On November 3rd, Stanford hosted Iranian-Israeli musician Rita Jahanforuz. The 50-year-old celebrity has delighted audiences in Israel for decades with her unique blending of music genres from throughout the Middle East. She espouses her intent to “puncture the wall of tension” between Israel and Iran, hoping to bridge divides between people through her multicultural personal background and musical medleys. As she puts it, her aim is to serve as an “ambassador of peace.” Melodious in both her ability to harmonize music and unite people of various backgrounds, Rita is the quintessential multicultural success story.
Earlier this month, the author and radio show host Joseph Braude addressed the ways in which different ethnic and cultural demographics within Israel produces the multiculturalism Jahanforuz celebrates through her music. Mr. Braude was invited to speak at Stanford on the topic of “Jews in the Arab World” from the perspective of a seasoned reporter and an Iraqi Jewish-American. Braude’s talk, which was sponsored by JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), highlighted the little-known story of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Mr. Braude expressed how grave circumstances led to the migration of Arab Jews from Arab lands after the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. Approximately 850,000 Jews were expelled or forced to flee from the Middle East and North Africa.
Just two significant Jewish communities remain in North Africa, in Morocco and Tunisia. The once robust community of a quarter million Jews in Morocco is now 6,000. The Tunisian Jewish population of 100,000 has dwindled to 2,000.
Many of these displaced persons immigrated to Israel. Largely as a result, nearly half of the Israeli population is of Middle Eastern and North African descent, accounting for much of the nation’s diverse ethnic and cultural composition.
Approximately 20% of the Israeli population is non-Jewish, and 14% identify as Arab-Muslim. All citizens, regardless of race or creed, are represented and participate fully in Israeli national politics. Arab-Muslims have held as many as 12 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, and add significantly to the plurality of opinions and perspectives represented in Israeli society.
As Stanford students interested in gaining more comprehensive, nuanced, and accurate understandings of current developments around the world, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is imperative to familiarize ourselves with these stories – the stories of Jews from Arab countries as well as other minorities who have been affected by tension and intolerance. Understanding the origins of current demographic realities in the region will help us to more fully contextualize different narratives on crucial issues affecting Israel – notably among them divestment, which is currently under debate in the ASSU Undergraduate Senate.
The Associated Students of Stanford University are responsible for representing the entire student body, and by extension, exercise discretion and sensibility when considering proposals that will affect the university. The Selective Divestment campaign is connected to the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to undermine reconciliation efforts between the Palestinians and Israelis by singling out Israel as the antagonist in the conflict through a process of targeted demonization.
Much like the United States, Israel is and always has been a melting pot, a nation composed of peoples of myriad ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Yes, Israel is imperfect – no one will deny this.
But let us look at the bigger picture. How does Israel approach its problems? It does so rigorously, through multicultural democratic processes – through public debate, discourse and compromise. The scale is in constant flux. The balancing act never ends. Just as any other society striving toward the ideal of democracy, Israel is working on striking the right balance, to preserve both liberty and security.
Targeting a country populated by peoples of various backgrounds – a country that pursues and strives for justice, congruity, and equality in all facets of public life – is unwise and counterproductive. When the international community condemns Israel, like the BDS campaign does without question, it serves to alienate rather than unite. Perversely but understandably, it makes Israel feel more weary of a world that insists on criticizing and vilifying its actions rather than collaborating in efforts toward peace.
If the ASSU chooses to support BDS, indubitably, many students will be estranged. Many will be extremely offended, uncomfortable, and unaccepted. At a minimum, the ASSU, as a deliberative body representing all the students at Stanford, must understand the consequences of its actions.
Stanford University Class of 2015
StandWithUs Emerson Fellow
Campus Outreach Chair of the Stanford Israel Alliance