Adjusting Our Microscope
I am a Jewish undergraduate student on a secular campus. At universities like mine, there is a diverse array of intelligent, moral Jewish students. And yet, despite the different political and religious backgrounds, many of these students unite in appreciating the nature and urgency of the media crisis that threatens Israel as well as Diaspora Jewish communities. Campuses on which Jews are a minority have “boycott Israel” campaigns, apartheid walls, and signs equating Israel and Zionism with racism. There have been troubling incidents such as the defacing of the Israeli flag with red paint during “multicultural week.” Some professors and students make anti-Israel remarks during lectures and tutorials, and multiple student groups engage in anti-Israel activism. The majority of students (one hopes) do not care, but also want to “stay out of it”—leaving a tiny core of pro-Israel students who differ in religious and political backgrounds or beliefs, but who nevertheless unite to stand up for Israel. Yeshiva University students may not face this type of environment, but we can use your help.
To outside communities, Yeshiva University, as a formidable modern Orthodox Jewish institution, stands for something, and what comes from it carries weight. Even though many committed (and Orthodox) Jews are not at YU, YU is viewed by many as representative of Modern Orthodox Jews. Therefore, many committed Jewish communities understandably look to YU for support. Thus, it is important that people at YU keep these broader Jewish communities in mind. And, indeed, Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future does valuable work to enhance and strengthen prospects for the Jewish future and to prepare future Jewish leaders.
However, it is not just YU institutions that must be aware of their responsibilities. Student leaders at YU must also be cognizant of the differences and challenges faced by the majority of Jewish students in North America. Unfortunately, some of us on other campuses have been feeling more and more let down by the students at YU. We can understand expressive students who like to consider different viewpoints to get to the most honest and moral position possible. But we are very troubled by statements and articles from some articulate YU students that exhibit an overly negative, overly critical stance toward Israel.[i]
A major example that stands out is a recent Jerusalem Post op-ed by YU student Atara Siegel.[ii] The article, entitled “Why Israel is Losing Support from Jewish Students in US,” takes an overly critical, unforgiving stance toward Israel. In fact, it even seems to suggest that standing up for Israel is not justified.
I respect Atara Siegel, her scholarship, and her past articles in Kol Hamevaser. She has talent and potential. That said, student writers and those involving themselves in public discourse need to understand the vantage point of others whom they represent. And although she may have meant well while writing her JPost op-ed, some of us found it hurtful, damaging, and offensive.
Ms. Siegel, in writing her Jerusalem Post opinion piece, perhaps wished to express indignation at possible evidence of racism and violence in Israel. I believe that she meant to express in a sufficiently vehement manner her revulsion and utter condemnation of any wrongdoing among Jews in Israel, especially since it seemed to her and to others as if these incidents are part of a growing phenomenon among Israelis. If she simply meant to address wrongdoing, then she had very good intentions.
But there is a major problem with her article. Despite her intentions to decry wrongdoing, those who read it receive another message: that it is not worth supporting Israel unless it is flawless, even though other countries do not come close to Israel’s moral standards. This approach does not place incidents in Israel within their broader context. And it is discouraging for students on other campuses who face pressure when they try to bravely stand up for Israel and must also deal with other groups who have no qualms about targeting Israel and only Israel.
It is healthy to have humility and to identify flaws within our own nation—we should always strive to improve. However, Ms. Siegel’s article was published in a forum for a wider and more varied audience, including many who face irrational hatred of Israel that has nothing to do with fringe flaws. And although Ms. Siegel touched on important issues, the conclusions were too drastic.
The title, “Why Israel is Losing Support from Jewish Students in US,” is misleading and highly problematic. Whether or not the title was composed by the author, it is still very off-putting. The title implies that Ms. Siegel is speaking for most US Jewish students, yet most US Jewish students do not attend a unique campus like Yeshiva University, where the majority of the student body is likely to be pro-Israel. Most YU students do not know what it is like to be a student at a typical university, where many Jews confront vastly different challenges and environments from those at YU. Some students from other campuses were, therefore, nonplussed to see an article that allows itself to speak for all or most US Jewish students, that suggests that the writer’s conclusions are shared by most others. The article was written by one student about her personal experience. It is not representative of the varied experiences of pro-Israel students on other campuses. It is problematic for one person on a Jewish campus to generalize based on limited anecdotal experience, presenting her individual experience as the reason for a trend occurring mostly among people who neither experience her type of campus atmosphere nor share her highly committed and engaged background and upbringing.
Ms. Siegel’s article depicts settlers as largely being violent aggressors. Her only portrayal of settlements includes “settlers shooting Palestinians” and “price tag attacks occur[ring] with…regularity.” This representation bolsters anti-Israel groups like SAIA or SJP (Students Against Israeli Apartheid, or its counterpart, Students for Justice in Palestine, prominent and active on many campuses) who love to use articles such as this as “proof” in their attempts to delegitimize settlers or Israel as a whole. Furthermore, most Jews have a very vague notion of what “settlements” and the “Green Line” are in general, and tend to lump all settlements together. People think, “Wow, if an Orthodox person is admitting that those religious settlers are violent and immoral, imagine how much worse the truth must be!” Thus, the article contributes to the inaccurate, generically negative portrayal of settlers and settlements.
