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Living our values

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The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has been troubling for many years, but as a result of the Israeli Defense Forces’ attacks on Gaza protesters this spring, we have noticed far more media attention on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than past atrocities in the conflict. In the last month, the I.D.F. has killed more than 30 Palestinians and injured hundreds more. One of these 30 Palestinians was a journalist, Yaser Murtaja, who was shot to death by the I.D.F. while covering the protests along the Gaza border.

We have noticed that Swarthmore students, perhaps because of the recent violence in Gaza, are engaging more with the larger issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, so we wanted to add our voices to the mix. While both of us feel a strong cultural connection to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as American Jews, we believe this is an issue that affects all members of the Swarthmore community. Inclusive dialogue that respects the viewpoints of all participants is essential since, for so many of us, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is sensitive and emotionally charged.

Israel was created after the atrocities of the Holocaust so that Jews would have a homeland where they would not be persecuted. But the historical persecution of our people does not justify oppression of other people. We therefore think it is wrong when Israel denies Palestinians their right of return — a right guaranteed by the United Nations — and excuses this denial with the fact that if every Palestinian refugee came to Israel then Jews would no longer be the majority

Israel grants citizenship to all Jewish people because they believe Jews deserve the right to live in the land of their ancestors. But Palestinian refugees, many of whom were displaced during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, have ancestors who lived in the very same land.  Even in the case of family reunification, Israel denies Palestinians the right of return to their ancestral homeland. Allowing Jews across the world to move to Israel and gain citizenship while barring Palestinians from doing so is blatant ethnic discrimination.

The problem is made worse because many supporters of Israel view criticism of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism, which makes meaningful dialogue impossible. Authors like attorney Alan Dershowitz pioneered this strategy of conflating even modest critique of Israel with anti-Semitism. We recognize that some critics of Israel may be anti-Semitic, but it should not be the case that all criticism of Israel is impermissible because of the scourge of anti-Semitism.

We unequivocally and wholeheartedly condemn anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism forced Ben’s grandparents out of Poland after World War I. Emily’s grandfather had to flee Nazi Germany; the Nazis murdered her great-great-grandparents because they were Jewish.

We know that anti-Semitism is still alive today and is on the rise in many countries. We even see it in our own lives. The Jewish Community Center where Emily celebrated her bat mitzvah was the target of anti-Semitic vandalism. Mere acquaintances have made jokes about the Holocaust to both of us without batting an eye. But we do not think that discrimination against Palestinians will protect our community from anti-Semitism. Nor do we believe anti-Semitism should be used as an excuse to condone violent and illegal actions taken by the State of Israel.

We have a responsibility to call out Israel’s oppression of Palestinian people because of our Jewish identity — not in spite of it. In the Torah portion “Mishpatim,” or laws, there exists a commandment which is crucial to Judaism: “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).  This law appears multiple times in the Torah, even in sections not reserved for the recitation of laws, such as Leviticus 19:33: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.”

The principle of treating strangers well is also one of the main messages of Passover. When we read “you shall not mistreat a stranger” during our Seder service, the message we hear is that Jews must never be the oppressor because Jews know what it is like to be oppressed, “for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This message applies today just as it did in biblical Egypt.

Being oppressed is, in many ways, synonymous with being “the stranger” even in your own land. This is the whole point of Passover and why we invite strangers to our Seder table.

So this year at Passover, as we read aloud the importance of showing kindness toward strangers, we felt the tragic irony. At the same moment we were reading our Haggadahs, members of the I.D.F. were violently attacking protesters in Gaza. The State of Israel, “the Jewish State,” was violently oppressing “the stranger” during the same holiday that teaches Jews to do the opposite.

Our Jewish values teach us that we must seek answers to difficult questions. How can Israel allow its military to kill and injure Palestinian protesters? How can Israel continue to blockade the Gaza Strip when millions of Palestinians living there are suffering? How can Israel restrict the movements of Palestinians within Israel and the West Bank? By raising these questions and expressing our concerns about these policies, we seek to be true to our Jewish values.

Our Jewish values also teach us that we must reject oppression wherever we see it. We reject oppression in Yemen, Syria, Burma, North Korea, Chad, Saudi Arabia, the United States — and in Israel. And because Israel is a Jewish State and the United States strongly supports Israel, we feel the need both as Jews and as Americans to speak out about oppression in Palestine/Israel.

We hope this article can continue the dialogue that exists on campus in a nuanced and inclusive manner.  Our goal is to start conversations, rather than ending them, and we hope that anyone who wishes to engage with either of us personally feels free and welcome to do so.

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