Over the past few weeks, conversations about Israel and Palestine at Wellesley have escalated, receiving both national and international coverage. Articles in Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, and the Boston Globe have focused on recent changes facing the Jewish community at Wellesley, which includes the creation of the Wellesley chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (WSJP).
A poster in the Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center, hung by WSJP, asks, “What does Zionism mean to you?”offering a space for any member of the community to add their comments anonymously. The responses ranged in equal measure from support of a Jewish homeland to criticism of Israeli military campaigns and laws. Anonymous comments written on the poster used rhetoric like “apartheid” and “genocide,” leading to accusations from a handful of students in a recent community post that the campaign itself was “hateful [and] inflammatory.” Such comments are certainly controversial. I have no doubt they are deeply painful for many members of our community, just as many of the comments on the other side were no doubt painful to those who feel that the State of Israel attacks their own right to a homeland. As Jews, we are often told, and we often tell ourselves, that criticism of the State of Israel is not the same thing as criticism of the Jewish people. Still, that message can be hard, even impossible, to internalize. As we saw this summer, increased violence from the Israeli military, such as Operation Protective Edge, correlates with increased attacks on the Jewish people across the globe. Jewish people are often punished for Israeli actions; a synagogue in France was firebombed, and chants of “Death to the Jews” were heard in rallies across Europe. At the same time, Israel promises that the campaigns it undertakes are to protect the safety of the Jewish people both in and outside its borders. Both Israel and its critics have at times irrevocably tied together the futures of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel, so even legitimate criticisms of state actions and state violence feel deeply personal.
I fully understand the impulse to recoil from comments. These conversations are inevitably emotionally charged. Talking about these issues can be excruciating, even terrifying.
Yet these conversations are not only inevitable, they are vitally important. As Jewish students, we need to recognize that the safe and easy conversation we wish for cannot exist, nor should we want it to. Easy answers are not a part of our Jewish values. WSJP has been accused of inciting hate on Wellesley’s campus; these accusations are an attempt to silence public conversation and differing political opinions.
The conversation on college campuses is changing, and Jewish students must be open to being a part of them. WSJP’s work this semester is deeply rooted in education and promise of a public discourse. That’s why the lecture WSJP hosted sought to provide understanding of both Israeli and Palestinian roles in the Occupation. That’s why students from all backgrounds, and with many conflicting views, have attended the lectures and written on the posters to voice both their questions and their opinions. WSJP events have provided spaces for both Zionist and anti-Zionist, Jewish and non-Jewish students to take part in conversation on one of the most deeply divisive, deeply important issues we face. This can never be comfortable; that’s the reality of the conversation. Yet as college students, our goal is to challenge ourselves and each other, and not to accept limits on our academic freedom. Recently, the College president put out a statement calling on the Wellesley community to “support a dialogue that is reflective of the very diverse ideas, opinions, and backgrounds” on campus. The right to these political opinions must be extended to WSJP students as well.
WSJP welcomes both Jewish and Palestinian anti-Occupation voices that have traditionally been excluded from a more established narrative. WSJP was formed to bring the traditionally suppressed Palestinian perspective to campus. This perspective, and the vocabulary it uses, is not a threat to Jewish students, nor is it an excuse for Jewish students to disengage from the conversation entirely. The existence of Palestinian voices, and a Palestinian story, is legitimate and must be taught, engaged with and protected.
In its few months on campus, WSJP has made its principles clear: it values heated discussion, academic education and debate. WSJP holds human rights as non-negotiable and works for justice and against oppression, including anti-semitism, in all instances. I believe that this mission reflects my own deeply-held Jewish values. If the right for Palestinian voices and their allies to redefine their own narrative is considered hate against the Jewish people, then I am being asked to choose between my principles and my community. This is a painful choice, and one I do not feel I should have to make.
Both my Jewish community and my community here at Wellesley have always valued my voice, just as they value the voices of others who disagree with me. The future of our communities rests on our ability to make a home for all of us within our borders, not by asking us to keep quiet, but by asking us to speak out.