Blind Israel Advocacy Will Lose to BDS

Asking students to look away, to defend an Israel so detached from reality, only impedes their ability to fight the BDS movement. Is the real Israel so fundamentally flawed that we must look away?

Simone Zimmerman
Simone Zimmerman
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Simone Zimmerman
Simone Zimmerman

This year, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions initiatives generated unprecedented momentum at universities nationwide. This summer, both pro- and anti-BDS advocates are recharging, preparing students to advocate their side when classes resume. For the organized Jewish community, this in part means sending as many young people as possible to see what is really happening in Israel. I am a product of these trips; I have visited Israel with my Jewish high school, summer-camps and throughout college.

When I arrived as a freshman at UC Berkeley ready to defend Israel, I expected to do so in alliance with other minority communities on campus. I did not anticipate standing on one side of a room among Jewish students opposite a diverse pro-BDS coalition of progressive Christians, Muslims, Jews, Arabs, and other allies. Nonetheless, that reality defined much of my experience as a pro-Israel student on campus when I advocated multiple times against divestment resolutions that charged Israel as a ruthless occupier.

The evidence that pro-Israel students cited to illustrate Israel’s righteousness was seen by our Arab and Muslim peers as proof of discrimination and dispossession. Jerusalem is holy, they agreed, but its holiness is irrelevant if our skin color or creed strips us of the right to worship there, despite having been born there. Yes, Sderot is under fire, but our families across the border in Gaza don’t have the luxury of running to bomb shelters when the Israel Defense Forces shells our cities.

The stories I learned from Palestinian students during my freshman year could not be contested with Hasbara talking points. So throughout college I decided to learn first-hand what terms like “occupation” and “settlements” really meant.

After my sophomore year, I enrolled in a colloquial Arabic program at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. We learned to name foods, ask for directions, and chat about our days. My classroom overlooked the Palestinian village Issawiya and the adjacent separation barrier. At orientation we were warned not to walk through the neighborhoods surrounding the Mount Scopus campus, and were instructed to use public transit or taxis instead to access the rest of West Jerusalem. Once during class I inquired about the realities outside. My questions were dismissed as unnecessary and inappropriate.

Recently a peer at Rothberg posted a snapshot of Issawiya, with a caption about how hard it was to focus in class with such a gorgeous view.

Seeing that photo reminded me that my experience at Rothberg was not an anomaly - too often American Jewish trips avoid the reality of Palestinian life, passing by controversial sites or presenting them as little more than a pretty view to upload to Instagram.

I eventually learned that Issawiya is separated from other Palestinian villages both by that concrete wall and surrounding Jewish settlements. Residents lack sufficient elementary schools and other basic services, while authorities are planning a controversial national park. These were the realities I had to rationalize in BDS debates, though I lacked a comprehensive understanding of what they were.

While some pro-Israel advocates see justifications for home demolitions and settlement expansions, many of us do not. My generation of Jews is overwhelmingly liberal; we value democracy, freedom and compromise. Trip leaders know this and want our time in Israel to mirror that: Tel-Aviv as a metropolis of gay rights and high-tech, Jerusalem of spirituality and coexistence.

Occupation is, unsurprisingly, absent from their itineraries. I understand why Jewish educators laud Israel experiences as the best way to inculcate youth with love and connection to Israel - it certainly worked on me. But wouldn’t Jewish students be better prepared for substantive political conversations if we had authentic confrontations with the realities of occupation? If so, why are educators still so desperate to hide them?

After my freshman year, I found myself one evening in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah with a Palestinian family, learning how they had been dispossessed of their home by Jewish settlers. It was my first encounter with victimhood in Israel that wasn’t Jewish. Asking a prominent Israeli writer to explain this situation worsened this dissonance. He drives past Sheikh Jarrah every day; all he could do was shake his head and say, “I try not to look.”

Asking students to look away, to defend an Israel so detached from the reality on the ground, is deeply disconcerting. It makes me wonder: is the real Israel so fundamentally flawed that we can’t bear to see it? That engaging it is hopeless? If so, what's the point of Israel advocacy?

Experiencing Israel in its entirety is what solidified my commitment to Israel. In Sheikh Jarrah, Issawiya and across the region there are inspiring, passionate Israelis and Palestinians, dedicated to ending injustice in their communities. For them, local developments are a matter of existence, not just an intellectual exercise. Meeting them renewed my belief in the promise of an Israel that Jews worldwide can be proud of, and compelled me to be an ally in seeing it realized.

Simone Zimmerman is from Los Angeles, CA and a recent graduate of UC Berkeley. She currently serves as the president of the J Street U National Student Board.

View of Issawiya from Mount Scopus.Credit: Simone Zimmerman
View of Issawiya from Rothberg’s campus.Credit: Simone Zimmerman

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