A Call for Confusion: how misunderstanding underlies the way we speak about Israel

There is a problem with the way we speak about Israel: we treat it as a fantasy land, an idea, not a place. And the idea is simple, digestible, regardless of which end of the political spectrum you fall on: most foreigners lack depth in their knowledge of Israel, and the state becomes defined solely by the conflict with Palestine, by religion, or by the words of Binyamin Netanyahu (Bibi). For many who have never set foot in the country, or have, but neglected to look around them, Israel manifests as a static image. Of course, it would be ludicrous to suggest that Bibi, occupation, Jewish personhood, and religion do not represent realities of Israel; but on campus, people are selective in the realities they choose to acknowledge and to discuss, which does not allow for nuance in our understanding of the state, or dialogue, as opposed to discourse. The purpose of this article is to help us see how pro-Israel and anti-Israel groups on campus are, for the most part, operating under different conceptual frameworks (which often times intersect with the cultural identities of group members), each of which invalidates the other’s position as illegitimate without first understanding it on its own terms.

You see already trouble with phrasing: what do I mean by pro-Israel and anti-Israel? I am afraid these are the best terms I could come up with; they refer to no individual whatsoever, anyone is free to identify as they wish, but the idea behind these terms is that pro-Israel signifies a general camp often taken to play the role of defending Israel on campus, whereas I characterize anti-Israel as generally aligning with the principles of the BDS movement, although, of course, someone can support BDS and still believe Israel should exist, and similarly someone can defend Israel on campus and still be highly critical of the state. “Pro” and “anti” are relative terms in this sense and each person remains free to determine for themselves to what extent they support or oppose Israel. The problem on campus is precisely that we do not allow for depth in our beliefs; we have a system by which, if you want to engage with Israel on campus, you must effectively “take a side”, and often times the Palestinian side and the Israeli side are framed as mutually exclusive–in many ways this is a self fulfilling prophecy: if we structure something as a zero sum game, someone is bound to lose. I will attempt to ventriloquize these two general mindsets, to enter them into a dialogue with one another, although I claim to speak on nobody’s authority but my own: i.e. this is how I understand these mindsets.

During the #nomuslimban walkout, once protesters had already gathered, a banner was hung on the Multicultural Student Center, reading: “if you support Israeli apartheid you support a Muslim ban”. Several Jewish students walked up to me to express discomfort; they felt that they were singled out, that their identity was being de-legitimized, which presented to me a stark irony, as the banner protesting Israel was unfurled over another banner that read, “nothing matters when your identity is under attack”. But then, it seems strange for anyone to be upset, or to take the banner as an attack on identity; the statement on the banner is incredibly reasonable: if you believe that Israel should use policy to create apartheid between Jews and Muslims, then you are tacitly supporting principles of exclusion that resonate strongly in the American Muslim ban.

Many pro-Israel students were upset because they felt that the walkout had not been advertised as an event related to Israel, that they had been asked to rally under false pretenses, but I think this fails to appreciate the internal reasoning of the event organizers. This was an event first and foremost about Muslim solidarity—the executive order may present the most immediate threat to Muslims living in, or immigrating to the US, but it is also a reminder of a global growing trend of Islamophobia, in the US, in Europe, and yes, in Israel, it is a call for Muslims and their allies to unite against oppression. To suggest that the decision to include Israel was a distraction from the purpose of the event, a mere jab at the pro-Israel community, fails to acknowledge the critical importance the event organizers attributed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in relation to Muslim identity, and the identity of Muslim allies on campus (this, to me, is evident from the placement of the banner in the forefront of the protest). What was the purpose of the banner? To raise awareness about an issue, certainly, and also to create a demarcation in the audience between legitimate, and illegitimate protesters.

But, if one supports apartheid, if they do not recognize this protest as an act of Muslim solidarity, if they are only provisional humanitarians, how could they possibly be legitimate protestors? Here is where the problem of language comes in: the controversy surrounding the word “apartheid”. I’m a Jew, an Israeli moreover, and I oppose the occupation, so why should I care about the banner? The banner doesn’t say, “if you are Israeli, you support a Muslim ban”. This raises another important question: Can one not be a patriotic American and also oppose Trump? If not, then every liberal American should be anti-American, and if every liberal American takes on this position, they surrender American power to the tyranny they so despise. A similar question could be asked of Israeli patriotism. But the banner did not indict those who merely support Israel, but “Israeli apartheid.” Another reason a pro-Israel demonstrator may have been upset is that the rhetoric used to describe Trump’s Executive Order is as something diametrically opposed to core American principles, whereas one could take the banner to be suggesting that apartheid constitutes the spirit of Israel. We see similar sentiments in phrases such as “Zionism is racism,” which have become popularized in BDS campaigns; this would represent an attack on identity for someone who is a Zionist and ethically opposes racism, because they would hold an entirely different conception of Zionism–they are told what they believe even though they do not believe it. Here we see another problem with language, for Zionism is not a word that can be given a universally applicable definition; in its significance to different people it takes on different modes (e.g. religious, ideological, cultural, etc.), and within each mode there is constant internal disagreement. Interestingly, Theodor Herzl’s book, Der Judenstaat, which popularized modern Zionism, was a political doctrine written largely in opposition to European systems of social exclusion; it imagines Zion as a socialist utopia. This in no way preempts certain schools of Zionism developing away from what Herzl imagined, but it should demonstrate that there is no singular concept of Zionism, which makes discussing it difficult–but nobody said this was easy.

