Jewish Student Groups Should Discuss the Palestine Conflict

Asher Kaplan

I recently took a nine-hour bus ride to Baltimore to represent JStreetU Oberlin at the 2012 Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly. I went to the General Assembly to talk about Israel — I wanted to tell the adults of my religious community that, in spite of my close tie to the state of Israel, I cannot support the policies of our homeland that cause pain and suffering to a Palestinian people with just as much a right to self-determination as we have. I wanted to show them the hypocrisy so obvious to me, that the occupation of the Palestinian territories directly contradicts the Jewish values of tikkun olam and tzedakah, two core values of the JFNA, which, according to the charity’s website, is among the top 10 charities on the continent and “protects and enhances the well-being of Jews worldwide through the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (charity and social justice) and Torah (Jewish learning).”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a divisive issue among American Jews, so I expected there to be some amount of argument over the issue. But in Baltimore, I didn’t hear much discussion at all. I watched the generation before mine celebrate American Jewish tikkun olam — contributions to global efforts for civil rights, social welfare and charity aimed at both Jews and non-Jews — but no one I met was eager to talk about the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. At an event sponsored by Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, I spoke with a woman who works for her local Jewish Federation. She traveled to Baltimore to discuss questions pressing the Jewish Federations today — questions of how to direct funds to the right charities, how to encourage the next generation to give back to their communities, Jewish or not, and how to adapt Jewish education to new technologies. She suggested to me that American Jewish philanthropy is separate and distinct from the issue of Israel and that the incredible goodwill of the American Jewish community should not be weighed against the murky ethics of the Israeli occupation.

I disagree. I grew up going to a Jewish elementary school, and I’ve spent every summer since I turned nine at a Jewish summer camp. At every stop I was encouraged to forge a personal connection with the state of Israel through history lessons, student exchanges and cultural celebrations. I was imbued with notions I still hold strong — that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, that it is imperative that there be a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution wherever they may face it around the world and that the incredible story of Israel’s perseverance in the last century is a testament to the determination and ingenuity of my people.

As an American Jew, I am proud of Israel’s existence, but I cannot divorce Israel and its actions from my American Judaism — they were intrinsically tied together during my childhood by the very grown-ups in the American Jewish establishment who now ask me to look the other way. If I choose not to ignore Israel’s harsh occupation of the Palestinian people, where does that leave the social justice championed by my American Jewish community?

The Hebrew word tzedakah is commonly mistranslated as “charity” — every Hebrew classroom collects coins from its students in a “tzedakah box.” The more accurate translation of the word, however, is “justice.” This speaks to the Jewish idea that charity should not come from empathy alone but that one gives because of a religious obligation to seek justice for the less fortunate — those who face injustice. Until American Jewish charity sits equally in my mind with justice for the Palestinian people, I will not allow one to justify the other, and I will not stand idly by as my historically oppressed people become an oppressor.

When I joined JStreetU Oberlin last spring, I felt restless. I was compelled to do anything I could to contribute to the peace process, liberate an oppressed people and help resolve what I see as a moral stain on my Jewish history. For the past two semesters, I’ve struggled with my inner defeatist, a voice that tells me that this conflict has been fought for centuries and will not see an end in my lifetime. That’s garbage. Real, sustainable peace is possible, and the United States will be a major force in achieving that peace. As Americans, and especially for those of us who identify as American Jews, it is important to recognize the power our voices can have and that organizations like the JFNA which represent us can have, whether we realize it or not. It is our imperative to engage our cultural and political representatives and to demand from our institutions, and from our country’s leaders, support for an ethical foreign policy that will assure permanent self-determination and security for both Israel and the future state of Palestine.

JStreetU Oberlin meets Tuesdays at 8 p.m. in Wilder 110.