Some of you may have seen students munching on funky-looking crackers last week in the dining halls. What you saw was students eating matzah, the “bread of affliction,” in celebration of the Jewish festival of Passover.
For those wondering the reasoning behind such a tradition, Passover commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt following a time of suffering and slavery in this ancient land. The story tells us that in escaping the perils of slavery, the Israelites hurried out of Egypt before their bread could rise. Thus, in remembrance of the hardships and perseverance of our people, every year many Jews abstain from eating any leavened or fermented grain products for a whole week, and we tell this Passover story to ensure it gets passed on from one generation to the next.
After a week of reflecting on the history of my people, my Jewish identity and what it truly means to be free this past week, it was disappointing to see news of Israeli Apartheid Week filling my Facebook newsfeed. Yes, the Passover celebration is a time for Jews to recount ancient stories of oppression and to rejoice in commemorating our eventual freedom from bondage. But it is also a reminder to all Jews, not only that we still face hate and discrimination, but more importantly that it is our duty to combat the oppression of people all over the world.
We may end our Seder (a Passover dinner and ritual performed on the first two nights) with the phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem!” as a hope that we may one day return to this homeland, just as our ancestors did when they escaped from Egypt. Yet the Seder also reminds us of current suffering and our obligation as Jews to work toward eradicating all hate and oppression that still remains. “Next year in Jerusalem” is not only a wish for the Jews; it is a statement symbolic of the drive to create a world more perfect than the one our ancestors lived in and the one that we currently inhabit today. And this exclamation at the end of our Seder also includes a more perfect world for the Palestinians who seek the right to self-determination.
As a Jew, I feel it is my responsibility and honor to defend Israel’s right to exist as a nation. A threat may not seem imminent now. However, a history of discrimination, murder and expulsion tells us that it isn’t unlikely that events could occur in the near future around the world that would drive Jews from their home countries. Israel, our biblical and historical homeland, remains the only safe haven for Jews in such an event.
Nevertheless, I also am quick to admit that Israel has its flaws. The Israeli government, like all governments, makes mistakes and commits questionable acts. Many of these actions do include unnecessary violence and discrimination toward Palestinians in the attempt to protect Israeli citizens and borders.
Yet, regardless of whether Israel’s actions are justified or not, Israeli Apartheid Week is severely misguided. This week of on-campus events and lectures exists solely to depict Palestinians as the victims of a villainous, destructive Israel, and as the victims of the Jewish people’s own right to self-determination. Rather than being exclusively “pro-Palestinian,” the movement often frames itself instead as anti-Israel. Rather than promoting spaces for dialogue to occur among students of all backgrounds, faiths and opinions to learn and advocate for beneficial change, the movement exists to preach the perspective of one side while drowning out the cries of another.
As a Jew who supports Israel but struggles with the controversy surrounding its government’s decisions, I would probably gain tremendously from hearing stories of Palestinian experiences and expressions of their concerns. Yet, by merely attacking a land that lies at the heart of my identity and the identity of so many that I know and love, Israeli Apartheid Week instead opposes who I am and drives me away from the conversation. It misses out on a great opportunity to engage all students in civil discussions in a welcoming environment to learn from those with differing opinions and experiences. And ironically, it fails to understand that as Jews, as people who live every day feeling the suffering of our people in Egypt and beyond, we too seek to end pain and oppression for all people all across the world.
Critics may say that civilized discussions about the conflict are naive and unproductive. While it may be true that a group of college students intelligently discussing these issues is not going to solve our world’s problems overnight, there is no denying that these discussions would be a much better way to engage those with whom we disagree. After all, if the aim of Israeli Apartheid Week is to advocate for the plight of the Palestinian people in order to convince more people to join the cause, then it would make sense to carry out events that seek to involve and educate those who disagree.
Instead, perhaps the goal of this movement is simply to make Jews or Israel supporters feel unwanted and unwelcome on campus. Perhaps the aim is to make us feel ashamed of who we are and the voices that we represent. All of this serves to discount the identity of a historically marginalized group of people in order to paint a complex, gray issue as black-and-white, misguidedly influencing those who are uneducated and uninterested in the conflict to solely view Israel as oppressive and illegitimate.
While Israeli Apartheid Week supposedly works to promote tolerance and freedom, it hypocritically serves to further drive a wedge between groups on campus and within the world at large. Thus, I propose a challenge to the organizers and the supporters of this movement. Don’t just attack Israel and what it represents: Use this platform and your voices to establish a space on campus where students can productively, peacefully and passionately discuss these issues and work toward understanding one another and each other’s perspectives.
Listen to our Passover story, not to feel bad for the Jews and the suffering we’ve endured, but to understand that we too want to inspire meaningful change in our communities and that including us in this conversation will undoubtedly be more productive than driving us away.
I am not a very religious or spiritual person. I don’t keep Kosher, observe Shabbat or abide by all the commandments of the Torah. But the painful history of my people and the cherished traditions that have emerged amidst their perseverance make me very aware of how we are separate from others, motivating my strong Jewish identity and inspiring me to pursue justice in all domains. The story of Passover plays a large role in sparking this drive for freedom and equality.
Perhaps if we can all remember the Passover story, we can strive to listen to one another and work together toward justice. If so, maybe one day I’ll be ending my Passover Seder with my own children, not with a dream of “Next year in Jerusalem,” but by eating and living together in peace and harmony in the Holy Land with Palestinians and people of all races, religions and creeds.