May 20, 2014

To talk about the future, let’s stop talking past each other

Celebrating the founding of Israel is not synonymous with celebrating the plight of Palestinians.

The anniversary of the Israeli declaration of independence, which just celebrated its 66th year, is commemorated alternatively by Israel’s supporters as Yom Ha’Atzmaut, “The Day of Independence,” and by Israel’s critics as Al-Nakba, “The Catastrophe.” Unsurprisingly, different student groups on our campus organized events oppositely framed in the context of their respective understandings of the day’s significance. UChicago Friends of Israel (UCFI), in partnership with Hillel, organized a party on the quad to celebrate Israel’s founding with food, music, and branded swag—the holy trinity of eliciting student participation. In response, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organized a demonstration, in which they engaged passersby with information about the Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes in the midst of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

A pamphlet the SJP protestors handed out included this declaration: “Celebrating [the creation of the State of Israel in 1948], one of the most remarkable violations of human rights in recent history, is insulting to those hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lost everything in 1948.” For one thing, I would reject this characterization of the formation of the State of Israel. However, quibbling over the history is about as fruitless an endeavor as one could pursue. But in any event, the real problem, as I see it, is that this objection leveled against the celebration simply ignores what it is that was actually being celebrated. Further, it seems to intimate a basic misunderstanding of what constitutes Zionism and why the existence of the State of Israel is significant to much of the world’s Jewry. The successes of Zionism, when understood properly, are a cause for celebration in their own right, but their celebration is also consistent with a deep concern over the plight of the Palestinians—and a concomitant desire to see it ameliorated.

The assumption that SJP has clearly made is that to celebrate the founding of Israel is either to explicitly celebrate the relocation of many Palestinians or to obscure the realities of the circumstances in which the Jewish state was established. This is simply not the case. What is necessary, then, is an explanation of how I could enthusiastically celebrate the founding of the Jewish state while simultaneously feeling concern, sympathy, and even shame over the plight of the beleaguered Palestinian refugees. What is needed is a real explanation as to what the significance of the State of Israel really is to a Zionist and a Jew. This is to say, what has been lost in a discourse in which “Zionist” is used as shorthand for “supporter of the West Bank occupation” is a general understanding of what it actually means to be a Zionist.

At the heart of the Zionist ideal are two parallel ideas: the necessity of the existence of a Jewish state and the proposition that such a state should necessarily be geographically situated in what is today Israel. Underlying the first claim is the reality of the insecurity faced by Jewish minorities around the world. This is not to say simplistically that the Holocaust as a singular event created, or uniquely demonstrated at a particular historical moment, the danger posed to European Jews. It is to say that history is littered with the corpses of Jews who were powerless against the caprice and malice of governments in which they had no say and majorities of which they were not a part. Neither is this insecurity a phenomenon of past history, to which the solution of the Jewish state is anachronistic. Still today the position of Jews around the world is tenuous. And as long as we live in a world in which three people can be gunned down in Kansas City on nothing more than the suspicion that they might be Jewish, the need to address the threat of anti-Semitic violence remains.

I can understand how, to a Palestinian, the celebration of Israel’s creation can be taken as a celebration of or indifference to the privations suffered by their people or by themselves. But from the perspective of a Jew, a protest against the creation of the Jewish state could similarly be interpreted as a statement that the protestor indeed would prefer that Jews not have the opportunity to escape from violence, oppression, murder, and anti-Semitism.

The tragic reality that this new freedom came in part at the expense of the Palestinian people does not mean that to celebrate achieving the former is to ignore or embrace the latter. I can confront the historic crimes committed against the Palestinians and look for ways to correct those mistakes in the future. I can do this while also being grateful for the promise of security that the existence of the state provides me. Far from celebrating the horrible price paid by the Palestinians, what is celebrated is a revolution in Jewish freedom and safety, of singular significance to members of my culture.

I do not believe SJP misrepresented the goals and attitudes of the Israel Independence Day revelry deliberately. Rather, I think the problem stems from a mutual failure of these two camps to engage in constructive dialogue, which is always the seedling of real progress. When neither side hears the actual beliefs, perspectives, and goals of the other, useless caricatures that can only serve to toss more coal onto the burning fires of unproductive acrimony are proliferated. The true danger posed is the temptation to descend into a corrosive partisanship: a dynamic in which circumstances are construed in terms of a good “us” and malevolent “them,” and in which nothing “they” say is ever actually heard. This is helpful if one’s goal is to feel self-righteous; it is poisonous if one is interested in the truth and in meaningful change. I would invite an open dialogue. I would like to learn and understand the beliefs and goals of my Palestinian friends, and I hope and trust that they will feel similarly. Perhaps in that way we might come that much closer to a day when, rather than demonstrate against the founding of Jewish state, the members of SJP and their supporters might celebrate the founding of their own.

Isaac Breslow is a first-year in the College.