“My heart is in the East and I’m furthest West.” As a Diaspora Jew who must endure never-ending winters in Chicago, this now platitudinous lamentation by Yehuda Halevi strikes a chord with me. To cope with my displaced heart, I eat at Middle Eastern restaurants, listen to Israeli radio live on my iPhone, and cleave to the sounds of Hebrew, which is why, naturally, I have befriended the closest thing I have to Florentine — the Israeli graduate student community at the University of Chicago.
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Recently, I found myself at a goodbye party for one of these students. I introduced myself to various people, making brief congenial small talk, and was happy to finally meet faces I had seen so frequently around campus.
Late in the night, the party was in full swing. Laughter and casual innuendo permeated the spaces between swaying bodies and intoxicating rhythms. I was engrossed in flirtatious repartee with a charming French exchange student, when suddenly, a girl I had briefly talked with earlier interrupted our conversation:
“I don’t know who invited you, but you’re not welcome here. Get out, you Zionist who writes from your Jewish privilege here in this country against my Palestinian friends."
The floodgates of my tears were opened.
She was referring to my article about anti-Semitic events ensuing from the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, but I have never written about my political convictions – pro-two state or one state, anti-occupation, pro-settlement or otherwise. One's political position is irrelevant to their experience of anti-Semitism.
The girl seemed to be treating me as Sheldon Adelson incarnate, as if I embody the rich and powerful establishment in this country that supports “evil” Israel. I must say, I found it ironic that I, a Mizrahi Jew, was being attacked by a white Ashkenazi Israeli several years my senior on the grounds of my privilege. But more to the point, what did this accusation of Jewish Privilege consist of if not an age-old anti-Semitic canard, dressed in contemporary liberal terminology, that Jews are wealthy and have sinister power?
Furthermore, isn't Jewish Privilege something I am born into – an inescapable set of circumstances? If everything I say or do as a Jew is an act of Jewish Privilege, the term becomes harnessed as a tool to silence pro-Jewish voices — I can neither say nor do anything except condemn the “occupation.” But even then, am I not doing so from a position of Jewish Privilege?
A mutual friend told me that that he didn’t agree with her action, but that he understood where she, a BDS activist, was coming from. He didn’t like the analogy, but to her, seeing me there was like having a Nazi at your party.
So that's what a pro-Israel American Jew who doesn’t actively write against the occupation is, a Nazi?
The concept of the “Good Arab” is well known. Arab-Israelis like Sayed Kashua and Norman Issa who are successful in Israeli society and are loved by Israelis and Jews alike. Implicit in this concept is the notion that these Arabs are in a sense complicit with Israeli oppression and as such are turning their backs on “Bad Arabs” who resist it.
But today, there is also the “Good Jew,” like the girl at the party. The Good Jew shows the world she’s morally superior to Israelis living beyond the Green Line and American Jews who support them. The Good Jew qualifies every statement with disgust toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s human rights record. The Good Jew refuses to go on Birthright because it’s unfair that the program is only for members of the Tribe. The Good Jew calls pro-Israel students “Hasbara Machines.” The Good Jew looks at Sheldon Adelson with disgust, and talks of perilous “Jewish money” and “Jewish Privilege.”
I have been to plenty of parties where I was the only person who didn’t use the word “Zionist” as a curse, and I have plenty of friends that are graduate students in Middle Eastern studies or fellow Iranians whom I completely disagree with on Israel, but that has never disrupted our friendship or the common decency by which we interact. As such, when the girl at the party confronted me, what disturbed me more than her accusations about my Jewish Privilege-inspired views on anti-Semitism was the fact that the criticism came from a fellow Jew; an Israeli nonetheless.
Benny Ziffer recently wrote in Haaretz that for Israeli BDS activists, the “boycott seeks to glorify the boycotter far more than it wishes truly to punish the boycotted.” If the boycott elevates the boycotter more than it reprimands Israel and its settlement policy, then who does it really hurt? Who really pays the price of BDS?
The answer is Diaspora Jewry. We pay for it every time a swastika is painted on a fraternity door after BDS passes in student governments, as happened at UC Davis and Stanford. We pay for it when our colleges become battlegrounds over Middle East policy and stages for mock checkpoints and “die-ins.” We pay for it when donors pour money into this fight when we would all much rather be doing better things with our time and resources.
Most of all, we pay for it through the deep divide it has created within the Jewish community outside of Israel. Israel was once a unifying factor for Jews— secular or religious, Ashkenazi or Sephardi. Yet growing up in a post-intifada era, I have seen the Jewish Homeland transformed before my very eyes into a source of deep, acute division, a source of hatred and deplorable behavior. Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” With the challenges our community faces from external elements, we simply cannot afford to erode from within.
Eliora Katz is an undergraduate studying Economics, Philosophy and Persian at the University of Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter at @ElioraKatz.