Friday, May 7, 2010

Israel on our campuses

This year, Brandies University invited Michael Oren – scholar, author and currently Israel’s ambassador to the US – to be their Commencement speaker. A number of students have been protesting this selection, because they feel that Oren represents a right-wing government whose views and policies are antithetical to their own.

If you read the petition, I think that there are actually some valid points (even if I disagree with the gist). They aren’t protesting Oren’s views per se. Rather, they claim that Commencement, a communal time, is not the appropriate venue for so polarizing a figure. They point to many other occasions when speakers, on all sides of the Palestinian-Israel conflict, have spoken.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis, however, has written a piece explaining what is really, in his mind, so sad about this. It’s not that people dislike this or that policy about Israel. It’s that, based on the rhetoric you hear (and, I’d add, often hear and see on campuses), you’d think that Israel is solely a target of protest for these students. That they find nothing positive to say, think or feel about our homeland:

This is where we are today. For many young American Jews, the only association they have with Israel is the conflict with the Palestinians. Israel is the country that oppresses Palestinians, and nothing more.

No longer is Israel the country that managed to forge a future for the Jewish people when it was left in tatters after the Holocaust. Israel is not, in their minds, the country that gave refuge to hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from North Africa when they had nowhere else to go, granting them all citizenship, in a policy dramatically different from the cynical decisions of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to turn their Palestinian refugees into pawns in what they (correctly) assumed would be a lengthy battle with Israel.

Israel is not proof that one can create an impressively functioning democracy even when an enormous portion of its citizens hail from countries in which they had no experience with democratic institutions. Israel is not the country in which, despite all its imperfections, Beduin women train to become physicians, and Arab citizens are routinely awarded PhDs from the country’s top universities. Israel is not the country in which the classic and long-neglected language of the Jews has been revived, and which produces world class literature and authors routinely nominated for Nobel Prizes.

Like I said, a good case can be made that a polarizing, political figure is not a good choice for a time like Commencement. Of course, a case can also be made that Oren is a high ranking representative of the Jewish State, and to protest him is, on some level, to repudiate the state as a whole.

But, whatever you feel about the Commencement issue, it’s true that Israel is a hard sell among many Jews in college. It’s true that too many of our youth see Israel only as a negative or, God forbid, evil country. And, that’s sad, and tragic.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. There is plenty that I could criticize Israel for (and have done so). But, on whole, I can easily and passionately defend Israel. They are in a conflict which is not of their own making. They have dealt with it very imperfectly, but far better than almost any other country has dealt, or would deal, with a similar situation. And, despite their failings, they remain an extraordinary country, and an immense source of pride for me. It saddens me that so many students, many of whom are the future leaders of the Jewish people, can’t seem to see this.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

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