End the Preoccupation

Israel advocacy on campus has become a front-burner enterprise for the American Jewish community. Attacks by anti-Israel campus activists, including a fair number of Jewish students and faculty, demoralize and often intimidate most Jewish students who are ill-equipped to counter these efforts to delegitimize Israel. It is a mark of the Jewish community’s growing concern that more than 25 national organizations are now involved in training campus activists to defend and promote Israel and thereby inspire Jewish students to feel a sense of pride in themselves and the Jewish State.

But as well-intentioned as the efforts of the growing coalition of Israeli advocacy organizations are, I believe that if we win this battle we will have lost the real war, which is not for Israel’s security but for the hearts and minds of this generation of young American Jews.

Let me explain. In the post-Six-Day War euphoria, most of us could not see what growing numbers of Jewish college students have come to believe and even Israelis on the political right are now admitting: We have been blind to the corrosive effects — as well as the demographic threat to Israel’s democratic and Jewish identity — of the decades of what even Ariel Sharon has called "the occupation," however unwanted it may have been and however intransigent most of the Arab world has been about coming to terms with the reality of Israel and ending the suffering of the Palestinian people.

Arguing, as so many Israel advocates do, that Israel’s behavior is less immoral or problematic than that of her neighbors, or even other democracies at war, is factually correct, but is not likely to restore a sense of boundless Jewish pride in the almost 90 percent of college-age Jews who attend universities in North America.

Most of them are, indeed, as Natan Sharansky characterizes them, the Jews of silence — not simply because they are not up to winning the campus debates with Israel’s enemies but because they have largely tuned out. Most of these students, from my experience with thousands of them, would like to have a sense of pride in Israel but feel a profound sense of sadness and frustration at the continued suffering of the Palestinian people and the less-than-equal treatment of Arab citizens in the Jewish State — however much better their lot may be than those in neighboring Muslim countries — and a sense of acute shame when their Israeli brothers and sisters sometimes behave with less-than-the-highest moral rectitude, even if better than most others under similar circumstances.

It is indisputable that Israel is held to an unfair double standard on campus and throughout the world. Jewish students more than any others expect more of Israel than of any other country — surely a measure of positive Jewish identification — and are concomitantly more troubled when Israel does not live up to these often unrealistic expectations.

The campus debates between Israel’s advocates and detractors will have no impact on what actually happens in the Middle East — only Israel and the Palestinians can determine that — but how these debates are conducted will have a profound impact on the future of Jewish life in America because the war is not really for Israel but for the hearts and minds of the overwhelming majority of this generation’s college-age Jews. Of course the base and egregiously false charges against Israel must be answered, but most of these young Jewish adults will not feel a sense of pride in being Jews by being armed with the best debating points, or even when they fully understand the extraordinary events of recent Jewish history. They will want to understand their remarkable history and know how to respond to these attacks only if they have a sense of deep pride in being Jews.

Rather than simply teaching Jewish students how to win the debates with Israel’s detractors or even to promote the many positive features of Israeli culture, it’s time for our community to help them reframe the war of words and to directly confront our Arab and Palestinian cousins on campus and tell them clearly what both we and they need to hear.

A Proposed Conversation

Here are five arguments we should be making to pro-Palestinian advocates:

1. Israelis Want a Palestinian State. There are many countries that want to see a resolution of the brutal and tragic conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people for geopolitical reasons, but the two communities in the world that most want it for existential reasons are the Palestinian people and the Israeli people. Very few Arab countries seem to be very eager to actually have a Palestinian state — if they were they might have established one when Jordan and Egypt occupied the West Bank and Gaza — and outside of Israel there is arguably little interest in the Middle East for a democratic state of Palestine. Such a state would constitute a threat, simply by its existence, to many of its neighboring regimes if it were to join Israel as one of the precious few democracies in the region. If you want to make the best possible case for Palestine, we have some suggestions for you.