Bearing in mind the historical oppression faced by Jews, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Zionism can be seen as a movement aimed towards Jewish independence and self-determination; and still one must acknowledge the reality that, in its realization, Israel is a settler colonial state. Although, ‘colonialism’ can be a misleading term if we take it to mean the same thing in Israel as it does in the US, for it fosters the image of foreigners coming to a land they have no history with: this is clearly not the case with Jews and the land of Canaan. ‘Colonialism’ operates in a different way in Israel. This changes no facts about the damages to local Palestinian communities that the formation of the state caused; perhaps I am naive, but I do not think understanding colonialism within the context of Israel means ignoring Israel’s wrongdoings. So of course, the colonization of the African and American continents bears a predominantly nominal resemblance to the case of Israel; to blindly equate them would be to overlook the entire history of Judaism, Zionism, and anti-Semitism–a gross oversimplification. Nonetheless, one may argue that colonialism can never be legitimate—the implication being that the US, and other colonial states are inherently illegitimate in their foundation—and this poses a practical question about decolonization; does it call for displacement? —complete de-settlement? What would this look like in Israel, or the US? Decolonization could take place from within a colonial system, through civil rebellion and reform—this may be another option. Either way, another practical matter comes into mind: that of indigenous right. An argument can be made that Jews were originally displaced from their homeland by a settler colonial empire after the destruction of the Second Temple; and one cannot ignore that, even after the Jewish diaspora, historically there have always been Jews in Canaan (perhaps with minor discontinuities). But, Palestinians are similarly native to the land. Perhaps the problem is that we take territory to be an object, that can be indigenous to, owned by—and indeed, decolonization could mean the process of making people cease to think of land as an object of possession.

Yet, for the complexity of the issue, we see two predominant narratives about Israel in the aftermath of the #nomuslimban event: “we thought it was about solidarity, they made it about Israel” a pro-Israel activist might say; “it was about Muslim solidarity and intersectionality, they’re the ones focusing only on Israel” the anti-Israel activist responds. Each laughs at the cognitive dissonance of the other.

It would be remiss to raise problems of language without addressing the words used directly on the banner; in my mind,  a primary reason pro-Israel students were upset (aside from the fact that Israel was the only foreign non-muslim nation that was mentioned in the protest), is because the word “apartheid” is somewhat ambiguous in its use, and could be taken to unfairly represent Israel. In my opinion it is in many ways a misnomer. I am not in any way trying to minimize or trivialize the situation in Israel, the reality remains the same regardless of what we name it. Rather, my point is that the word apartheid suggests a structural similarity to South Africa, which does not allow for us to discuss difficult issues concerning Islamophobia and cultural tensions within the specific context of Israel. South Africa segregated by law within the state, whereas the oppressed Palestinians in question are explicitly not citizens of Israel: they live in Gaza and the West Bank, territories occupied by the Israeli military, but with a Palestinian authority (under Abbas), that is in opposition with Hamas (in Gaza). Yet we speak of the West Bank and Gaza as if they are the same place, under the same political conditions: they are seen solely as occupied territories, a singular problem to be solved in the same way, divestment, boycotts, and sanctions, without much attention paid to how implementation of such methods may harm Israeli citizens (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian), or whether they will truly sway the opinion of Israel’s right-wing Government, put in power by a scared citizenry under the promise that it will prioritize national security (sound familiar?). This similarity notwithstanding, many are quick to think that fear operates the same way in Israel as it does in the US, and ignore the unique geopolitical context–there is a saying, “Israel will only ever lose one war”. These protests also seldom focus on creating a self-sustaining Palestinian economy, or on stabilizing the territories so that it is easier for Israel to withdraw from them—although I recognize there may be a thin line between stabilization and normalization, which makes the situation tricky.

It is also possible that “apartheid” was intended to refer specifically to the territories, where there are gated Jewish settlements.  But even when I attribute the word a more specific meaning, I am left with a primary concern: most people know little to nothing about Israel–worse are those who are certain they know everything–and to them, the word “apartheid” is left open for interpretation, to either reinforce, or shape their concept of the entire country. We speak in catchphrases, and often forget that our intent may be lost on our listeners.

