What About Non-Zionists?

Palestinian East Jerusalem | CC via Wikimedia Commons

In an interview with New Voices last week,  Jewish educator David Harris-Gershon expressed his support for Swarthmore’s Hillel brave declaration, and recounted his own experiences of being banned from speaking at the UC Santa Barbara Hillel chapter for his political views. In the interview, Harris-Gershon recognized students’ “right to a space free of anti-Israel activity,” but clarified that this does not necessitate banning “people, such as myself and Peter Beinart – progressive Zionists who believe in Israel as a Jewish, Democratic state.” For many of the participants in the Open Hillel debate, the choice seems obvious: either you are Zionists of some sort, or you are “anti-Israel.” After all, isn’t anti-Zionism “the belief that this country should not exist”? Isn’t this “a morally repugnant idea” comparable to those of the Ku Klux Klan? 

Actually, no. I’m a non-Zionist Israeli studying in the U.S. I want my country to thrive; I also want my country’s regime to reflect two of my values: equality, and friendship. Equality means abolishing more than fifty laws that currently discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in the name of Zionism. For instance, if I live in Tel Aviv, and I want to marry a Jew who lives in the West Bank, that’s legal. But if a Palestinian, who is an Israeli citizen like me, wants to marry a Palestinian from Ramallah, that person will be barred from receiving Israeli citizenship.  Another example: the Jewish National Fund, which controls 13% of land in Israel – most of it appropriated from Palestinians after 1948 – cannot lease land to non-Jews, according to its charter. Unlike Peter Beinart,  I support full legal equality in Israel, the kind Jews enjoy in the U.S. No more double-standards.

But I don’t just oppose discrimination as an abstract concept. I know its impact on real people. My friend N. was born in Jerusalem, but she currently cannot even visit her home town. The government has a policy of revoking the residency of Palestinians from Jerusalem, so N. now lives in California. I would like her to be able to live in Jerusalem, which would make it easy for me to visit her. When in Israel, I’m based in Tel Aviv, only an hour away.

I also think of another friend, M. who lives in a village in a Galilee. M. has relatives all around the world who are profoundly attached to this village, where their family resided for centuries before 1948. M. would like not just to see her relatives on Facebook, but to live with them. I wish my government didn’t oppose that.

You may still find my views “morally repugnant.” That’s fine. As an Israeli studying in the U.S., I feel similarly about students who identify with AIPAC. This is an organization that has been aggressively promoting legislation to bring the U.S. and Israel closer and closer to a war with Iran. But if such a war were to break out, the Iranian missiles would fall not on AIPAC lobbyists in the U.S. They could fall on my relatives and friends in Tel Aviv. They could fall on me. Nevertheless, Hillel recognizes Jewish student groups that openly identify with AIPAC. Hillel’s President, Eric Fingerhut, can write joint op-eds  with AIPAC staffers who have threatened to take over student government at my school, UC Berkeley.  And Mr. Fingerhut, who is neither Israeli nor a student, can ban a Jewish Israeli student like me from speaking to other students at Hillel. As he declared, “anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”

For me, being non-Zionist comes from a place of hope: I believe my generation really can fix some of the injustices of the past by abolishing the structures of inequality that cause so much suffering in my country.

Mr. Fingerhut is reportedly negotiating with Swathmore Hillel over what happens next. I hope these negotiations don’t lead to new guidelines, directed against non-Zionists. Open Hillel should include me too.

Tom Pessah is a Jewish Israeli student at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been active in the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.

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