When something goes wrong in the world, Swarthmore students are often amongst the quickest to respond. It is that implicit call to social action that so many of us feel that initially attracted me to Swat, but now has forced me into an exile that I did not foresee. Tensions have been rising in the Middle East, and consequently so too have tensions on Swarthmore’s campus. It seems like there is so much noise and so much conversation, but no real progress is being made. The Sabra Hummus boycott is an example of this. It’s not about hummus, it is about hummus acting as a mechanism to reduce the incredibly nuanced Israeli-Palestinian peace process down into a binary, which results in people on all fronts feeling like they are shut out of the conversation. Even before Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) launched their Sabra Hummus campaign, I felt invariably shut out of my Jewish identity, but never so much as I do now.
The Sabra Hummus boycott is nothing new to college campuses, or even to Swarthmore. Calls have been made to schools across the country, such as Wesleyan, DePaul, and Princeton, to name a few. SJP is not simply just a club on Swarthmore’s campus; the organization is a part of a broader national movement that regularly employs this boycott tactic to push the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement. In BDS’ own words,
…[We] call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel.
At face value, the sentiments of BDS seem noble, but the reality is that BDS is much more problematic. The national charter cites “promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.” UN Resolution 194 does in fact call for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The UN, however, defines said refugees as all Palestinians displaced as a result of the 1948 and 1967 Wars, as well as their descendants. According to Al-Awda, the Palestinian right to return coalition, there are approximately 7.2 million Palestinian refugees in the world. The influx of such a number would effectively end the Jewish majority in the Jewish State. The original 1947 partition plan (UN Resolution 181) guarantees the existence of a Jewish State. If the Jewish majority does not exist, how can it be the Jewish State? Thus, BDS is definitionally anti-Zionist, and I therefore also consider it to be anti-Semitic. Because it denies the Jewish State’s right to exist, it forecloses an serious chance of constructive dialogue. BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti has said, “we ought to oppose categorically a Jewish state.” Norman Finkelstein, one of Israel’s loudest critics, notes that BDS is “not really talking about rights. They’re talking about [how] they want to destroy Israel.” From there, it is hard for me to imagine where a conversation can begin.
I come from the perspective of having grown up with individuals whose grandparents sought post-Holocaust refuge in the Holy Land, and from the perspective of someone whose aunt had to flee Haifa in 2006 when rockets were fired overhead during the outbreak of the second Lebanon War. I come from the perspective of Birthright having been my religious reawakening after having lost a major sense of my Jewish identity during my first two years of college. I come from the perspective of knowing Holocaust survivors who would have perished had it not been for the Jewish State and knowing descendants of those individuals whose families would not exist had it not been for the same.
People often ask what it means if the safety of those individuals means the displacement of someone else. And the reality is, I don’t have the answer. If I did, I’d be in the UN. But what I do know is that my people need a State, because history tells the tale of our repeated exile and slaughter by the millions. I come from the perspective that this has happened to my people repeatedly because we have been without refuge, without a safe place, without a home. Jews have been the scapegoats for milenia. Mark Twain is credited with having uttered the phrase “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” and the rhyme of anti-Semitism has not gone anywhere. Just recently, a Holocaust survivor was killed in her apartment, stabbed and burned in hateful, putrid act of anti-Semitism. Poland’s senate recently passed a bill outlawing speech and text stating that the country was complicit in the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism is real, it is here, it is strong, and a movement that denies the necessity of Jewish refuge in the Jewish homeland while Jews are still being persecuted is inherently and viciously anti-Semitic.
When it comes to SJP, it feels like they consistently shut down dialogue that may even begin to provide a dissenting viewpoint. They kicked me, an identifiable pro-Israel student, out of their “open” meeting on April 4th. They arranged a panel of Jewish students to deliver a debate “On Anti Semitism” without consulting a single pro-Israel student, which felt like they were completely invalidating any brand of Judaism that harbors the same love that I share for Israel. There are students on this campus much like myself that have experienced different flavors of both Judaism and anti-Semitism who have consequently not only been forced out of the conversation, but have also been isolated from rejoicing in their Jewish identity because of the sentiment of “in order to be a good Jew you have to denounce Israel” that exists so loudly on this campus. I am one of them, and sadly, I am one of many.
On the flip side, at that same panel an SJP member noted that calling their BDS efforts an anti-Semitic movement, rhetoric which constantly gets employed by my side of the argument and rhetoric that I truly believe in, feels like we are shutting them out of the conversation and extinguishing a chance at dialogue. We all love to hear our own arguments validated, and it is inherently extremely difficult to hear something logical that refutes your claim, but it is the isolative gate-keeping that goes on with both sides that prevents any real progress from being made. There are concessions that both sides must make, both in college conversations and in real-world peace-negotiating tactics, but the idea that BDS is an anti-Semitic movement is not one that I can relinquish.
It’s no secret that I’m pro-Israel. I will unapologetically and proudly say that I love it. But in saying that, I want to make it quite clear that I would not defend Israeli actions regardless of what they entail, or that I would argue Israel does no wrong or that it should not be subject to fair criticism. My love for Israel is equally as strong as my disappointment in some of their actions. SJP and like-minded individuals are absolutely right when they say that no state or government should be immune from criticism, and it is the beauty of the democratic nature of the State that allows them and myself to do so. But I am completely, irrevocably, and shamelessly incapable of de-conflating my Jewish identity with my love for and pride in the Jewish State. Furthermore, I truly feel that SJP’s consistent demonization of Israel goes well beyond criticism, and instead creates an “us-versus-them, good-versus-evil” rhetoric that inherently fails to describe the unbelievably nuanced issue that is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Boycotts, and this one especially, completely undermine the peace processes by boiling the issue down into a binary.
Like Sabra is being used as a synecdoche for Israel and the boycott is a microcosm of the larger BDS movement, the dialogue we have on campus is a microcosm of the discourse of the peace process as a whole: it is divisive, it lacks nuance, and it ultimately tramples discourse and progress. It’s on us to change that. It’s on us to cease the trend of of not recognizing complexity and to truly embrace the idea that Judaism is not a monolith. This is not about hummus. This is about progress, coexistence, and recognition of identity.
Image courtesy of Curiously Carmen