You might wonder what would motivate a Jewish American college student to participate in what may be the most celebrated - and controversial - sea voyage of the 21st century, one that aims to nonviolently challenge U.S.-supported Israeli military power in the occupied territories. I simply cannot sit idle while my country aids and abets Israel's siege, occupation and repression of the Palestinians. I would rather use my personal influence and power, in concert with other members of American civil society, to actively and nonviolently resist policies that I consider abominable. So, next week, I and more than 30 other American civilians will be sailing on the U.S. ship the Audacity of Hope, to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
I am one of a growing number of young American Jews who are determined to shake off an assumed - and largely imposed - association with Israel. Prominent advocacy organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, which proudly proclaim their unconditional support of Israel, for several years have been declaring their "serious concern" over the increasing "distancing" of young American Jews from the state.
But what Israel apologists like the AJC view as a crisis, I see as a positive development for American Jews, who, like other parts of U.S. society, are shifting from blind support for Israel to a more critical position that reflects opposition to our country's backing for Israel's policies.
If Israel's apologists in the U.S. are alarmed by a falling off in unconditional support for Israel, they should be even more concerned that such a diverse range of youth - especially young Jews - are joining up with constituencies that actively organize against America's role in the occupation. Today, the so-called crisis has expanded from the coasts to such places as Arizona. It probably was just a matter of time before a Jewish anti-occupation group emerged in my home state, given that a fairly substantial portion of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on the University of Arizona campus (in Tucson ) were Jewish. For our part, we Jews launched an initial chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace at the UA campus in spring 2010 - one of nearly 30 JVP chapters throughout the country, which has a mailing list of 100,000 - and thereafter branches in the general Tucson and Northern Arizona communities, and at Arizona State University, in Phoenix.
Through JVP, I discovered there were a great many others like me, who were experiencing profound internal conflicts regarding Israel. They included people who had been intimidated from expressing public criticism of Israel, and others who were afraid to speak out in defense of Palestinian rights for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic.
It was clear that a campus JVP opened up a powerful, organic outlet through which Jewish students could safely exchange and process - without fear, intimidation or a need for self-censorship - their critiques, concerns, ideas, knowledge, questions, discoveries and plans to promote achievement of a genuinely mutual peace in Palestine/Israel. Before JVP came along, it wasn't possible to have an open discussion, or feel that we as Jews had an alternative to either unquestioning support of Israel (the status quo ) or staying silent and thus supporting it by default. I myself was silent and timid for much too long.
We are committed to acting out of Jewish ethical traditions, while holding Israel to the same standard as any other state in the international system - no more, no less. Before JVP, there was nothing on my campus that was critical of Israel from an American Jewish perspective. Zero. The group's success demonstrated that young Jews - moved by their cultural or religious values, which include a belief in universal human rights - have been on campus all the while, ready and willing to join a human rights-based cause for justice in Palestine/Israel. All it took to gain support on campus and elsewhere in the state was a potent sprinkling of opportunity, initiative and political will.
In Athens, as I write, waiting to board the Audacity of Hope, I am wearing a Star of David amulet around my neck, which was given to me the night before I left Arizona by a dear friend and fellow JVP organizer. She got it from a silversmith in Haifa while on a "Birthright" trip as an adolescent. For her, it had always been the reminder of the crude brainwashing she felt she had encountered on that trip. But when she came across the star recently, she decided it might be put to good use if I were to wear it on my journey. And so that's what I'm doing.
I wear it as a symbol of the basic values of Judaism that I feel are not emphasized sufficiently today: the imperative to welcome the stranger as you would want to be welcomed; and of helping to free the slave from a bondage that you would not wish to suffer.
As a consequence of various nonviolent actions undertaken all over the world, led crucially by Palestinians on the ground, the Israeli occupation will one day end. Those of us who face up to the unavoidable choice of either tolerating or resisting these crimes will determine how long the death and suffering of mainly Palestinian noncombatants continues, and how long a lasting peace in Palestine/Israel remains out of reach.
Gabriel Matthew Schivone is a Chicano-Jewish American from Tucson, and coordinator of Jewish Voice for Peace at the University of Arizona.
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