Nov. 26, 2013

What it means to be pro-Israel

Today, Eric Fingerhut is coming to campus. The President and CEO of Hillel recently penned an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week entitled “Working Together to Expand Support for Israel on Campus” with Jonathan Kessler, leadership development director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

I am an American Jewish college student and I support Israel—I also have a clear idea of what being pro-Israel means, and how my support manifests itself when it comes to pro-Israel activism.  Fingerhut and Kessler apparently do not.

Outlining their successes in building a strong pro-Israel community on American college campuses, the co-authors emphasize the importance of curbing anti-Israel rhetoric and supporting Israel by celebrating its “remarkable story.” Their argument can be summed up by their claim that they “will never stop celebrating the remarkable story of the rebirth of Israel,” and will continually “support Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

They seem to be arguing that to be pro-Israel simply means to advocate for the existence of the state of Israel as a national home for the Jewish people. This, however, is only partly true. Being pro-Israel also means actively advocating for its future as a secure, democratic state and Jewish homeland at peace with its neighbors.

This gets to the core issue of Fingerhut and Kessler’s op-ed. Yes, an incredible pro-Israel community exists in the United States. The strength of that community is largely due to Hillel and AIPAC’s hard work. Now the question is, what can that community do for Israel?

Secretary of State John Kerry provided us with the perfect answer when he called on American Jews to “join the great constituency for peace,” and support him in finding a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s critical for leaders like Fingerhut and Kessler to realize that in order for “American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus,” as Hillel and AIPAC claim they want, these organizations must lead the way in helping achieve peace and security through a two-state solution.

Without a two-state solution, Israel will not continue to exist as a Jewish democratic state.  The status quo is simply unsustainable.  Just last week, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni argued that without a two-state solution, Israel will suffer enormously in both diplomatic and economic arenas. Carmi Gillon, former head of the Shin Bet—Israel’s internal Security Service—similarly claimed that only once two states are achieved will Israelis be able to live in peace and security. It is a widely accepted notion that a two-state solution must come to fruition, and this can only happen with the help and support of the United States.

These are difficult political realities for both Israelis and pro-Israel American Jews to grapple with. However, students on American college campuses will only benefit from exposure to these realities. The undergraduate college experience is characterized by deep and engaging intellectual discussion. It’s time for colleges’ Jewish and pro-Israel organizations to facilitate such deep and engaging discussion around Israel.

Two weeks ago, here at UChicago, over 60 students came to hear Gillon speak about the complex security concerns Israel faces in the context of a two-state solution. This Hillel-hosted event provoked students to ask thoughtful questions about such things as settlements, government policies, and public perceptions among Israelis and Palestinians.

Another major goal of Hillel and AIPAC, as articulated in Fingerhut and Kessler’s op-ed, is to curb anti-Israel rhetoric on campus. In order for students to be able to effectively change the conversation, they must necessarily be exposed to the complex issues on the ground. To be pro-Israel cannot mean that students must defend Israel as a state that can do no wrong. It should be OK to criticize Israeli policy. In fact, distinguishing between criticism of policy and criticism of Israel is more effective in making campus conversations more pro-Israel—it allows American Jews to criticize the occupation, while at the same time celebrating the positive aspects of Israel  and its “remarkable story.” Creating such a space for this kind of discussion on college campuses is essential.

In order to be an effective advocate, one must have a deep and intimate knowledge of that for which one is advocating. This notion applies to pro-Israel advocacy as well; Israel is not an amorphous patch of land on the other side of the world that we call the Jewish state. It is a real, complicated, diverse, politically active country—and we need to do a better job of exposing students to that fact. Only then can we truly call ourselves pro-Israel.

Daniela Tolchinsky is a third-year in the College and a board member of J Street UChicago.