March 25, 2019

GUEST ROOM | A Jewish Case for Divestment

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Over the last few weeks, the debate surrounding Students for Justice in Palestine’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign has only grown more heated. Cornell Hillel and its filial groups, in opposition to most every other minority organization on campus, have positioned themselves as the loudest proponents of the State of Israel and detractors of the divestment campaign on campus. Hillel’s position as the largest Jewish organization on campus has made it yet more difficult to hear the already marginalized voices of anti-Zionist Jews. Despite that — or rather, because of that — we, as Jewish students, feel it is our responsibility to challenge the narrative Hillel has been constructing and explain to the Cornell community why we support the divestment campaign.

We understand many of the positions our anti-divestment counterparts hold because we once held those very same positions ourselves. As children, we were told that a Jewish state could have saved the family we lost in the Holocaust, that the only reason anyone could have for being anti-Zionist is a deep-rooted prejudice against the Jewish people. We were told that, as Jews, the whole of Zion was our birthright, and that Arabs, if given the chance, would not hesitate to wage a war of extermination against the Jewish people in Israel.

This Zionist mythos, however, is exactly that — mythic. To pretend as though European Jews, without a state, were helpless in the face of the Nazi genocide is to erase the sacrifices of the countless Jews who fought and died in the Soviet and Polish armies, in antifascist partisan detachments and in ghetto uprisings. In the same vein, to think that the State of Israel, which enjoys a cordial relationship with the increasingly antisemitic government of Hungary and which has begun selling weapons to neo-Nazi battalions fighting in eastern Ukraine, has done anything to protect Jews around the world against antisemitism is equally unhistorical.

The State of Israel doesn’t just promote a deeply revisionist view of Jewish history, but a disturbing racial ideology as well. Why is it that American Jews have the opportunity to settle in Israel while Palestinian refugees around the world who were born on the land the State of Israel now occupies are not? Why is it that Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to Israel are so often brutalized by Israeli police and, in some cases, sterilized upon entry to the country, while European Jewish immigrants are not? Why is it that Israel, supposedly a nation inclusive of all Jews, forbids those in the diaspora who, like us, call for Palestinians to be treated with basic dignity, from entering the country wholesale?

In short, it is because Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said, “is not a state of all its citizens.” It is not a state for Israeli Palestinians, nor a state for non-white Jews, nor even a state for all white Jews: Israel empowers white Ashkenazim supportive of the Zionist project over all others. We therefore cannot do anything but voice our unequivocal opposition to the State of Israel as it exists now, and support measures to hold this so-called “Jewish state” accountable to the actual Jewish values if flagrantly spurns.

It is true that the situation in Israel is politically quite complicated. Morally, however, it is not. Any state that regularly raids schools, deliberately targets women and children with sniper fire at the border, and denies millions of their basic civil rights should be condemned. It’s deeply disappointing to us that so many Jewish groups on campus refuse to do so. We categorically reject the narrative that the divestment campaign is in any way threatening to Jews at Cornell because it is “too divisive” and stifles dialogue on Israel and Palestine; while dialogue is important, it is not a substitute for action. And when dealing with a humanitarian crisis as pressing as the one going on right now in Palestine, action on the part of everyone who cares about human dignity is direly needed.

Thus, of our fellow Jewish students on campus who consider themselves to be progressive but nonetheless harbor strong sympathies for the State of Israel, we ask that you seriously reflect on why we as a community tend to hold the opinions we hold about Palestine and Palestinians. Ask yourself why we support a state which regularly justifies the arbitrary killings of civilians and which actively makes life for Jews in the diaspora more dangerous; whether echoing Israel’s fascist-adjacent rhetoric about the need for settlements and the necessity of maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel is really compatible with who we, as American Jews, want to be.

Ultimately, one way or another, we all have to take some stance on this issue. And the only stance compatible with progressive values, anti-racism, and concern for human dignity is to stand with Palestine.

Max Greenberg is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences and can be reached at mg957@cornell.edu. Ezra Stein is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and can be reached at ezs4@cornell.edu. Julian Goldberg is a senior in the College of Engineering and can be reached at jg766@cornell.edu. Sophia Roshal is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences and can be reached at ssr95@cornell.edu.