When did ‘pro-Israel’ become a bad word?

Feb. 28, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

Sarah Wishingrad’s recent Daily article regarding communal attitudes towards Taglit-Birthright trips to Israel features a quote from Michaela Ben Izzy, who claimed, “Birthright is pro-Israeli by nature.”

My response — so what? Seeing as one of Taglit-Birthright’s stated goals is to “diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities,” Ben Izzy’s comment doesn’t strike me as particularly insightful.

“Pro-Israel” is a vague and amorphous term that takes on different meanings in different contexts. Definitionally, however, the term refers simply to the idea that the State of Israel is worth supporting — in one form or another. For some people, this means valuing Israel as the only true democracy in the region. For others, this means recognizing Israel’s revolutionary contributions to sustainable living practices. Regardless of the definition, being “pro-Israel” is not inherently at odds with being “pro-Palestinian,” although the use of the term in Wishingrad’s article and Ben Izzy’s statements reduces more than a hundred years of Arab-Israeli conflict to the simplicity of a children’s schoolyard brawl.

The implication that there is something inherently problematic about Stanford Hillel’s involvement in promoting free trips to Israel because they may be “pro-Israel” betrays a basic lack of understanding of the region’s nuance.

Furthermore, as someone who “envisions the role of Hillel as a facilitator for discussion and debate,” a statement such as the one Ben Izzy made — “It’s not possible, it turns out, to go to Hillel without encountering pretty intense, pro-Israeli sentiment,” — is painfully hypocritical. If Ben Izzy’s true goal were to further dialogue and discussion on campus, then why would she oppose “pro-Israel sentiment” at Stanford’s center for Jewish life? Doesn’t “discussion and debate” involve engaging with a variety of viewpoints, even those with which you disagree?

I think so, which is why over winter break, I, along with nine other Stanford students — most of whom were not Jewish — boarded a plane to Ben Gurion airport on an organized trip to Israel. The trip was not a Taglit-Birthright trip, but it was one of the group trips targeted by J Street U’s event — and it had been promoted both within and outside of Stanford’s Jewish community.

Over the course of the trip, Stanford’s student delegation asked questions we had always wanted to ask. We learned things we had always wanted to know. About Israel, yes, but also about each other. Our time in Israel held up a mirror, both to American society and to ourselves. Israel asked us, “If not now, when?” Israel asked us, “If not you, who?”

Israel, we found, is both a work of progress and a work in progress. As we all are. But the Israelis we met over the course of the trip were dedicated to pushing that progress ever forward.

During our time in Israel, we met with representatives of Innovation Africa, an organization that brings Israeli technology to African villages, using solar energy to address the electricity needs of over 750,000 people in seven countries. We spoke to Kids for Peace, an organization that fosters dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli youth.

In Jerusalem, we heard from Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, who spoke to us about his experiences working in the media and the primary barrier he sees to peace — the factionalism in Palestinian party politics.

And near the end of our trip, we toured Israel’s security barrier with Col. (Res.) Danny Tirza, its chief architect. In addition to explaining the effectiveness of the barrier in preventing terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, Tirza spoke about his dream for peace — saying that, when peace and security is achieved for Israelis and Palestinians alike, he wants to be the first one to rip the barrier down.

Too often on this campus, we paint extraordinary complexity as black and white. But there are Lebanese refugees who have found homes in Israel; there are Palestinian human rights activists, like Bassem Eid, founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Organization (PHRMG), who are outspoken critics of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. There are members of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) who dream of the day when terror attacks are a feature of the past and the security fence can be torn down.

So, after my trip to Israel, am I pro-Israel?


Is there a problem with that?

Absolutely not.

Being pro-Israel means I understand that the State of Israel has contributed, and will continue to contribute, a multiplicity of positive things to the world and to its people — regardless of race, religion, and ethnic background. It doesn’t mean I believe the State of Israel to be perfect — just as being “pro-American” doesn’t mean one thinks the U.S. is flawless. And if being “pro-Palestine” means hoping for the establishment of a peaceful, two-state solution where Israelis, Palestinians, Druze, Bedouins, and more can live their lives in harmony — then yes, I am pro-Palestine, too.

– Michal Leibowitz

Michal Leibowitz is a fellow with the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA)

Contact Michal Leibowitz at michalgl ‘at’ stanford.edu.


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