Palestinians from East Jerusalem, which was annexed into Israel, were all offered citizenship, and many of those who have accepted it now identify as Arab-Israeli; but we do not focus on their plight in the specificity it merits. The language of apartheid oversimplifies in this case, as it calls for misconceptions. Although there are cities that are predominantly Muslim or Jewish, for the most part, Jewish and Muslim Israelis are each other’s neighbors, bankers, pharmacists. There is no formal legal segregation, but there is still social tension, structured by anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in some cases, in others the result of mutual fear and misunderstanding that can fester into hatred, and sometimes rising from a natural comfort we feel towards the familiar, which can be stifled by cultural differences—it is always easier to communicate with those who understand and share our cultural background. Jews and Muslims live in the same apartment complexes, go to the same malls, pools, etc., but Arab-Israelis mostly go to Arab majority schools where they learn in Arabic, and Jewish Israelis learn in Hebrew. Communication between cultures is made difficult because Jews and Muslims grow up near one another, but not with one another–this form of segregation reinforces itself. Furthermore, there have been long standing problems in Israel with unequal state funding for school districts, with majority Jewish school districts receiving more funding than Arab districts, and religious districts receiving more funding than their secular counterparts. Recent action toward economic reform has been taken in the Knesset, although it remains to be seen to what extent implementation will be effective <http://www.inss.org.il/index.aspx?id=4538&articleid=12208>.

Interestingly, much of the formally structured oppression that Arab-Israelis of Palestinian descent face is explicitly not anti-Muslim: for instance, since military service is mandatory for Israeli Jews (Arab-Israelis are not required by law to enlist), the role one serves in the army acts as an important aspect of their resume later in life, and many academic scholarships are reserved specifically for people who served at a certain rank in the IDF. For two other Arab-Israeli cultures, the Druze (from the North of Israel) and the Bedouins (from the South of Israel), it is culturally accepted, and in many cases expected that they enlist in the IDF, whereas this is not the case for most Arab-Israelis of Palestinian descent, which limits their academic and professional opportunities.

Moreover, the racial metaphor that the term “apartheid” brings to mind in the context of resistance (POC and allies fighting against white supremacists) is misleading in the case of Israel, because, while the term does not directly infer this, in my experience, it can many times lead to a misconception of Jews as strictly white. I do not want to get into whether or not Jews are a race, and I acknowledge that in the US, Ashkenazi Jews of European descent are white passing. And yes, most Jews living in America are Ashkenazi (meaning from a Christian majority country, e.g. Eastern Europe). But Sephardic Jews (from Muslim majority countries, e.g. Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Iraq) and certainly Ethiopian Jews do not always fit so comfortably into most American’s conception Jewry, because they often have darker skin tones, and cultural practices that are starkly different from Ashkenazim. Exploring racial dynamics within the Jewish community is important if we are going to understand how race operates in Israel at large. Do not take this to suggest that racism does not exist in Israel; there is a troubling history surrounding the interactions of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Ethiopian Jews, but I have seen it explored by Americans solely in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, never as an issue in its own right, and explained through a projection of American racial structures onto Israel, which sometimes can be misleading, even if it is a useful tool for understanding a foreign land.

This analysis, of course, has no bearing on any legitimacy claims about Muslim solidarity; at the end of the day, Israel is a Jewish state that is occupying a majority Muslim territory. The pro-Israel protester at the #nomuslimban walkout need not let their irritation at the banner, the sense of its inappropriateness, eclipse the reason they showed up; in standing there all the same, in true solidarity, they protest under protest, they perform what it is they wish to say to those they feel delegitimize them. Similarly, the anti-Israel demonstrator need not let the presence of the banner preclude them from recognizing that there are Zionists in the crowd, and perhaps they are not all disingenuous, maybe it’s all a misunderstanding! The point is precisely this: that depth in the way we understand and speak about the conflict (or anything, for that matter) does not come at the cost of our right to feel passionately about it. Perhaps I am being reductive, but when we become too critical, we neglect that we live in a society of misunderstandings: we think we know what we are saying, but we forget we’ve been utterly confused since well before Babel.

Again, the purpose of this article is not a criticism or an affirmation of any position: it is me struggling to illustrate the simultaneous ambiguity and certainty that act as the groundwork for most discussion of Israel on campus. We begin to argue with one another before we allow ourselves to discover whether we are even in disagreement.

One would be right to question me: how are you to distance yourself from two frameworks you have strong opinions about, and attempt an objective analysis?–does this not call into question the framework through which you would attempt such an analysis? If you take what I have done here to be moralizing, it was not my intention, but a human failure to overcome my own way of thinking. This article, for all its claims about the real Israel, or lack thereof, remains a personal narrative.

My hope is simple, and the farthest thing from easy; perhaps, if we are more patient with each other, we may extricate ourselves from our self-righteous circles and begin to speak to instead of at one another.


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