic love for the left suddenly faltered. I agreed with people's initial comments: Sharon's encroachment into Palestinian territory was unjustified and the Israeli forces should immediately withdraw. The Palestinians were entitled to self-determination as a dispossessed nation. But soon, the focus shifted from making peace to placing blame: Israel is an oppressor on par with Hitler and the Nazis. Israel stole land from the Palestinians and should return it to them in full, regardless of the Israeli's right to self-determination and their own state. In fact, Israel deserved no such rights.

My heart broke. For the first time in a long time, I cried in public, and needed to leave the conference. I had to get out of there, because I was scared the other activists would see my tears and know exactly what I was feeling. My lefty membership card might be permanently revoked.

I set out to find others like myself:


Anti-Semitism, n. Opposition to, or hatred of, Semites, esp. Jews.

Hillel, n. Jewish student life organization at college campuses.

Zionism, n. A Jewish movement that arose in the late 19th century in response to growing anti-Semitism and sought to reestablish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Modern Zionism is concerned with the support and development of the state of Israel.

Jewish students who identify with left politics, but, due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are now re-thinking that relationship. This re-evaluation stems from a unique position. While most of America, most Jews and most of the left still support Israel even if they do not support Prime Minister Sharon's recent policies, many young lefties do not. In fact, the radical college left is nearly the only secular, non-ethnic group that has rallied for the Palestinians.

The radical left is particularly strong on college campuses, where some of the most dynamic, and often divisive, activism occurs. The heated, heady campus milieu provides tinder for explosive debates in which more than mere politics is at stake. At college, students work to define themselves in terms of culture, ethnicity, religion and lifestyle. Debates get very personal, and very polarized, often into diametrical "for-thises" or "anti-thats." The rhetoric surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian crisis illustrates this perfectly -- students latch onto terms like "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine" despite their shortcomings in promoting real dialogue, and hopefully, reconciliation.

While campus support of the Palestinians does not necessarily entail blanket opposition to Israel's existence, it often has. The media plays up conflicts between protesters and the extremes of either position to the extent that many people don't even know that a middle ground exists. Yet because the American left is a third party in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has the potential to serve as an unbiased mediator and an advocate for peace. When the radical left offers only anti-Zionism, it matches the Bush administration's unquestioning support of Israel with its own brand of ideological fundamentalism. It remains to be seen whether activists will embrace their unique position, or squander it.

Dueling Rallies
Rebekah Stern, like many Jewish students, supports both the Israeli and Palestinian claims to statehood. She is an American, a Jew and a rising senior at the University of California at Berkeley. This spring, she witnessed the breakdown of communication between student protesters. April 9 marked both Yom Ha'Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Deir Yassin, the anniversary of the massacre of over 100 Palestinians by the Israeli militia. Jewish students reading the names of relatives who died in the Holocaust were interrupted by members of Students for Justice in Palestine who had been informed of the day's significance. They chose to proceed with their rally as planned, one activist telling the Berkeley Daily Californian that they were using their Yom Ha'Shoah to prevent another genocide--that of the Palestinians by Israel.

Jewish counter-protesters traded insults with SJP members. The rallies did not turn physically violent, as mounting campus tensions had led many to fear: an anonymous attacker assaulted two identifiably Jewish students only a few days before, and during the previous month, the campus Hillel suffered a smashed door and anti-Semitic scrawl.

At best, the Jewish students participating in the memorial ceremony found the SJP's disturbance (they staged their demonstration in the same plaza) in poor taste. At worst, they felt deeply insulted and alienated by the protesters. To them, the SJP appeared opportunistic and seemed to fail to respect the day's great significance for American Jews. Rebekah says, "I was there. I was reading the names of victims of the Holocaust." She doesn't attack the SJP protesters, but bemoans the antagonistic politics that ensued: "What was terrible was that it became a competition of which situation was worse, and the death of innocent people became politicized. It was awful. Those of us who were there to remember a tragedy in Jewish history were pegged as right-wing pro-Israel activists, which was not the case. . . It's tough when, as an American Jew, I am called a Nazi because I support the existence of a Jewish state." Berkeley student Micki Weinberg echoes her sentiments -- "I was told that Israeli checkpoints were as bad as Nazi death camps."

Rachelle Neskes, a Religious Studies major with a concentration in Islam, observed a distressing incident at the dueling rallies.

The heated, heady campus milieu provides tinder for explosive debates in which more than mere politics is at stake.

A friend of hers accused a Jewish anti-Zionist protester of being a traitor; a black passerby then called Rachelle's friend a slave owner, and told her "Fuck you and your people." Ugly as this may be, the situation did not turn as bad as a pro-Israel rally at San Francisco State University, where students claim to have heard counter-protesters shout "Hitler didn't finish the job." Of course, the pro-Israel demonstrators showed no more kindness: calls of "terrorists" and "Arab losers" met the ears of the Palestinian supporters.

This sort of nastiness plagues responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on college campuses. Where we most require thoughtful discussion and even heated debate, we find, on both sides, anger, pettiness and some not-so latent bigotry.

Divided Loyalties
Daniel Schleifer laments the factors that have led to such vicious polarization. He is a pre-med student and Ethnic Studies major at Brown University, and grew up at my progressive synagogue in Philadelphia--we were in the same Hebrew school class for many years. Daniel now describes himself as culturally rather than spiritually Jewish. At Brown, he has immersed himself in the activist community, and says that at this time, the activist component of his identity is more important to him than his Jewishness.

