I often imagine myself, somewhat delusionally, to dwell in the sane center in the battleground that is the Israeli-Palestinian debate in this country. Though branded by some on the right as a self-hating anti-Semite and by some fellow travelers on the left as a Zionist propagandist in disguise, I can’t help but feel that the two extremes on the ideological spectrum consistently fail to get it right. The “Israel can do no wrong” crowd is too busy defending that proposition to acknowledge for a moment that there is a Palestinian people – and that this people is subject to a brutal and dehumanizing occupation. The “Israel is the sole source of evil in the world” crowd ignores all else that is going on around it, including major human rights violations in neighboring Middle Eastern countries (not to mention in Palestine itself).
Once again, we see the familiar sight of the two sides talking past each other. In the latest controversy to roil our campus, a proposed ethics pledge would require candidates for student government to vow not to take a trip to Israel sponsored by a number of non-campus groups. Let me be clear. I am no fan of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or the Hasbara Fellowships program. I believe that they promote a skewed account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But like Chancellor Gene Block, I don’t think that the Undergraduate Students Association Council should legislate who can or cannot travel abroad – or where. The proposed pledge moves from the unmistakably particular – the call for a ban on travel sponsored by three Israel-focused Jewish groups – to a hopelessly vague formulation directed against any group that promotes discrimination. The former suffers from a disturbing singularity of focus, while the latter is so expansive as to be meaningless. Let’s not kid ourselves. The object of concern here is Israel and Israel alone.
But that singularity of focus, curious and unsettling as it may be to some, is not necessarily anti-Semitic. This is how some in the Jewish community have framed it and I find that unfortunate. In some cases, criticism of Israel verges into dangerous terrain, as when the very self-definition of the Jews as a people or nation is denied. But in other cases, it is eminently possible to be a firm opponent of the occupation, regarding it as a profound moral blight, without harboring anti-Semitic feelings or beliefs. Many self-respecting Jews in Israel and abroad share this opposition.
Moreover, it is possible to support boycott, divestment and sanctions, in whole or in part, and not be an anti-Semite. BDS is a nonviolent means of opposing the oppression of a people whose aspirations for self-determination parallel those of – but are thwarted by – the Zionist project itself. I happen to not support global BDS for a variety of reasons, but I know good and decent people, Jews and non-Jews alike, who do.
To return from the global to the local, I reiterate my view that a pledge needlessly exacerbates an already inflamed situation. I think that there are better ways to get a sense of things in Israel and Palestine than on AIPAC or Hasbara Fellowships trips, but I don’t want to ban them – or, for that matter, any other trip offered to a student by a legally registered organization in the U.S. to another country. This is not only a matter of free speech; it is also a case of blurring the boundaries of student government and international diplomacy. If one is truly concerned about promoting a balanced and sound view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have a suggestion. Rather than outlaw trips by the targeted Jewish organizations, why not promote trips by the Olive Tree Initiative, the organization that is devoted to educating students about both Israel and Palestine through extensive exposure to the politics and culture of the two countries? I find that a much better and more sensible approach, one that encourages the requisite mix of empathy and criticism of the two sides in the Middle East and points us back to the sane center back at home.
David Myers is a history professor and chair of the UCLA Department of History.