Breaking ranks with U.S. Jewish 'establishment' on the occupation
By Paul Katz Haaretz.com
A few weeks ago, I learned that I am anti-Israel, which certainly came as a surprise to me. The cause of the accusation was an exhibit exploring the effect of military service in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on ordinary Israelis.
I have always considered myself strongly Zionist and have devoted much of my time at Harvard to advocating for policies to bring the only Jewish, democratic state in the world closer to its most inspiring ideals. Yet, in the wake of the decision by the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) to host to an exhibit by Israel's own "Shovrim Shtika" ("Breaking the Silence"), I found PJA - and by implication, myself - the target of denunciation.
To quote a recent open letter by the president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, by facilitating the exhibition, we are guilty of "inciting hatred of Israel" and "playing into the hands of Israel's enemies."
The strangest aspect of much of the criticism PJA has received has been its source - individuals outside of the campus community who have not seen the exhibit themselves.
Of course, Shovrim Shtika's exhibit, which includes some 60 photos and several videos, was explained and contextualized by two former Israel Defense Forces soldiers with combat experience in the West Bank, was not uncontroversial on campus.
Although it was not sponsored by Harvard Hillel, the exhibit was housed in Hillel's building, a decision which made some members of the campus Jewish community uncomfortable.
Many students disagreed with what they saw as the exhibit's negative characterization of the occupation. Others expressed their concern at the exhibit's lack of context, which they felt would leave students uninformed about the conflict with an unduly negative view of Israel's commitment to human rights.
Nonetheless, at Harvard these reasonable criticisms were expressed respectfully and intelligently, and PJA's desire to promote a more just Jewish state was never questioned. Only in the broader national and international press did we morph into self-hating Jews seeking to undermine Israel.
The most virulent criticism of the exhibit came from Klein himself, who was quoted in Jewish Week as saying that, "Harvard Hillel should be ashamed of itself and should immediately rescind giving legitimacy to a program that only promotes hatred against Israel and Jews."
His criticism was echoed in a recent column by Isi Leibler in The Jerusalem Post, in which Leibler argued that Hillel's "post-modern" commitment to pluralism and free expression led it to allow "a ferociously anti-Israeli exhibition on Hillel premises."
Leibler went on to express his outrage that Klein was the only major voice within the American Jewish community to publicly condemn the exhibit. This silence, he claims, is evidence of "the extent to which post-modernism has penetrated the Jewish agenda and blurred distinctions between good and bad."
This criticism stems from the belief - one which PJA strongly contests - that the only appropriate role for American Jews to play in their support of Israel is neatly bounded by one word: Hasbara, or, the promotion of Israel's image abroad.
We believe that a real commitment to Israel should be characterized not only by educating others about the strength of Israel's ideals, but advocating for change when those ideals are being obscured by destructive policy decisions as well.
Now is a time when an end to the occupation of Judea and Samaria is widely seen as a distant prospect. The failure of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza has bred a frustration in the American Jewish community that translates into a pessimistic refusal to look beyond the status quo: continued occupation and the strategic expansion of settlement blocks in the West Bank.
Yet American Jews must understand that the status quo is not a costless alternative to the difficult and risky prospect of negotiated withdrawal. Shovrim Shtika's exhibit is about measuring its cost in real, human terms.
A constructive approach to the current conflict demands an honest Jewish dialogue about the nature of occupation and its costs, instead of the image-centered marketing campaigns that have become the bread and butter of the Israel programming of many of America's major Jewish organizations, including the ZOA.
This sort of dynamic conversation is just what Shovrim Shtikva has been promoting at Harvard and in the Boston community at large.
More than most places, Harvard is a forum for open debate and intellectual engagement. Far from alienating Jewish students from supporting Israel - as Klein fears Shovrim Shtika has already done - the exhibit has proven to the Harvard community that it is possible to both support a just and secure Jewish state and criticize policies plainly destructive to that end.
Such a position not only expresses our faith in Israel's capacity to fulfill its democratic vision, but also reflects the fact that we at Harvard understand our community. Our willingness to criticize Israeli policy in the name of the state's Jewish and democratic ideals represents a much more effective response to those at Harvard who attack Israel's legitimacy than Klein's blunt and anti-intellectual attempts to stifle dissent in the name of hasbara.
In fact, the potential of Shovrim Shtika to positively influence "our enemy's" thinking was poignantly illustrated to me by a Muslim friend's reaction to the exhibit.
"When I lived in the West Bank, I despised the Israeli soldiers," she explained on the Harvard International Review's online blog. But her tour of the photographs and videos, and her conversation with her guide, a former soldier, changed her perspective.
"They helped me understand so much why the IDF does what they do in the territories," she wrote. The exhibit, her blog entry explains, helped her to see Israeli soldiers not as impersonal objects of hatred but as human beings pushed into a pattern of behavior by the tactical demands of a dehumanizing policy.
This sort of "re-humanization," possible only when we acknowledge rather than ignore the true nature of occupation, is the first step toward understanding and coexistence.
Paul Katz, an undergraduate student at Harvard, is Co-Chair of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance.