After spending nine months in the State of Israel, Bryan Turkel, a brother of Alpha Epsilon Pi and a proud Zionist, returned to Claremont McKenna with full intention of displaying his identity. Upon his arrival, he placed a mezuzah at his doorpost. His father bought it for him in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest city, and Turkel viewed it as a sign of his redefined commitment to his faith and culture. A week later, in a statement of Zionist pride, he hung a large Israeli flag over his window in Green Hall. To him, both items symbolized what was a transformative experience that defines him to this day.
However, within a week or two of it being unfurled, his Israeli flag was stolen. Someone had damaged the screen to his window and snatched the flag from the outside. This act was seen as a political act protesting his Zionism, and could not have been connected to his commitment to Judaism. However, someone stole his mezuzah three days later. The timing was suspicious, as he had been targeted for a second time and the culprit specifically targeted his cultural and religious identity. In a matter of 72 hours, the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism became nonexistent; the vandals blurred the line that should have separated the two ideologies.
Unfortunately, such incidents have occurred frequently, but they intensified over the summer. Following Israel’s counteroffensive against Hamas terrorism, massive protests condemning Israel’s acts of self-defense spilled over into attacks against the Jewish people as an entity. In France, anti-Zionist protestors torched synagogues following anti-Israel rallies. When I was in Boston this summer, people held signs that used the ancient anti-Semitic blood libel against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claiming that he was thirsty for Palestinian blood. Even after the final ceasefire agreement came to fruition in late-August, many college campuses have experienced problems where Jewish institutions faced scrutiny and were targeted by anti-Israel groups for supposed or blatant support for Israel. This disturbing phenomenon of conflating Zionism with Judaism explains how the acts committed against Turkel unfolded.
This must end here and now. The misconception inspiring such attacks is that all Jews are Zionists and vice versa. Such notions are simply incorrect, as there are plenty of Jews that do not identify as Zionist and there are many Zionists who are not Jewish. When discussing Jewish faith and culture, we talk about how our cultures differ in dialects, customs, and food, but we all share the same texts, the same language, the same core values, and, most notably, land of origin. Jews also come from many tribes, including places like Europe; Ethiopia; North Africa Spain; Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. The Jewish people originated from the land of Judea, where the modern State of Israel lies. There are archaeological, religious, and historical connections between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. Attacking a Jewish student in any of those aspects is anti-Semitic. But when it comes to Zionism, the Jewish identity must be separated from politics.
Like every other state in the world, the State of Israel is not perfect. It faces challenges within a hostile environment where its neighbors have historically or continuously called for its destruction. The same way Americans criticize the Obama administration or every other presidency, criticizing Israeli policy and its government has a place in dialogue and debate. But as long as individuals do not cross the boundaries of demonizing, delegitimizing, or holding double standards against the Jewish state, including calling Netanyahu a blood thirsty tyrant or denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, then one can argue objections to Israel are not anti-Semitic. One can debate a Zionist or a pro-Israel student without incorporating aspects of Jew-hatred in the same manner that anyone can criticize the United States without being anti-American.
We as a community must redefine the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. If we continue to conflate political Zionism with Jewish identity and culture, then it will surely keep dividing communities and putting Jewish people in danger. Simultaneously, the same must be said about criticizing Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and terrorism while not conflating Arab and Palestinian identities as equitable to the terrorist-supporting governments. This means that one can be pro-Palestinian as well as pro-Israel, since one can support the self-determination of both peoples while criticizing the actions of those in power in either or both sides of this emotionally-charged conflict.
My greatest concern, however, remains the safety of the Jewish community in Claremont. After Turkel had his second mezuzah torn down a few weeks ago, the end of the blatant anti-Semitic acts in the consortium seems farther than it should. If we wish to seek a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israel conflict, as I do, then we must work together to encourage fruitful, respectful dialogue while fostering a safer place for every Claremont College student to show his or her identity proudly. But it starts with drawing clear boundaries between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. I will not stand idly by as the same hateful ideology that sent my people through gas chambers and pogroms mix with an opposition to the actions of a free democracy. Such conflations are baseless and have no place anywhere, especially on college campuses.
CORRECTION: The sentence “When discussing Jewish faith and culture, we talk about how our cultures share the same texts, the same language, the same core values, but our differences lie in dialects, customs, food, and, most notably, land of origin.” has been changed to: “When discussing Jewish faith and culture, we talk about how our cultures differ in dialects, customs, and food, but we all share the same texts, the same language, the same core values, and, most notably, land of origin.”
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