Being an advocate for Israel on any American university campus poses a myriad of challenges. As student leaders, we perform a daily balancing act: On the one hand, we must stay true to our Zionism and the Jewish values that define who we are, and on the other we must reach out to those who do not share our views.
Our University of Michigan prides itself on fostering diversity, academic freedom and intellectual discourse. Campus sentiment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be unpredictable: Sometimes the issue is virtually off the radar, while at other times it's at the forefront of debate with the campus newspaper, the Michigan Daily, carrying one op-ed after another on the topic. Given that there are large, active Arab and Jewish populations here, it's not surprising that the situation can sometimes be polarizing.
We represent the two most prominent pro-Israel advocacy groups on campus. We would like to see constructive discourse on this most complicated and emotive issue. We are genuinely eager to understand opposing beliefs and analyze the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from varying perspectives. We want people to know Israel based on an honest portrayal of the situation and we accept that there may be a sharp dichotomy between different perceptions of the conflict.
BUT NOW the framework of dialogue and academic integrity has been virtually shattered. On Monday, November 26, Bard College Prof. Joel Kovel was invited to speak on campus by the pro-Palestinian Students Allied for Freedom and Equality. By inviting Kovel to lecture, SAFE undermined the principal safeguard of academic freedom: intellectual responsibility.
Kovel is the author of Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine, which advocates the elimination of Israel. On his blog Kovel writes, "By forming Israel as a refuge and homeland for Jews from centuries of persecution, and especially by making the Faustian bargain with imperialism, those Jews who opted for Zionism negated their past sufferings, and turned their weakness into strength. But such strength, grounded in the domination, oppression, and expulsion of others, is worthless."
While he's entitled to his opinion, we found Kovel's campus rhetoric deceitful. Calling Israel a "historical mistake" he urged its destruction, commenting that "many states have been replaced; there is nothing sacred about a state."
In his book, Kovel writes, "What is wrong with the Jewish state is the fact of being a Jewish state."
Think about it: What if the statement had read: "What is wrong with the Muslim state is the fact of being a Muslim state."
Would that be acceptable? There are scores of nations that refer to themselves as Muslim states. Would calling for the destruction of one of them be conducive to dialogue on a university campus? Or would it be considered hate speech?
The regents of the University of Michigan have heard a lot on this issue and several of them recently expressed the view that our university should not be associated with a book that calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. However, despite this, our university press ultimately decided to continue distribution of Overcoming Zionism, citing its contract with the book's publisher, Pluto Press. We challenge the Michigan student body to consider what it really means to call for Israel's destruction.
No one is preventing Kovel from publishing his book. But why should our university press disseminate its hateful message? The university has proclaimed a commitment to sustaining its reputation as an institution for higher learning. Distributing Overcoming Zionism jeopardizes this reputation.
Zionism - let's recall - is a political movement that upholds the Jewish people's right to a national homeland. The creation of Israel afforded Jewish people the opportunity to be actors - and not victims - in the international political arena. Israel exists to secure a future for a people who have overcome countless existential threats over the past 4,000 years. Zionism then, is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.
Admittedly, Israel is far from perfect. Its various governments have made mistakes, just like any other country's government, and Israel should be held accountable for these errors. However, criticizing Israel's policies is far different than denying Israel's fundamental right to exist.
What has happened here over the past weeks in connection with Joel Kovel's book is not just a University of Michigan issue - it is symptomatic of the situation on many US college campuses.
The atmosphere created by the anti-Zionist lobby has practically made "Zionism" a taboo word among many American college students. Even pro-Israel students today find themselves questioning whether they should openly identify themselves as Zionists. And some young Jews have even begun to give credence to the stereotypes perpetuated by those who challenge Israel's right to exist. The anti-Zionist lobby myopically blames Israel for everything that is wrong in the Middle East. If we let them get away with it, we would ourselves be "overcoming" Zionism.
As student advocates for Israel we will not let this happen. We are proud supporters of Israel, proud advocates for peace. And we are proud Zionists.
Ingall is a University of Michigan College of Language Science and the Arts, Honors sophomore and the vice president of the Israel IDEA. Gribov is a University of Michigan Ross School of Business sophomore and the vice chair of the American Movement for Israel.
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