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A Few Thoughts on the Situation in Israel-Palestine and on the Campuses

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April 29, 2024 1:47 p.m.

I wanted to share a few thoughts on the ongoing crisis and mess in Israel-Palestine and also on America’s elite college campuses.

First, a thought on the campus situation and this question of whether these protests are tainted by anti-Semitism. I know most about the situation at Columbia, which certainly isn’t to say I’m an expert on it. To me it seems clear that non-students operating on the periphery of the campus have been responsible for the most egregious comments or incidents that almost no one would deny are anti-Semitic. There’s been some of that from students on campus, usually in heated instances when visibly Jewish students are in the proximity of protesters.

But to me these instances obscure a deeper issue. The groups which are spearheading most of these protests — specifically, Students for Justice in Palestine but also others — support the overthrow of the current Israeli state and the expulsion of at least some substantial percentage of the current Jewish Israeli population. This is sometimes talked about as though this is envisioned without people actually being killed at a mass scale or under the pretense that Jewish Israelis have other home countries they can relocate to. But that’s not how overthrowing a whole society works. These views are also embedded in the big chants and manifestos, which you can hear just by turning on your TV.

Is this anti-Semitic? Not as such. It’s a political view that the Israeli state never should have come into existence in the first place and that the events of 1948 should simply be reversed by force, if a solution can’t be voluntarily agreed to. But since a bit over half of Jews in the world live in Israel, that is a demand or an aim that can’t help but seem wildly threatening to the vast majority of Jews in the world, certainly the ones in Israel but by no means only them.

There’s also quite a lot of express valorization of Hamas and the October 7th massacres in southern Israel. That, again, can’t help but seem pretty menacing and threatening to most Jews. But I don’t think this is as important as the first point I noted. The valorization is mainly the kind of revolutionary cosplay that is often part and parcel of college activism.

This gets us to the definition of Zionism. People have used this term to mean many different things over the last century. But the simplest and broadest definition is that it was a historical movement to re-found a Jewish state in Israel-Palestine. Understood as such, Zionism is essentially moot. There is a Jewish-majority state in Israel-Palestine and has been for 75 years. All Zionism really means is that state continuing to exist. If you have leaders of the protests getting caught saying “Zionists don’t deserve to live” … again, pretty threatening. And also unsurprising given the social milieu of groups like SJP.

We can also take a short detour to make a more general observation about college campuses and our society generally. And that is that in educational institutions over the last decade there has been a big push around the idea that it is the obligation of the institution and greater community to ensure that students are not just physically safe but have a subjective perception of their physical and emotional safety. It is certainly the case that this standard does not appear to be applied to Jews and that is in part because in the governing ideology on many campuses they are not seen as actually a minority group or the target of oppressive ideologies in the same way other groups are.

But back to our core point. If it is true that the groups spearheading the protest expressly hold eliminationist goals and beliefs about Israel, it is just as clearly true that the real energy of these protests isn’t about 1948 or even 1967 — they are about what people have been seeing on their TVs for the last six months. And that is a vast military onslaught that has leveled numerous neighborhoods throughout Gaza, led to the substantial physical destruction of much whole strip and lead to the deaths of more than 30,000 people. That’s horrifying. And people know that the U.S. has played a role in it. It’s not at all surprising that lots and lots of students are wildly up in arms about that and want to protest to make it stop.

To me, you can’t really understand the situation without recognizing that Hamas started this engagement by launching a massacre of almost unimaginable scale and brutality and then retreated to what has always been its key strategic defense in Gaza, which is intentionally placing their military infrastructure in and under civilian areas so that the price of attacking them militarily is mass civilian casualties that are then mobilized internationally to curtail Israeli military attacks on Hamas.

This is unquestionably true and no one can honestly deny that this is Hamas’s central strategic concept: employing civilian shields to limit Israel’s ability to engage Hamas in military terms.

But that being true doesn’t make tens of thousands of people less dead. And most of the dead aren’t Hamas. So if you’re a student you say — along with quite a few non-students in the U.S. — all that stuff may be true, but what I’m seeing is the ongoing slaughter of thousands of innocents and I absolutely need that to stop, especially if it is being carried out directly or indirectly with arms my tax dollars bought.

Both of these things are true. And this was brought home to me by a post on Twitter over the weekend by an academic named Dov Waxman who is the chair of Israel studies at UCLA and runs a center devoted to Israel studies at the university. I recommend reading the post. But the gist is essentially that he agrees on protesting what has happened in Gaza, is a long time opponent of the occupation and supports greater equality for Israel’s Arab minority. But he can’t participate or support these protests because of what I noted above — because the groups running the protests (which is different from the participants) want Israel itself dismantled.

All of these things are true. They can be true at the same time.

In these moments we sometimes hear people say, well, don’t try to police the decisions of an oppressed group. This gets to the rub of this issue. The real world isn’t black and white. Groups don’t fit neatly into boxes of oppressed and oppressor. People can have whatever beliefs they want and protest about whatever they want. But the groups who are the targets of eliminationist political goals can make their own decisions about what to associate with and what not to.

And here let me shift gears to my next main point. The last six months have thrown me very hard back on to defending the existence of Israel, its historical connections to Jews in Europe and the Middle East before the 20th century, its origins as the political expression of a people who are in fact indigenous to Israel-Palestine. And that’s because all of these things are now questioned and attacked as core propositions.

But the reality is that these conversations, often harrowing and angry, are simply diversions from anything that creates a path forward from the terrible present. There are two national communities deeply embedded in the land. Neither is going anywhere even though there are substantial proportions of both communities who want that to happen to the other one. There’s no way to build something sustainable and dignified without both peoples having a state in which they have self-determination and citizenship. That’s the only plausible endpoint where violence doesn’t remain an ever-present reality. How you get there is another story. And yes, if you think one unified state makes sense, God bless you. If you can get majorities of both groups to agree to that, fine. I don’t live there. If that’s what they want, great. That’s almost certainly never going to be the case. And it’s a failed state in the making.

But none of these arguments about 1948 or 1967 or indigeneity or “settler colonialism” really impact or have anything to do with getting to some two state/partition end point. And no I’m not saying for a moment that that will be easy to get to. It seems terribly far off. But fantasies and alternative histories won’t get us there.

Oslo gets a bad name today. And perhaps that’s fair since it failed. And failure is a bad thing. But we shouldn’t ignore the irony that we have spent the last six months in the grip of Hamas and Benjamin Netanyahu. And if you look back at the period from 1993 to 1996, there are two players who destroyed Oslo, as a matter of strategy and design. Netanyahu and Hamas. They both saw it as in their interests to kill it and they did kill it. You can question the good faith of the key actors of both sides of Oslo. But those two are the ones who set out to kill it and did kill it. They have always been, in effect, allies.

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