Living Our Values

8 mins read

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has been troubling for many years, but as a result of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attacks on Gaza protesters this spring, we have noticed far more media on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict attention than past atrocities in the conflict. During the last month, the IDF 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 IDF 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 the 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 Palestinians 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 whole-heartedly condemn anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism forced Ben’s grandparents out of Poland after World War I. Emily’s grandfather fled Nazi Germany because of anti-Semitism; 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 vandalization. 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 shows up 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 IDF 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.


  1. I’m a Jewish alum. I appreciate the thoughtful, respectful tone of this piece, and its appeal to the values of welcoming the stranger. However, I believe the authors have overlooked some crucial differences between the Palestinian refugee crisis and other refugee crises around the world. The difference goes back to 1948 and the establishment of UNRWA, the only UN agency dedicated to a specific refugee crisis. People born in Jordan or Lebanon whose grandparents were Palestinian refugees are considered Palestinian refugees themselves. This is a different definition than is applied to every other group of refugees in the world by UNHCR.

    At one point in my career, I was looking at population figures with a senior demographer from India who explained to me that he was a refugee from Pakistan when he was a small child, but once his family had settled in India he was no longer a refugee. In the last 1940s through 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Jews from Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and other countries fled to Israel as refugees, where they became citizens, while these countries refused to accept Palestinian refugees as citizens.

    This dichotomy in the treatment of refugees 70 years ago is at the heart of the current crisis, and it is disheartening to see that the authors of this piece do not seem to know this history.

  2. Israelis’ right to life is more important than Palestinians’ right of return.
    Palestinians’ murdering innocent Jews led to the war which created the refugees.
    Israel would be placing its citizens in danger if Israel were to allow the return of the same
    Palestinians who were murdering innocent Jews.

  3. Palestinians have been oppressing Jews for centuries.

    In 1839, the British consul, William Young, said that the poor Jew in Jerusalem…lives from day to day in terror of his life….Young attributed the plight of the Jew in Jerusalem to “the blind hatred and ignorant prejudice of a fanatical populace,”

    New York Times December 29, 1878
    Crowded together in the worst lodgings, or in the dark cellars under a synagogue building, without food, fuel, or water –even water at Jerusalem being a commodity of price – numbers died of starvation and various diseases, while others went raving mad. Those who could labor were denied employment by the bigotry of the Mussulmans and of the Oriental Christians.

    Notice the date. This was before the first Zionists arrived in Palestine. Notice the word bigotry.

    and now Palestinians oppress Israelis

    Running over Israelis is oppression.
    Stabbing Israelis is oppression.
    Shooting Israelis is oppression.
    Firing rockets at Israelis is oppression.
    Blowing up Israelis is oppression.
    Throwing rocks at Israelis is oppression.

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