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Jewishness in the age of Protective Edge

Trigger warning: graphic violence in the indented quotation that follows

Every floor was covered with wounded patients. We were treating the injured in dental chairs, doing surgery on the ground, doing anything we could to save people.”

In normal times, Kuwaiti Hospital serves two or three cases a day, usually older women. “Our colleagues weren’t used to seeing bodies that were 70 percent burned or decapitated heads,” Homs explained. When one of the hospital’s nurses, Karam Dhair, arrived among the dead, Homs said her female co-workers fell to the ground and fainted.

As the dead piled up throughout the day, Homs was forced to send for ice cream coolers and vegetable refrigerators from local shops. It was in coolers normally used to preserve food that Rafah-based journalist Mohammed Omer saw “the corpses of children, young men and women lying on top of one another, soaked in blood. Many were impossible to identify and only a few have been placed in white burial shrouds.

Such was the horror in Gaza on August 1st. Israel’s Operation Protective Edge killed over 2,000 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians. While Gaza lays in ruins, Rabbi Philip Bregman, the Executive Director of Hillel BC, is organizing a trip to Israel to live and volunteer at an Israeli army base.

Hillel UBC

Hillel purports to be “your Jewish home away from home”. But it is more than that: the actions of the Hillel UBC leadership (by no means of all its members) illustrate both its ideology and its ideological function.

On July 27th, as Israel’s latest assault on Gaza was taking place, Hillel BC (the umbrella group for Hillel chapters in British Columbia) sent out a newsletter with the following statement (emphasis in original):

As advocates and young Jewish leaders, you are on the front lines in the diaspora, in the midst of a heated debate on Israel and Gaza. We at Hillel BC support Israel’s right to protect its’ [sic] citizens. If it were not for Hamas’ aggression and terrorism, there would be no violence in Gaza. We do not condone the loss of innocent life and we stand for peaceful coexistence.

Claiming to “not condone the loss of innocent life” is nothing but a shallow platitude unless the main perpetrator of “loss of innocent life”, the Israeli military, is condemned. According to B’Tselem, a respected human rights group in Israel, 878 Palestinians were killed between July 8th and the morning of July 26th. The vast majority of the dead were civilians: a July 11 United Nations report estimated 77% civilians for deaths until then. In the same time frame, 45 Israelis, 2 of them civilians, were also killed. In total 2,131 Palestinians were killed in July and August; according to the United Nations, only 279 of them confirmed as belonging to armed groups.

The claim that “[i]f it were not for Hamas’ aggression and terrorism, there would be no violence in Gaza” is an extraordinary one, considering that Gaza has been under violent Israeli occupation for 47 years, long before the existence of Hamas. Furthermore, the statement’s blaming of Hamas for Palestinian civilian deaths caused by the IDF resembles one of former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s famous quotations: “[w]hen peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”

In April, Hillel UBC hosted an event by Honest Reporting Canada, an organization which combats the alleged “Anti-Israel Media Bias” of groups such as Amnesty International. In 2012, shortly after Operation Pillar of Defense, Hillel hosted a talk by Israel’s Deputy Ambassador (one might wonder what the reaction would be if it were an ambassador for Hamas). In 2010, Vancouver Hillel hosted a leadership retreat for various Hillel chapters, which included participation by Eli Levine of Hasbara Fellowships, a training program for “pro-Israel activists”. Hillel’s regular programming is characterized by a marked lack of critical discussion about Israel; instead, you can eat shakshuka while talking about “various cultural aspects of Israel.” Meanwhile, Hillel promotes events by organizations such as the Jewish National Fund (an organization with an openly discriminatory land lease policy) without a second thought.

Hillel UBC is a partner organization of Israel on Campus (previously Israel Awareness Club  and Israel Advocacy Club). In 2013, the latter hosted a talk by Matthew White of StandWithUs, a right-wing “pro-Israel” group. In 2010, Israeli Awareness Club members attempted to block a donation to a humanitarian flotilla to Gaza from the AMS’s Social Justice Centre.