The article lacked context in its treatment of the “many…reports of ‘Price Tag’ attacks.” Ms. Siegel could have presented Yitshar as the disturbing exception that it is. She could have proceeded to mention mainstream yishuvim – which most people never hear about, and which house some of the most moral, sensitive human beings – such as Alon Shevut, Neveh Daniel, and Efrat, or she could have noted the Rami Levi supermarket where Palestinians and Jews coexist, working and shopping together in peace. Nothing was mentioned about the many cooperative initiatives by Israel and the many positive interactions between “settlers” and Palestinians.
Of course we condemn racism, vandalism, and unprovoked violence, but this is condemned in Israel, too. The article suggests that the “Price Tag” attacks are “tolerated,” but reluctantly concedes that “many important politicians as well as ordinary citizens have deplored recent…statements and incidents.”[iii] Why does the author belittle these points? Instead of ostracizing Israel for what we perceive as an insufficient response, we must remember that Israel does respond. This article inadvertently fuels those pushing anti-Israel or anti-settlement agendas, and misleads those who are unaware of the nuances and reality of the situation.
Ms. Siegel cites “[p]oliticians making veiled and not-so-veiled racist statements about African migrants.” While there may have been some racist comments about the African migrants, there was no consideration that other comments may have just been valid concerns about security and demographic issues that apply to Israel’s unique situation. Although concerns about people claiming refugee status may invariably sound unwelcoming, they should not be categorically considered racist. Speaking of illegal migrants as “infiltrators” does not sound pleasant, but it is not racist either. The refugee situation is a complex, sensitive and painful issue, but not simply a race issue.
Moreover, there was no recognition in the article that distasteful comments are not unique to Israeli parliamentarians. Would we stop supporting the United States because of a few extremists, or because of some distasteful comments from representatives in Congress?
The JPost article went too far, sending the strong message that it is not worth supporting Israel if Israel is not perfect, if there is some activity in Israel that does not adhere to our ideal standards: “But even one racist slur is a problem, even one unprovoked price tag attack damages Israel’s claim to have the moral high ground in its relations with Palestinians.” We should be dismayed at bad behavior, and try to stop it in an effective way, to the extent it exists. But to say that instances of “racist slurs,” or even some materially tangible, destructive acts ruin “Israel’s… moral high ground” is unreasonable. It is simple to illustrate why.
When one has ninety-five points out of one hundred on an exam, would one suggest that the five mistakes should disqualify the ninety-five correct responses? When other test scores range from twenties to seventies, whether the final grade is absolute or bell-curved, the score is still the top of the class by a significant margin.
Israel is surrounded by enemies engaging in gross human rights violations. And yet, faced with local and external hostility, Israel still manages to maintain an army with impeccable moral standards.[iv] In relative and absolute terms, Israel has a superior ethical track record. No country is above reproach and we wish there were no mistakes, but there are distasteful elements in every human society. It would not be realistic to expect perfection anywhere. In our imperfect world, Israel’s few misdemeanors do not outweigh her overwhelming positive achievements. We cannot treat Israel as if in a vacuum. The problematic aspects must be compared in size, proportion, and nature with the behavior of other societies.
It is saddening for a pro-Israel student on a secular campus to read that someone feels unable to lobby for Israel because of some fringe violence or distasteful comments. Ms. Siegel writes about how, due to stories of misconduct by Israelis, she “could…not bring [her]self to spend a day urging [her] elected representatives to financially and politically support Israel.” This statement unfairly magnifies the misbehavior of a few to represent Israel as a whole. It alienates pro-Israel, Zionist students who encounter anti-Israel campaigns in public spaces on their campuses, and who know that there are many who are vocally antagonistic to Israel but silent about regimes that commit actual atrocities. Israel has few friends in the international arena, and yet Israel provides jobs and humanitarian aid to those who antagonize her. It is, therefore, crucial that we support Israel and encourage others to support Israel as well. If we do not support Israel, she will be truly alone.
Ms. Siegel writes that after “reading about the recent Yitzhar shooting” she “cringed… this article was jolting enough. But the real problem…is that there are too many of these articles.” Ms. Siegel raises an important point about too much violence in Yitshar and too many articles about the violence there. But there are too many articles unfairly picking on Israel, and not enough articles showcasing the immense good that occurs there; hardly any reporting the good that goes on in the “settlements.” The overwhelming focus on Israel’s flaws may influence people to think that Israel is a terrible place and not worth supporting. It is worrying that well-read, caring, articulate people feel such discomfort from disproportionate media portrayal – to the point that they abstain from lobbying for Israel, that they are influenced to be silent rather than giving Israel the vital support she needs.
None of us likes when some of our own act in a way that does not measure up to our ideals. But most of us outside YU hear criticism of Israel all the time, and it is often unjust or hypocritical. The response of many Jews on other campuses is not to believe negative media portrayal automatically, but to ask: Is this a balanced, proportionate, accurate depiction of events?
We aim for high standards and recognize that self-reflection is important. But it is damaging to criticize ourselves without looking at context; it is patronizing and hypocritical if we do not demand moral standards from others, too. Unfortunately, many castigate us without criticizing themselves or other groups; some use our attempts at honest self-criticism against us. We must carefully consider the consequences of our well-intentioned words.
If there is a lack of support by North American Jewish students, it is not because of a few unpleasant-sounding incidents; it is more likely because the incidents are blown out of proportion. In the words of (or at least, in a phrase commonly attributed to) Mark Twain: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” There may be a significant problem of students “distancing” themselves from Israel,[v] but the solution to this issue is not clear. And many Jews who are not advocates for Israel are simply apathetic because they are not knowledgeable enough about the issues and details, or because they are not aware of, or connected to, Judaism or Jewish communities. That problem is a serious one. Concluding that “US students [are] not supporting Israel” because of Israel’s flaws obfuscates this problem.
We cannot afford to spend too much time scrutinizing our blemishes under a microscope. Israel is situated in a belligerent, threatening environment; yet, in spite of the challenging circumstances, Israel still shines morally. Let’s remember to have hakkarat ha-tov, to appreciate the big picture. Focusing only on flaws within Israel is unproductive, and it distracts people from truly horrendous situations in the world.[vi] Too much humility or fastidiousness can send a false message that Israel is not a good and moral place overall, or that it is in the same category as those that are truly immoral. And if we want Israel to continue to thrive, with a proud, strong Jewish community within Israel and outside of it, we must present the big picture.
If you write or voice public statements about Israel or any topic of import, consider the possible impact of your comments and actions. Greater awareness about other student communities can strengthen all of us. There are many Jewish students today who are not very connected to Israel. Those of us who are committed and connected to Israel must step up to the plate. Remember, you represent an institution that serves as a pillar for other vibrant Jewish communities. Please continue to support Israel, even as we recognize that there are areas to improve.
We need a strong core to confidently, intelligently, articulately speak out in support of Israel and the Jewish communities, “the nation that stands alone.”[vii]
Elisheva Friedman has been studying Jewish Studies, History, and Education as part of the Concurrent BA/BEd program at York University in Toronto. She is graduating this June and is preparing to make aliyah later this summer.
[i] Many were dismayed at the recent news that students from Cardozo Law School bestowed an award on the notoriously anti-Israel former president Jimmy Carter. Unfortunately, few outside YU realize that Cardozo has a much more varied group of students than that of the undergraduate programs at Yeshiva University. The Cardozo incident unfairly harms the reputation of YU, as it is not truly representative of Yeshiva University. However, hearing the news and the inaccurate conflation of Cardozo with the rest of YU reminded me of a problem that is also present within the undergraduate YU student body. More troubling than Cardozo student initiatives are articles and statements coming from a few of the most erudite and articulate undergraduate students that seem to show a lack of perspective or an overly critical approach to Israel.
[ii] Atara Siegel, “Why Israel is Losing Support from Jewish Students in US,” The Jerusalem Post, 12 Jan., 2013, available at: www.jpost.com. All subsequent quotes from Siegel are from this article.
[iii] The government is also trying to do something productive to stop these acts: See Akiva Novick, “Shin Bet to Educate Hilltop Youth,” Ynet News, 16 May, 2013, available at: www.ynetnews.com.
[iv] As Dr. Shawn Zelig Aster points out, it verges on the immoral by endangering its own citizens to prevent “collateral damage” (Shawn Zelig Aster, “Explaining the Dead Children of Gaza- and How to Avoid them,” YU Commentator Online, 5 Dec, 2012, available at: www.yucommentator.org). One notes that Aster starts by writing, “It is hard for outsiders to grasp…” We should keep this introductory phrase in mind when we read news about Israel.
[v] See Dr. Lisa D. Grant, “A Vision for Israel Education,” (Paper Presented at the Network for Research in Jewish Education Conference), 2 June, 2008, available at: www.virtualmelton.huji.ac.il. See also Dr. Daniel Gordis’ concerns about some JTS rabbinical students: Daniel Gordis, “Of Sermons and Strategies,” The Jerusalem Post, 1 April, 2011, available at: www.jpost.com. (And see his piece affirming his points and responding to dismissive reactions to his original article: Daniel Gordis, “Jokes My Grandfather Told Me,” Daniel Gordis, 16 October, 2011, available at: www.danielgordis.org. See also an op-ed following up and expanding on Gordis’ original article: Gary Rosenblatt, “Alienation from Israel Hitting Liberal Seminaries,” The Jewish Week, 3 May, 2011, available at: www.thejewishweek.com.)
[vi] See article by Roz Rothstein and Roberta Seid, “Dangerous Decoy: Ignoring Human Rights Abuses,” Jerusalem Post, 20 April, 2013, available at www.jpost.com.
[vii] Bamidbar 23:9.