Daniel describes the Israeli state as illegitimate because it actualized and persists though Western imperialism, although in general, he notes, he doesn't "care too much for states." He believes that "any responsible radical should be against something that's responsible for racially-coded violence," meaning Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. His position on the conflict is one-sided, but not simplistic. He distinguishes between anti-Zionism (sentiment against the state of Israel) and anti-Semitism. While he supports anti-Zionism, he acknowledges the failings of many leftists to promote it responsibly. "I find that those who are actually doing anti-Zionist work are knowledgeable and can articulate it thoughtfully. However, most people aren't actually doing that work, and many of them discuss anti-Zionism in a way that betrays how incomplete their knowledge of the situation is."

Anti-Zionism is different from anti-Semitism, as many Jews are the first to point out. Yet anti-Zionism with anti-Semitic undertones has stopped some Jews from expressing their opposition to Israeli military action. In Naomi Klein's article "Sharon's Best Weapon," she notes that he uses anti-Semitism to keep Jews scared and himself in power. Leftist anti-Semitism is perhaps the most insidious of any form, because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish from legitimate criticism of Israel, and because it alienates Jews from a past political ally.

Anti-Zionism with anti-Semitic undertones has stopped some Jews from expressing their opposition to Israeli military action.

Jon, a Berkeley graduate student, would like to voice his objection to Israeli tactics, but has kept silent because of the anti-Semitism he perceives as lurking in the debate. He describes an experience at one of the early rallies against the war in Afghanistan, where he says he was shocked and dismayed by the anti-Semitic rhetoric of some Palestinian supporters. Jon says, "As a Jew, I felt that I was not in a safe space, even if I held similar views concerning the War on Terrorism and Israeli policies."

The Jewish ties to the American left and to leftist radicalism, in particular, have always been strong. Jews played prominent roles in American socialism and the Civil Rights Movement. According to a 1999 Zogby poll, approximately two-thirds of Jews register to vote as Democrats. Less than 20% of Jews identify themselves as conservative, as compared to about 35% in most other groups. Yet some Jewish students not only criticize the campus left's position on this issue, they have actually begun to abandon it altogether. Rachelle, a self-described "Naderite" and hippie co-opper, says the left's response to the crisis has left her feeling like she has little common ground with her radical friends. She says she has become more conservative on this issue and in general.

If Rachelle is not alone, then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may provoke a widespread re-examination of the Jewish relationship to the left. In an increasingly reactionary nation, Jewish support is important to the continued existence and expansion of left politics; the radical left (at least the branches of it that frequent college campuses) may be losing some of its staunchest allies. In that sense, glimpses of leftist anti-Semitism are not only repugnant, they are dangerously counter-productive.

A blanket anti-Israel agenda estranges many Jews even when it is not motivated by anti-Semitism, and has led some to opt out of activism despite their considerable sympathy for the Palestinian plight. Disenchanted lefty Micki Weinberg is one student who's got an axe to grind with political dogma. He says that he grew up "enthralled with the romance of the left." When he arrived at Berkeley, Micki's attitude towards the left changed. He saw campus radicals "behaving in almost machine-like manner--Israel equals Occupation and Palestine equals Resistance--and nothing else." jew for peace Buzzwords such as "oppression" and "genocide" had supplanted reflection and discussion as the activist M.O. Micki says that college activism has been "an alienating experience." He says that when he and other Jews tried to get involved in protests against the war in Afghanistan, they were put off by anti-Israel rhetoric.

Where Rachelle found herself becoming more conservative, Micki has renewed his commitment to left politics. He says, "personally, I have not let the pretenders push me to the right. I do my best to involve myself in the issues I care about," as evidenced by his bid for a seat on city council.

Recent Brown graduate Zina Miller also refuses to be intimidated by dogma, either on the campus left or within the Jewish community. She resents the fact that Jews often expect her to be pro-Israel just because she is Jewish, just as she resents that her criticism of Israel is construed by some anti-Semites as support for their racist cause. Like Rebekah, Michael, Micki, Jon and Rachelle, Zina believes that both Israel and Palestine have the right to national self-determination, as long as that right does not preclude peace and the survival of its neighbor.

Zina's take on the relationship between her Judaism and her activism is refreshing. She says, "They are inseparable to me. I am an activist because, as a Jew, I was taught to assist and care for the Jewishness is constantly informed by my activism. I cannot imagine who I'd be were I not both of these." This is consistent with the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam (healing the world) that Micki also cites as the primary motivator in his activism. For Zina, being a radical activist and a Jew means navigating some dire straits -- "It sucks being both on this issue."

Groups like the Jewish Voice for Peace and the Tikkun Campus Network are working to present an agenda that supports both Israel and Palestine, and that makes peace and human rights its first priorities. These groups maneuver the same contradictions that Zina spoke of, and that many Jewish students, myself included, struggle with each day.

Zina understands what both anti-Israel activists and anti-Palestinian Jews do not. She says the terms "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestine" are oversimplified and misplaced. "I am certainly pro-Israel and undoubtedly pro-Palestine...they both need the same answer to this conflict: a two-state solution with adequate recognition of the political, economic and cultural needs of each. One cannot be properly pro-one side without being pro-both." Zina's point is crucial. If American activists can't make peace, how can Israel and Palestine?

Miriam Markowitz is a WireTap intern and rising junior at Brown University.


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