Support for Israel, dissent, and refiguring identity

Support for Israeli policy is prevalent among Jewish diaspora communities and institutions. It is reinforced through programs such as Birthright Israel, which provides free (and largely uncritical) trips to Israel for Jewish youth that aim to build emotional and spiritual connections to the country. Leadership programs for Jewish youth often emphasize “pro-Israel activism”. And chapters of Hillel in universities around the world delineate the limits of Jewish student discourse on Israel, whether explicitly through the Hillel International guidelines, or implicitly through an assumed consensus, within which some debate is permitted.

In opinion polls of diaspora Jews, attachment to Israel is often determined to constitute a significant part of Jewish identity. Such figures are not surprising, given the ethnic and religious links Jews have to the region, its image as a safe haven from the genocidal anti-Semitism of the 20th century, and the promise of Jewish self-determination. When faced with the ugly realities of the Palestinian misery incurred through this dream of redemption, however, a conflict emerges between support for Israeli policies and the progressive ideals held by many Jews. Indeed, social justice has long been an integral facet of Jewish identity: Jews made major contributions to the labour movement, the civil rights movement, and socialism. The modern Jewish humanistic tradition includes such figures as Karl Marx, Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Martin Buber, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, and Naomi Klein.

Although there have always been a plurality of Jewish views on Israeli policies, and on Zionism itself, in recent years these divisions have become more apparent. Groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Independent Jewish Voices have become prominent outlets for dissenting Jewish opinion in North America. Political scientist Norman Finkelstein contends that American Jewish opinion on Israel is undergoing a generational shift, with younger Jews being less likely to express unconditional support for Israel.

In the past year the Open Hillel movement, which opposes what many see as suppression of critical Jewish student views on Israel, has resulted in several Hillel chapters at colleges in the United States rejecting the Hillel guidelines. The set of guidelines, adopted by Hillel International in 2010, includes clauses that forbid speakers who are perceived to apply a “double standard” to Israel, or who endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Open Hillel had a conference at Harvard this month, which attracted hundreds of attendants.

During Operation Protective Edge a new group called If Not Now, When? was started by young Jews, specifically targeting Jewish institutions seen as being complicit in Israeli actions. The name derives from one of three questions posed by Hillel the Elder (incidentally, the namesake of Hillel the organization) in the Talmud, the Jewish rabbinical canon. If Not Now, When? draws upon Jewish customs in expressing solidarity with Palestinians; for example, sitting shiva (a Jewish mortuary ritual) for Palestinian civilians killed by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Atalia Omer, a religion and peace studies scholar at the University of Notre Dame, considers the intentional use of Jewish religious motifs and allusions to Jewish values in expressing solidarity with Palestinians a form of “hermeneutical innovation.” It is based, additionally, on a normative conception of Jewish history: that as the inheritors of a terrible history of oppression, Jews have an obligation to stand with the oppressed.

With 47 years since the beginning of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, its actions during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and Protective Edge this summer, and the BDS movement, Israel is increasingly becoming a pariah state in the eyes of international public opinion. We should thus expect an intensification in the conflict between activism for Palestinian rights and the hasbara (“explanation”) campaign of the Israeli state and those who defend its actions.

We need a Jewish identity that is asserted through the condemnation of the actions of a repressive state, rather than being threatened by it. If not now, after the brutality of Protective Edge, when?

  • Margareta Daisy Dovgal

    Though your article does not discuss the merits of the Israeli state in and of itself, this quote by Judith Butler is rather applicable in your discussion of Jewish identity (particularly if within the context of an oppressed people standing up for others): “A challenge to the right of Israel to exist can be construed as a challenge to the existence of the Jewish people only if one believes that Israel alone keeps the Jewish people alive or that all Jews invest their sense of perpetuity in the state of Israel in its current or traditional forms.”