I usually refrain from using public mediums to critique Zionism – a nationalist political ideology that calls for the establishment and protection of a Jewish nation-state. Even though Israel’s policies are shaped by ethnonationalism, I find it more important to educate the campus community about Palestinian human rights.
But when I read last month’s submission to the Daily Bruin by Jackie Schaeffer, I was taken aback by the conflation of Jewishness with Zionism to launch political attacks and accusations of anti-Semitism against an intersectional demonstration. As one of the students who organized the protest at last month’s University of California Board of Regents meeting, I feel compelled to respond.
Last month, students and workers came together to protest tuition hikes for out-of-state and international students, for better workers’ benefits and for the UC to stop investing in companies that violate Palestinians’ human rights. We decided to stand in solidarity with one another because the regents make decisions that impact both students and workers. Thus, our intersectional chants tackled the issues of tuition, labor and Palestinian rights simultaneously.
In her submission, Schaeffer expressed discontent with our chant, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” In her eyes, the chant is a call for Palestinians to literally “throw” Jews in Israel into the Mediterranean Sea. She suggested the linkage of Palestinians’ human rights with labor and tuition issues was unfair and inappropriate, and that it was discriminatory for organizers to allegedly compel the “mainstream Jewish community” to choose between college affordability and protests against Israel’s policies.
However, Schaeffer’s assertion that our chant amounted to a call for Jewish genocide is ridiculous. The chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” refers to historic Palestine and the Israeli-controlled Palestinian territories between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The phrase calls for every human being, regardless of race and ethnicity, to have equal rights – something that does not exist under Israel’s policy of excluding Palestinians from citizenship simply because they are not Jewish. Yet, Schaeffer insists the chant is a call for Arab Palestinians, a population that is overwhelmingly Muslim, to literally push Jews into the sea.
In reality, Schaeffer’s accusation serves as a racial dog whistle designed to provoke Western perceptions of the “barbarous Arab” in the Middle East. Schaeffer’s claim taps into racist imagery of Arabs in the US – imagery that invokes a narrative of the “Arab other” who is so barbaric, they wish to literally push Jews in Israel into the sea. If the only thing Schaeffer can see is barbarism when Arab and Muslim students chant for equal rights, it says a lot more about her than it does about last month’s protesters.
But perhaps most disappointing is Schaeffer’s conflation of being Jewish with supporting the political ideology of Zionism to accuse campus spaces that support equal rights for Palestinians of anti-Semitism. For instance, she claimed Jewish participation in some campus community spaces was dependent on Jewish students “abandoning (their) Jewish identity.”
The first problem with this reasoning is that Zionism is not a prerequisite for being Jewish. For example, a Pew Research Center study found the majority of nonreligious Jews in the US have “very little” to “no attachment at all” to Israel. Moreover, a survey in California’s Bay Area commissioned by the Jewish Community Federation found that only 37 percent of Jews between 18 and 34 years old thought Israel was “very important,” compared to 61 percent for those between 50 and 64 years old.
The second problem is that there are many non-Zionist, Jewish students on campus who support equality for Palestinians. A recent study found that support for Palestinian rights is six times what it was in 2010 among Jewish college students, while support for Israel plummeted by a staggering 27 percent, citing Israel’s lack of human rights and tolerance.
And it’s hard to blame them: Despite claims that Israel is interchangeable with the Jewish identity, Israel and right-wing Zionist organizations such as the Zionist Organization of America have appeared to foster alliances with white supremacists and neo-Nazis based on shared ideologies that promote racial hierarchies. Ironically, the Israeli government has been affiliated with white supremacists and anti-Semites such as Donald Trump, who retweets white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and hired those harboring anti-Semitic ideologies in his administration.
It is problematic for Schaeffer to conflate Zionism with being Jewish, because it ignores the significant number of Jewish Americans who do not identify with Zionism and dismisses the increasing abandonment of Israel among American Jewry.
In light of changing political leanings, it is appropriate to link the anti-racist politics of Palestinian rights activism to labor and educational justice. Workers and students support Palestinian rights because they understand how intersectionality ties our struggles together, and they have a right to organize without deployment of racial stereotypes and accusations of anti-Semitism to discredit our activism. Our intersectional organizing against oppression will continue.
Gardner is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, a UCLA student group.