I thank Kelechi Alfred-Igbokwe ’18 for her recent Opinion piece, “Anti-Zionism Should Not be Conflated with Anti-Semitism,” published on April 27th. The piece raises an issue that has been at the forefront of conversation and unrest on many campuses recently, and one that is important for us to address as a caring and passionate campus community. In my first year serving as Campus Rabbi and Hillel Director here at Wellesley, I have been impressed by our students’ openness, curiosity, kindness, and eagerness to come together across different backgrounds and affiliations and ideas. The world today is in many ways a broken place, but as the singer Leonard Cohen wrote: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Wellesley students are ready to take their minds, their intellect and talents, and use them in the service of healing what hurts their hearts, on a communal, national, and international scale. I admire you and I support you in this work – work that I understand to be holy. A central idea in Jewish tradition is that the world is a broken place but that God needs human beings to be partners in the healing of creation. The term tikkun olam (literally: “repair of the world”) is frequently used to describe the driving force behind the involvement of so many Jews throughout history in social justice and liberation movements.
When discussing complex issues, it is important to clarify the terms we are using. Zionism is defined as the movement (created out of centuries of oppression and persecution of the Jewish people at the hands of multiple governments and populations) to establish and protect a Jewish state in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.
Criticism of Israel’s government and policies is prevalent among Jews living within and outside of Israel, and such criticism in no way makes one an anti-Zionist. However, when one nation, the only Jewish nation on earth, is singled out for censure and condemnation, it seems to many Jews that there is anti-Semitic sentiment at work. This is why the term “anti-Zionism” evokes anti-Semitism for so many Jews. It is important to distinguish anti-Zionism from criticism of Israel as a nation.
As Daniel Gordis wrote in the New York Times on April 4th, 2016: “…[Much ] of the criticism of Israel to which we are witness today goes far beyond the pale of legitimate critique. The United Nations is ground zero in this phenomenon. Last month, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women condemned only one country for violating women’s rights. It was Israel, which it accused of violating the rights of Palestinian women. Coincidentally, on the very same day, as the U.N. Human Rights Council closed its session in Geneva, it condemned Israel five times more than any of the U.N.’s member states. Is Israel a greater violator of human rights than Syria? Than North Korea? Than Yemen?”
In November, 2015, UN Watch, the Geneva-based NGO whose stated mission is “to monitor the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own Charter,” reported: the General Assembly’s 2015 session is adopting 20 resolutions singling out Israel for criticism — and only 3 resolutions on the rest of the world combined…Not a single UNGA resolution this year (70th session) is expected to be adopted on gross and systematic abuses committed by China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Yemen, Zimbabwe, or on dozens of other perpetrators of gross and systematic human rights violations.”
The disproportionate nature and ferocity of the UN’s resolutions against Israel have caused many to distrust the UN as a reliable arbiter of Israel’s actions. are impediments to constructive dialogue and, ultimately, peace-making. As Harold Jacobson points out in his recent interview with the BBC: “We want Israel to be a place where Jews and Arabs can live in a two-state solution in peace…but that’s not going to be achieved by attacking the very concept of the state of Israel…What will that achieve, unless your object is to remove Israel from the face of the map? I am prepared to say that anyone who says Israel has no right to be is an anti-Semite.”
While we don’t have to agree with every aspect of any definition of anti-Semitism, it is helpful that the U.S. State Department has weighed in on the question of “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?” It includes: “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.” It goes on to clarify: “However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” If anti-Zionism includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist” then I, along with the State Department, would say that anti-Zionism is indeed a form of anti-Semitism.
I believe that most of us want to live in peace and with opportunities for growth, connection, creation of meaning, and community. When “Zionist’ is used to mean “one who condones the occupation and oppression of another people,” rather than “one who supports the right and movement of the Jewish people to establish, develop and protect a Jewish state in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people,” that is taken by many Jews as an incredibly painful affront to all that we are and all that we believe and hope for. First and foremost, we believe that all human beings are created in the image of God. I hope and pray that we who seek peace, justice and human rights for all realize that we are all on the same side. We can and we must work together to heal this broken world, and I believe in the power of the “Women Who Will,” rooted in historical awareness, and most importantly, in kindness and compassion, to do so. We can repair what is broken in this world when we take the time and the care to mindfully, honestly, respectfully, even if painfully, engage with one another in individual relationships and as communities representing a vast array of beliefs, practices, ideas and histories.
With that goal in mind, I invite any of you to engage in dialogue with me at any time about the issues raised in this piece. Any questions you have, any thoughts or ideas, are more than welcome. I especially look forward to creating opportunities for community conversations on our campus during the next academic year.
If you are interested in learning more, below* are three very recent examples of Jewish leaders from very different parts of the Jewish community explaining why anti-Zionism cannot be so easily disentangled from anti-Semitism. I welcome your thoughts and questions, and I look forward to continuing to build a community of compassion and concern for one another and for all who dwell on earth.
B’shalom (in peace),
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman
Campus Rabbi and Hillel Director
*Recommended/cited sources: Daniel Gordis, Rejecting Zionist Principles is a Rejection of Jews, New York Times, April 4, 2016; Jonathan Freedland, My Plea to the Left: Treat Jews the Same Way You’d Treat any Other Minority, The Guardian, April 29, 2016; Howard Jacobson, interviewed by Chris Cook of the BBC, aired April 29, 2016. Video can be found on Facebook page for “Chris Cook BBC”