December 8, 2019

Why I’m skipping AIPAC this year

This weekend is the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington. Many of you will be there, and for a long time, I thought about going myself. DC, lobbying, Israel, and good friends: it sounds like a weekend I couldn’t pass up.

But this year, the thought of attending AIPAC just didn’t sit well with me. I tried to get to the bottom of why, and I realized it wasn’t because of Israel or any of my disagreements with its internal politics or policies. I knew it was deeper than that, but like any good Jew, the more I tried to dig at my internal frustration, the further I got from any concrete answer.

Then I went home to Oakland last weekend. I walked into a lecture at my temple titled “Power, Privilege, & BDS,” not expecting to enter a talk that would culminate in a discussion about UCLA student government.

“Today, American Jews face an internal conflict,” Professor Mark Dollinger of SFSU said. “On one side, we enjoy power and privilege. On the other, we maintain a Holocaust-driven fear of being marginalized and oppressed.”

I resonated with this. Since beginning at UCLA, I’ve felt incredibly lucky: I was one of just four students in my high school graduating class of 500 to become a Bruin, and I knew that it wasn’t just my intelligence that got me here but the strong support network I had growing up. At the same time, in college I’ve felt the heat of anti-Semitism beyond what I could have ever imagined: I was once told by another student that eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream was akin to supporting an institution as oppressive as the American slave trade — because Ben and Jerry are Jewish.

Then came the talk about student government. I listened eagerly to what he would say, not telling anyone I myself sit on the student government of UCLA.

“When Rachel Beyda was questioned for being Jewish, we all jumped so quickly to do whatever it is we could to defend her,” Professor Dollinger said. “We sent UCLA pages and pages full of suggested protective measures for Jewish students and threatened to pull our donations if they didn’t change.”

The response he described to the Rachel Beyda incident was not surprising. For a Jew to do anything he possibly could to defend his Jewish community is an imperative ingrained in the Jewish DNA: after what our parents and grandparents went through a generation ago, who can say this is a wrong thing?

But, as the lecturer suggested, today is not 1930. Jews have made it in this country. In America, we are not alone. We have politicians, law enforcement officers, and university administrators to stand up for us. Anti-Semitism has not gone away, but we’ve got new ways to fight it. That’s a big deal.

I’ve come to understand that that is what Jewish privilege looks like today. It’s a good thing we have it: after thousands of years of persecution, it’s the least we could ask for. But I think that with that privilege comes a sense of responsibility and engagement, an imperative to help those who don’t have it.

As a leader on campus through my position on student government over the past year, I’ve been asked by a number of Jewish students why I’m not more involved with pro-Israel groups, why I don’t speak passionately about the cause, and why, in the midst of a national wave of anti-Semitism, I’m not doing more to stand up for my community.

It’s taken me a long time to write this because at UCLA, I’ve felt uneasy talking about my Jewish identity – and not only because I’ve faced hostility as a Jew, but because of the the power and privilege I’ve been blessed to have all my life. Today I’m ready to share.

I believe that until the Jewish community recognizes that we must use our privilege to help others, we will not be able both to defend our Jewish identities and have meaningful and necessary relationships with those with whom may disagree.

I know by now some of you may be rolling your eyes. I get it. Privilege, oppression, power, and inequity. These are words thrown around college campuses all the time nowadays, and it can be hard to find real meaning in them anymore. Let me try and ground this a bit.

I mean to say that we should be using our close relationships with administrators and lawmakers to help those who don’t have the privilege and access that we do, not just to protect ourselves when we feel hurt. Our privilege must be used for more than just ourselves.

I challenge myself and other Jews in the community to question the institutions of power we rely on. Are these institutions fulfilling this broader vision of Jewish privilege not just by protecting Jews from oppression, but by standing up to support those who don’t have the same power?

This is where AIPAC comes in.

This weekend, thousands of Jews will gather in a huge hall to hear Mike Pence, our Vice President, speak at AIPAC. They will cheer and clap, and when asked why they are cheering for Mike Pence, they will respond, “I support him because he fights for Israel.”

And Jewish institutions across America, while perhaps not outwardly promoting President Trump or his administration, will in fact do so by failing to oppose it. They will mute their opposition to his Muslim ban, or his border wall proposals, or his efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. They will do this because they don’t want to risk losing his support for Israel.

I won’t be there. I won’t be there because it hurts me inside to see an institution justifiably founded to support the continued existence of the Jewish people abusing our privilege – my privilege – to support an administration that violates norms of decency and fairness to so many in this country.

I refuse to support an organization that adopts an “Israel-at-all-costs” attitude, an organization that has become a fellow traveler of the alt-right, an organization that today is the epitome of Jewish power and privilege without responsibility and morality.

I think It’s time for AIPAC to do a little soul searching and re-think its approach. We’ve got to remember why Israel was founded, and we’ve got to think deeply about how best to fight for its future.

And to all of you reading this, to my friends who have taught me what Jewish community means and who have filled my days at UCLA with Jewish learning and exploration, I ask you to join me on a mission.

Let us begin to ask: what are our values as Jews? How can we use our privilege to protect our own rights while also standing up to support those who need protection?

And to those who tell us we cannot support Israel while also supporting marginalized communities at home, I say that’s a load of crap. No one can say that I cannot support Israel while also standing up against police brutality in America. That’s not how justice works.

Let’s stop compromising our values. Let’s begin to use our privilege, as our rabbis and teachers have always instructed us to: let us love our neighbors as ourselves and do for them what we hope they would do for us.

I hope you will join me on this mission. It won’t be easy at the start, but I believe that once we stand up for what we believe is right, other people and other institutions will follow.

Until then, I don’t need your support, Mr. Pence.

Rafi Sands studies Business Economics & Political Science at UCLA and is External Vice President of the Undergraduate Students Association