Thoughts on Israel Week

Imri Kalman

Photo of Imri Kalman, courtesy of Simcha Masala from Hillel

In the beginning, as the Torah tells, all of humankind, sharing one tongue and one peoplehood, came together to build a great tower into the heavens—Babel. Yet, HaShem, Allah, God—the single name by many tongues—reproached humans for their hubris, and made them all speak in different languages; confusion reigned and, with no means of resolving conflict by common words, the people of Babel split into clans. The tower collapsed of its own accord, leaving a mess of dust and rubble on the earth, and the pursuit that men began united, they abandoned divided. Ancient wisdom echoes a modern crisis, for when it comes to the controversy that is Israel on campus, misunderstanding, throughout the ideological spectrum, overshadows both discussion and protest, disjointing students based on words that have discrete meanings to people with different perspectives. How, then, can Zionists and anti-Zionists on campus communicate to one another when, all speaking English, they speak through unique tongues, afforded them by their own heritage and history?

At Northwestern Israel Week, which took place last week, centered around Yom Ha’atzmaut—Israeli Independence Day—I was provided a reason for optimism:

I was first struck when I heard Imri Kalman, a spokesperson for the Proud (LGBTQ) Community in Israel, call out Israel for pink-washing, as well as widespread homophobia—as he aptly put it, the curse “homo” is one of the most commonly used in Hebrew. Tel-Aviv, the liberal capital of Israel and, arguably, the Gay capital of the Middle East, is a paradise for queer peoples, as Kalman said himself, but there is a widespread misperception that, because of this, homophobia and transphobia are not issues in Israel; it creates a ruse of solvency. I am used to hearing Zionists unilaterally defend Israel, and anti-Zionists unilaterally censure it, and so the privilege of hearing a gay Israeli, proud in his Zionism, mercilessly critique his country for some of its many shortcomings was refreshing, to say the least.

On Thursday, in an event sponsored by J-Street U, a variety of students told stories about their own experiences in Israel, and what the nation meant to them. Each story offered a unique perspective, but, all of the perspectives were from Jewish students. Here re-emerges the dilemma, for the Palestinian, or, more broadly, the Arab student narrative is evidently missing from such events. Enmity between student groups, made rivals by dogmatic ideological stances, has festered, and, after a plethora of unreturned emails, the prospect of students from SJP, or NU Divest, pro-Palestinian anti-Zionists, speaking at a pro-Palestinian, albeit Zionist, J-Street U event appear glim.

Imri Kalman similarly spoke of how Palestinian LGBTQ rights organizations refuse to co-sponsor events with him. The common goal is cast aside, and grievances take precedent over solidarity; here one rediscovers the fallen Babel.

That notwithstanding, at these events were not only Jewish students. I saw a diversity of students, of different ethnicities, religious beliefs, and political ideologies attend these events, and ask brilliant critical questions; they listened, even if they did not agree. Moreover, I recall, sitting on the committee which arranged the programming for the week, wrought with uncertainty about whether the events would be constantly disrupted by boycotts, regardless of whether they were politically oriented. But they were not. Perhaps I am naïve, but I would like to believe that the reason for this is the result of a growing respect on campus for ideological pluralism. The tremendous maturity demonstrated by anti-Zionist groups last week, in my opinion, is worthy of the highest praise. It is of little importance whether or not you agree with the other, insofar as you try as diligently as possible to stop thinking of the ‘other’ as such. I hope that weeks like last one will usher in a new era of political discourse at NU, in which students debate, and learn from that debate, but do not draw demarcating lines between themselves and others based on an ideological stance. I have found that after speaking a while with a person, who at first seems to completely disagree with everything I believe, I find one point of common ground, and then another, until at-last it seems that our radically distinct views are one and the same.

Solidarity is not begot of dogma, but of that which we share, which we have in common. Despite the myriad of disagreements students on campus may have, they all share at least one thing in common—be it purple, inquisitiveness, or the earth we step on—and that is enough to start re-building.

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