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Op-ed: Dialogue surrounding Israeli-Palestinian conflict alienates Jewish community

By Rachel Burnett

Oct. 5, 2021 1:54 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 6 at 9:42 p.m.

“I am a Jew, but I do not identify as a Zionist.”

This sentence is something I’ve said many times, and it is met with reactions that range from confusion to dismay. It is perhaps more controversial than ever in a time when tensions surrounding Israel/Palestine are heightened on college campuses. Lately, though, this sentence has become a passphrase to grant me entry into progressive spaces. As anti-Israel sentiment increasingly becomes a facet of the American left, many Jews feel left out of the conversation.

When I attended a pro-Palestine rally here in Los Angeles this past May, I saw a poster depicting former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with blood in the corners of his mouth, eating a baby, with a Star of David placed in the center of his forehead. A respectful dialogue I had with a fellow protester about the linguistic similarities of Arabic and Hebrew turned into her declaring “all Zionists baby killers, who bathe in their money and control the media.” These both play into the deeply troubling antisemitic rhetoric of blood libel and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

When I watch “activists” stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those who share these sorts of ideas, I cannot honestly say that I feel safe. And yet, I was praised by others at this rally. Because I do not call myself a Zionist, I am somehow regarded as a “good Jew.” I find this even more upsetting than the blatant antisemitism. For someone to insert a wedge between my culture and myself, telling me I do not belong, is painful beyond words. When a lack of belonging to Jewish culture is framed as a positive, then belonging to Jewish culture is seen as a negative.

There is a common saying: “Two Jews, three opinions.” There are many other Jews with whom I disagree. Jews are not, of course, monolithic – no culture is. Although 92% of Jews self-describe as “pro-Israel” to some capacity, 59% of those also describe themselves as critical of at least some of the current Israeli government’s policies. I do not agree with those who self-describe as wholly supportive, but this does not make either of us more or less Jewish. One cannot welcome me inside while shutting the door on my community. Requiring Jews to pass an Israel-based litmus test to be deemed “woke enough,” Jewish enough or palatable enough is not acceptance. It’s tokenization.

This is not to say that the American Jewish community does not need to have an honest dialogue about Israel; this is something that we cannot do if we cannot ask hard questions about the State. One of the things I love most about Judaism is our culture of intellectual curiosity. We need to consider whose voices we include when we discuss Israel and Zionism. Whose experiences are we centering, and whose are being left to the side? What are the common misconceptions about Israel inside and outside our community? How can we, personally and communally, take steps toward peace and away from fear?

These issues are some of the most essential questions we Jews must reckon with, and we must do it now. But if you are not Jewish, what can you do? Learn our history, not just our pain, but our joy and celebrations too. Take care that when you criticize a Jew or Israel, you are not invoking the tropes that have killed us for millennia. If there’s one thing I hope that non-Jews do, it is this: Listen to our voices first. When building inclusive spaces, make these spaces inclusive of Jews too – each and every one of us.

Burnett is a second-year psychology student.

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