Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
On Tuesday, the Jewish Student Union held its annual Israel Fest, an event "celebrating the culture, history and people of Israel." After protesting last year, Students for Justice in Palestine, along with other student groups, held a Teach-In to boycott Israel Fest. The University of Maryland Muslim Political Alliance and SJP released an important statement on April 27 addressing why they were compelled to boycott Israel Fest.
It is no secret that I am Jewish and that I have serious issues with contemporary Israel. In the past few years, Israel Fest has generally avoided politics and seemingly swept the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the plight of Palestinians under the rug. The MPA points this out in its address, and it is a fair and important criticism of Israel Fest. The group also points out that Israel's policies toward Palestinians have often violated human rights and resulted in the death of thousands of Palestinians. However, to end the conversation here presents an unfair, simplistic and superficial perspective on the conflict.
There are three important points made in advocating for the boycott. First, proponents of the boycott claim power dynamics place the burden of blame exclusively on Israel. Second, they claim the boycott is not anti-Semitic. And lastly, they claim Israel Fest excuses Israel of its human rights violations and oppression of Palestinians. It is prudent to respond to all three.
The issue with citing power dynamics is that it trivializes the cost beared by both sides and therefore distorts history. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on suffering. Neither were always innocent players in the conflict, and both occasionally presented dangers to each other even before 1948 and the occupation. It is important to understand that neither Palestinians nor Jews can be exclusively blamed for the conflict, as it was in reality manufactured by the British, who made dishonest promises to both sides, a common British practice. Jews sacrificed immensely to gain independence from the British occupation, and while the power dynamics are in Israel's favor now, that was not the reality for the first 20 years of its existence. To play the game of power dynamics and accuse Israel of being "undeniably responsible for the displacement, imprisonment, and killing of thousands of Palestinians," without mentioning the percentage of those displaced, imprisoned and killed who were terrorists targeting innocent civilians, is to have a simplistic and revisionist reading of history.
To respond to the question of anti-Semitism, let me make this clear: Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic. What is anti-Semitic is believing Israel does not have a right to exist. Israel is the Jewish homeland and the state holds both cultural and religious significance to Jews. Jews in diaspora had been trying to return for 2,000 years since their expulsion by the Romans. To dispute Israel's right to exist is to dispute the Jewish connection to the land — both a core tenet of the Jewish faith and a fact supported by a plethora of both archaeological and historical evidence. One can hate the state of Israel, but to deny its right to exist is a different issue. To disregard the facts, deny the Jewish narrative and delegitimize Israel's right to exist is anti-Semitic.
Lastly, I am disappointed Israel Fest has not acknowledged Israel's history with the Palestinian people. Israel Fest needs to be better at acknowledging the failings and challenges of the state. At the same time, celebrating Israel is important to Jews because the state represents the historic realization of Jewish aspirations. When Jews finally gained independence from British occupation, re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in their homeland, they rightfully celebrated. And on Israeli Independence Day, Jews again celebrate this anniversary of the Jewish state. While certain activities in Israel Fest cheapen the Israeli narrative and don't tell a compelling Jewish story — a large frustration of mine — that does not change the fact that Jews have a right to celebrate.
The challenge remains how Jews can celebrate the existence of the state of Israel without marginalizing Palestinian faculty and students on campus. This is an important question that addresses both the very real grievances of Palestinians and the important role Israel plays in the Jewish narrative. Hopefully, groups can come together to make a more holistic celebration in the future — one that both allows Jews to celebrate their homeland and its culture while simultaneously recognizing its problems as well.
Moshe Klein is a sophomore economics and government & politics major. He can be reached at email@example.com.