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You Can’t Separate Palestinian Rights from Jewish Values

There’s nothing anti-Semitic about human rights advocacy.

Words: David Elitzer
Pictures: Shahan Khan

The ongoing debate about whether anti-Zionism is, indeed, anti-Semitism has received some fuel over the last few weeks. The US State Department tweeted out a graphic with a concise statement from Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in November that read, “Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism.” A group of Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists, and intellectuals recently published an open letter criticizing the conflation of Judaism with Zionism at the expense of Palestinian rights in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. And Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock has fought accusations of anti-Semitism stemming from past comments critical of Israel. Amidst all the debate, it can be easy to forget that supporting the rights of Palestinians is a Jewish value.

In the US, advocating for an end to the occupation and a stop to human rights abuses against Palestinians is often characterized as anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and even anti-Semitic. Yet for many progressive American Jews, such advocacy stems not from an abiding hatred of Israel but from a commitment to the idea that all humans were created b’tzelem Elohim — in the image of God — and should be treated accordingly. A long tradition of rabbinic teaching on social justice stems from this idea. When we follow the hallowed call in Deuteronomy of tzedek tzedek tirdof — justice, justice shall you pursue — we act for anyone and everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality. Regardless of whether one supports or opposes political Zionism, systemic human rights abuse against Palestinians runs contrary to how they should be treated according to Jewish tradition.

It’s true that a huge portion of the global Jewish diaspora, including in the US, feels a strong attachment to Israel. But just as Israel and Judaism are not one and the same, neither are Israelis and Jews. Efforts to cast non-Israeli Jews as loyal to the State of Israel over their own country is a well-established anti-Semitic trope upon which the Trump administration has repeatedly drawn. On a conference call with American Jewish leaders in September, Trump said, “We really appreciate you, we love your country also and thank you very much.” The country in question was Israel, not America.

As debates rage over Zionism and whether criticizing it is anti-Semitic, the conversation moves away from a point of broad agreement: all humans are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

The conflation of Israel and its politics with American Jewish identity portrays valid criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. No clearer does this dynamic manifest than in the debate over the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement — something that the Trump administration very much recognizes. The text accompanying Pompeo’s Twitter statement on anti-Zionism reads: “The US is committed to countering the Global BDS Campaign as a manifestation of anti-Semitism.” In the eyes of the Trump administration, the more that American public discussion of Israel centers on anti-Semitism, the less it has to justify its discriminatory policies toward Palestinians.

Platforming an Israel discourse centered on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is also an effective means of inhibiting coalition building within the American Jewish community. As with the public at large, Zionism is a divisive topic within the American Jewish community, even amidst progressive circles. As debates rage over Zionism and whether criticizing it is anti-Semitic, the conversation moves away from a point of broad agreement: all humans are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. A conversation centered on duly owed justice for all leads to advocating for the dignity and rights of Palestinians much more forcefully than does a conversation centered on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

This is not to say that there is no place within the American Jewish community for a critical reevaluation of political Zionism. As more and more young Jews reject the political Zionism so dearly held by their parents and grandparents, Jewish institutions are going to have to redefine the terms of their relationship with the State of Israel, assuming that negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians remained stalled and the status quo in Palestine remains unchanged. While this reevaluation will have to take into account how the State of Israel treats Palestinians, not every discussion of injustice experienced by Palestinians has to link back to the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

As with so many political discussions, it’s easy to focus on ideas and lose sight of actual human suffering. The Israeli — Palestinian conflict is not just some conceptually difficult, ideological battle between Zionism and Palestinian liberation. Right now, two million residents of Gaza are facing the collapse of their healthcare system as coronavirus cases rise. Yet Israel, along with Egypt, continue their blockade. When we think about Gaza and see only a political problem, we don’t have to think about what it is going to be like to suffocate to death because there are only 100 ventilators in the enclave. Criticizing the blockade and the ensuing suffering of creations of God is not anti-Semitic. In fact, it would be particularly Jewish.

David Elitzer (@DavidElitzer) researches state violence, cultural heritage destruction, and democratic backsliding. He was a 2017 Marshall Scholar and is an incoming rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

David Elitzer

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