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Many people have approached me recently to ask how I feel about the use of the word “genocide” in reference to Israel in The Movement for Black Lives’ official platform, which feels weird, because I don’t think the platform is about me. I have genuinely appreciated the interesting, varied, and important conversations I have had about the platform, and its investment-divestment section in particular, but I know I am not the only one who feels frustrated watching the controversy over the word genocide become the dominant story about a transformative political document that lays out a policy approach for a vision of justice and equality.
In response to the platform, some Jewish organizations have decided to distance themselves and withhold support from The Movement for Black Lives. This is not the first time that the Jewish community has conditioned its support for certain social justice causes on the exclusion of Palestinian rights. In a recentopinion piece, Northwestern University student Lauren Sonnenberg wrote that campus activism that links struggles for justice, security, and self-determination in America to similar struggles in Palestine does not make room for students like her. I have heard related sentiments from Jewish students on my own campus: that they are unwilling to participate in activism that recognizes the injustice of Israeli occupation, because they view it as an attack on their Jewish identity. It is not. The idea that social justice movements that support Palestinian human rights and dignity run contrary to Jewish values and interests is not just false: it is dangerous. Our participation in struggles for justice and security for all people cannot be suspended because it is part of our own community that is perpetrating and sustaining injustice.
Much of the Jewish community this week seems surprised that organizers and activists, from allies to members of The Movement for Black Lives, would make support for Palestinian rights and freedom an essential part of their movement’s vision. In her piece, Sonnenberg goes so far as to suggest that the only reason student activists ally themselves with Palestinians is that they want to belong. This assumption dismisses students across the country, many of them Jewish, who choose to stand with Palestinians not because it increases their social capital, but because they feel their principles require it.
I have found that many Jewish students, myself included, are likely to choose to support Palestinian rights despite the risk of exclusion from our Jewish communities. When I joined a Palestinian solidarity organization on campus as the first Jewish member, I struggled to reconcile the tension between my old Jewish “home” on campus and my new political one. I chose to align myself with groups that reflected my political values, and even when that was difficult, I feel it was right. Today, I am working to build Jewish space on my campus that reflects a commitment to both my political values and my religion. As Jews, we should not be made to choose between our conscience and our community.
Increasingly, young Jews are choosing to support Palestinian rights despite pressure from institutional organizations on and off campus. Many of us have committed ourselves to working towards justice for Palestinians because we recognize that ending systemic violence and deeply entrenched inequality requires us to work through our own complex feelings about Israel and relearn parts of history that were kept from us. It demands that we build relationships of solidarity, and that we take action. We have seen the injustices committed by the Israeli government against Palestinians, injustices that include military occupation, arbitrary detentions, discriminatory laws,crackdowns on political free speech, and home demolitions – a system of violence and a denial of dignity that takes place inside and outside the green line.
More than that, we recognize our complicity, and our responsibility. As Americans, we watch our government fund a military that harasses, detains, and kills Palestinians with our tax dollars, sending over $3 billion in military aid to Israel per year (soon to be over $4 billion as Israel and the United States finalize the terms of a new military aid package). As Jews, we have seen Netanyahu tell the world he is ordering these acts of violence in our name. Whether or not we think this systematic violence fits the legal definition of genocide, we know we are watching a government that is doing all it can to displace and dehumanize a people. We should care more about stopping that violence than worrying about what we call it.
American Jews cannot selectively apply the social justice values we take pride in while continuing to pass on Palestinian rights. Progressive organizers in the Movement for Black Lives and activists on U.S. college campuses recognize the connections between justice for Palestinians and justice at home, and we must do the same. We are missing the point when we choose to center the discomfort that some Jews feel about specific language and nonviolent tactics like boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Let’s stop choosing to stand in the way of a vision of full equality and human dignity that includes all of us.
Lena Shapiro is a rising senior at Wellesley College, where she studies political science. She worked for Jewish Voice for Peace this summer.
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