By Cheryl Gordon
I am an American Jew, a New Yorker, and a student at the University of Michigan. As a Jew, I feel a connection to the land where the Jewish people trace their roots; to ancestors who lived in the land we now call Israel as far back as the Bible records Jewish history. Unfortunately, I find that my peers at school are quick to forget Israel’s history as a small state constantly threatened by hostile neighbors. They are quick to forget that our people were refugees too, and were exiled from our land twice (586 BCE, returned, exiled again in 70 CE, returned again). For me, Zionism is about love for Israel. It is about acknowledging and respecting the Jewish people’s history, looking ahead to our future, and taking the Zionist movement with us, encouraging it to evolve as the world changes and confronts new challenges.
Contrary to the complex and nuanced definition I find so dear, when the term “Zionism” is mentioned in conversation with my peers, it is a controversial word often invoked with ignorance and hate. What solely comes to their minds is the Occupation, the violence perpetrated against Palestinian civilians, including children, and examples of the unlawful taking of Palestinian land, which have been promoted or sanctioned by various establishment groups and Israeli governments for years.
I feel that the message I receive from my community on campus is that if you’re a liberal, you have to put your liberal values in a box, or on hold, if you’re a Zionist, because Israelis are being unfair and most certainly violating basic human rights of Palestinians. The way that young, social justice oriented leftists talk about Zionism creates in my mind an impenetrable wall between progressives and Zionists. However, I believe that I don’t need to give up any of my liberal views to be considered a legitimate supporter of Israel. I also don’t have to give up Zionism to be committed to liberal causes and justice.
I spent the last semester studying abroad in southern France. I was there for the election of Emmanuel Macron, who emerged as France’s newest president after a nail-biting election, in which immigration and anti-immigrant sentiment were prominent themes.
Macron recently issued a statement where he said: “Anti-Zionism is the new Anti-Semitism.”
I feel proud that the French people elected a candidate like Macron: Someone who does more than acknowledge France’s role in the Holocaust, more than apologize, but shows real concern for what is going on today.
As someone who is both compassionate and committed to learning, the mistreatment of Palestinians by Israelis motivates me to match the example Macron set. In Macron’s speech he was not oversimplifying Zionism, but was at the same time standing up for vulnerable peoples. I encourage everyone to look to that as an ideal of someone who seeks knowledge, is concerned, and open-minded.
Living and learning on a liberal campus like Michigan, full of bright, social justice-oriented students, is stimulating and inspiring. Nevertheless, I have heard and read many statements by UM students and others that reveal the validity of Macron’s take on anti-Zionism being the new anti-Semitism.
In 2015, following a terror attack by an armed Palestinian man that killed three Israelis, I was disturbed to walk past a Palestinian student group demonstration in the Diag on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, where many student groups raise awareness for their causes. This group set up a large mock border checkpoint. This wall was adorned with glorified images of Palestinian violence, and slogans calling for the destruction of Israel. I became even more disturbed while I watched concerned students approach the demonstration only to learn at surface level about a complex history from a one-sided perspective.
Another upsetting scandal occurred this year at the Chicago Dyke March, where participants with a Jewish gay pride flag were kicked out. So much for intersectionality.
I connect these two scandals at the Chicago Dyke March and the display on Michigan’s campus as just two examples of presenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in grossly oversimplified terms, black and white, victim and perpetrator. Where is the solidarity here? The dialogue? The importance here is to learn about difficult subjects and be open to others. If you wall yourself off from ugly realities that “your side” or your people are doing, you are ultimately engaging in the same kind of ignorance that your opponents are doing. Zionists need to confront reality in Palestine. By and large, we’re not.
I have spent my summer interning for Ameinu, which means “Our People” in Hebrew. At Ameinu, we are liberal Zionists supporting a progressive Israel, an Israel where Palestinians and Jews can co-exist in peace and respect each other’s rights.
Ameinu fundraises for and publicizes many great causes that are much more effective than BDS. I endorse a two state solution. Instead of hurting the Palestinian economy I believe in building up a stable Palestinian state. The BDS movement boycotts various cultural events and academic exchanges, which is contrary to principles of freedom of expression, free exchanges of ideas, and discourages engaging with one another.
Take issue with Zionism as you will. But first, as with any issue, learn. Follow Macron’s example of thoughtfulness and empathy in speech. Read about Zionism. Speak about Zionism. Engage with Zionists. We at Ameinu are citizens of the world. We are citizens working for peace and justice. We live by Jewish values and try every day to make our world a more peaceful and just place.