2. Drop the Anti-Semitism. Clean up your act. Do you really hope to win support for the Palestinian cause by proclaiming, as you now do, that the only people in the world not entitled to national self-determination are the Jewish people? Spain and Italy and Argentina can legitimately be states with a predominantly Christian character, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Indonesia can legitimately be states with a predominantly Muslim character, but the Jewish people alone are not entitled to a state in their homeland with a predominantly Jewish character? The behavior of every nation should be the subject of discussion, but why should any nation’s existence be the subject of discussion? Why is it that Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, is the only country in the world about which anyone could conceivably begin his or her criticism with the words, "I believe Israel has a right to exist, but…."? Do you really think that presenting yourselves as racists and anti-Semites will build sympathy for the creation of a Palestinian state? Enough is enough.

3. Don’t Insist on a Judenrein State. End your argument — even if only for tactical reasons — that all of the Jewish settlements must be dismantled as a precondition for a peace agreement. With hindsight (except for the clear vision of a few, like Hebrew University professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who understood it immediately after the 1967 war), growing numbers of Israeli Jews now acknowledge that the settlements were probably a mistake and maintain that they would be prepared to dismantle most of them in exchange for a real end to the hostilities. While evacuating these settlements, which will come at a terrible price for Israeli society, may prove to be necessary for a resolution of the conflict, do you really want to maintain that the only way that a state of Palestine can come to an accommodation with Israel is if it is Judenrein like Saudi Arabia, or that an independent Palestine can’t be counted on to protect its Jewish citizens — or even non-citizens — living there? Why not take the high moral ground?

4. Don’t Be Afraid of Self-Criticism. Think about engaging in a little self-criticism, not only because it is called for but because it is a sign of strength, not weakness. One can open the pages of Ha’aretz and find more trenchant criticism of Israeli policy, including its treatment of the Palestinians as well as its own Arab citizens, than some of the outrageous attacks and tactics that too often characterize your end of the shouting match between us. The real problems in Israel may well be even more serious than you imagine and we all need to discuss them, though the Israelis seem to be doing a better job of that right now than anything you — or we — are doing here. There are reasons why we hear so little criticism of the Palestinian leadership from the Palestinian people, but there is nothing stopping us on campus from setting a better example.

5. Recognize That Palestine Needs Israel. If you are serious about having an independent Palestinian state you will have to make a critical decision and a public commitment, namely to acknowledge, as we do, that just as it will be next to impossible for there to be a safe and secure State of Israel without a safe and secure State of Palestine, there will never be a safe and secure State of Palestine without a safe and secure State of Israel.

Israel is not planning to disappear and no nation would — or should — acquiesce to the creation of another state on its border bent on its destruction or that cannot or will not prevent its own citizens from attacking that nation. Israel, then, will defend itself militarily, and the results of a response to an existential threat would be devastating for all in the region.

All of us who support a safe and secure Israel and the creation of a safe and secure Palestine must support the security of both if we are serious about the security of either. Most of us are prepared to advocate for an independent state of Palestine in order to end the suffering and trauma of Israelis — Jewish and Arab — and to end the suffering and trauma, as well as to restore the political dignity, at long last, of the Palestinian people. Those of you who, like us, support the establishment of an independent State of Palestine have to declare, do you want Palestine, or do you want blood and vengeance and no Jewish State of Israel? If the latter, you have lost any moral claim for your cause and there is really nothing more for us to discuss. If the former, you will have a powerful claim to our support.

Only if we proudly and forthrightly represent ourselves, as we should, as a community that will — out of both our own vital self-interest and our Jewish moral imperative — help to build support for a Palestinian state that is seriously prepared to live in peace with Israel and thereby help to end the suffering of the Palestinian people, will we win over this generation of young Jews, not to mention the political leadership of America that is also coming of age on college campuses. In the end, the moral high ground is the only secure ground on which to stand.

This essay originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.

Michael Brooks is executive director of the University of Michigan Hillel.