I’m an Israeli-American. Let’s talk about it.

Opinion by Zohar Levy
May 25, 2020, 8:56 p.m.

Does the United States have a right to exist? Do the statements and actions of President Donald Trump unilaterally dictate U.S. values or intentions? Is the U.S. military a terrorist organization?

Most Americans would reject these questions as unreasonable and unfair. Many would feel attacked at the very core of their national identity. Even the few who might argue that the U.S. does not have a right to exist virtually never argue for its dissolution. Yet the Stanford community widely accepts these questions as justifiable when “U.S.” is replaced with “Israel.”

In the face of rising anti-Semitism, including violence against Jews and Jewish community centers and outlandish accusations that Jews started COVID-19, one might expect Stanford’s student body to stand up against these injustices rather than contribute to them. 

Nevertheless, as an Israeli-American student, I’m constantly asked to defend my nationality. On my first day of freshman fall, after my classmate and I exchanged our names and their etymologies, they asked my opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the brief moments before class started. My peer demonstrated that mentioning Israel, or even Hebrew, on campus immediately eliminates any of the social norms that empower us to spend time respectfully engaged in intricate and vulnerable conversations. Instead, students seem to feel entitled to demand my nuanced opinion in a 10-second soundbite.

Moreover, the term “Zionism” has lost the conversation it deserves, as many are quick to categorically condemn it. I do not believe that anti-Zionism is always anti-Semitic, and I do not insist that Israel is flawless. As in the U.S., many Israelis also criticize their government and its policies. It is everyone’s civic duty to encourage all nations to work toward peace, prosperity and equality. Like any other country, the state of Israel has work to do. But questioning the legitimacy of Israel’s very existence is anti-Semitic. Jews have a right to self-determination and national aspirations, just like all other people. Zionism is not as simple as people make it out to be. 

Zionism is the Jewish national aspiration to establish a homeland (preferably in Zion, the Land of Israel, but not necessarily so). It does not define the borders of such a state. It does not necessitate removing people from their homes. It does not propose an exclusively Jewish nation, nor does it deny the right of Palestinians to have their own state. Zionism is simply a movement to establish a state for a people that has been persecuted around the world for millennia.

Jewish nationalism stems from the constant marginalization and forced migration Jews have faced. My family is a patchwork of Jewish histories. I am a Zionist because my Mizrahi grandfather, like millions of other Arab Jews, deserved a safe home after he was forced to flee Iraq in 1936. I am a Zionist because my Ashkenazi grandmother needed security after escaping Nazi-controlled Austria. I am a Zionist because I believe that my Sephardic grandmother has the right to continue her ninth-generation lineage of living in Jerusalem. I am a proud Zionist because my father was born in Israel, the only land where my family has been welcomed. 

Because of my own family history, and the larger history of widespread persecution of Jewish people, I am also intensely sensitive to how my Israeli identity affects others. I know that many people have strong feelings about Israel. At the same time, many people at Stanford are unfamiliar with the complexities of the Middle East, just as I am less familiar with any number of complex international conflicts in other regions. However, the increasingly common belief that Zionism fundamentally denies Palestinians humanity or a homeland is both inaccurate and anti-Semitic.

As a Jewish student at Stanford with a strong commitment to human rights, I often feel excluded from discourse intended to protect minorities. Even on this campus, I have been told by peers and professors that all Jews are privileged, all Jews are rich and cheap, all Jews are white and all Jews have big noses. The new wave of anti-Judaism includes a new trope: All Jews who support Israel hate Muslims and Arabs. Normalizing these anti-Semitic assumptions has allowed students to freely express aggression and hatred toward Israel and Israelis. If this slander or abhorrent language were directed toward any other nationality, it would never be tolerated. While Stanford students are quick to say they support all communities, commonplace anti-Israel rhetoric on our campus is clear, repeated hypocrisy. 

Two years ago, a Stanford student posted that he would “physically fight Zionists on campus.” He soon resigned from his role as a dorm’s resident assistant and apologized for his language in a statement to The Daily. The University responded by saying it was investigating the situation. Suffice to say, as an Israeli-American and incoming Jewish frosh that summer, I did not feel safe on my new campus. Ironically, that student continues to lead the Faces of Community initiative, which aims to support minority experiences and make all new frosh feel safe and welcome on campus.

Last week, past tweets of an incumbent Student senator running for reelection conveyed similarly violent rhetoric as she said supporters of Israel should “choke.” I was horrified by her anger toward my identity, and soon realized her tweets were far more dangerous than a physical threat. By her standards, not only did being pro-Israel mean compromising my progressive values, but I was alarmed to see that she even went so far as to compare supporters of Israel to sexual predators. Although she apologized to the Stanford community with a statement titled, “My Freedom of Speech Does Not Stop as a Senator,” she insinuated her statements had been misunderstood and taken out of context. She has since been reelected. As a member of the Jewish and Israeli communities at Stanford, I do not feel that this apology is sufficient to exonerate her. I am disappointed that someone who publicly threatened me and my community was still allowed to rerun and win office as my representative.

I do recognize my own biases when talking about Israel; I recognize that even after a lifetime of research and discussion, I will still be a stranger to the Palestinian experience. This does not mean, however, that I don’t actively pursue means for mutual understanding and aspire for peace and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians. In high school and at Stanford, I’ve not only engaged in worthwhile dialogue but also developed friendships with Arab and Muslim friends. In line with my passion for language, studying Arabic these past two years at Stanford has given me the tools to engage directly with Arabic-speaking people in their own tongue. Within the Arabic department, the meaningful relationships we’ve cherished have established linguistic and personal foundations that I look forward to building upon. I intend to study the Palestinian dialect in the coming years in Israel where I can personally cultivate relationships with people in the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian communities. 

I, as a Zionist, am proud that Israel is both the historical and present homeland for Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. I wish no harm toward Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza or abroad. On the contrary, I believe in a future of celebrating both an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. I am disappointed that for many, “pro-Israeli” and “pro-Palestinian” are mutually exclusive. More distressingly, “pro-Israel” is too often interpreted as “anti-Palestine” or “anti-Muslim” — which is plainly false. 

Each and every one of us is entitled to opinions crafted from our own experiences. I look forward to engaging in conversation with people who broaden my own perspectives. But I can only do so if we all agree to respect the other as humans equally worthy of human rights and empathy. I do not shy away from tough and vulnerable discussions or stories from my Palestinian neighbors. Through the Stanford Israel Association this year, I helped bring Comedy for Peace and leaders of the Israeli Jewish-Israeli Muslim village Wahat al-Salam Neve Shalom to promote dialogue and remind ourselves of our shared cultures, values and humanity — and I hope other organizations at Stanford and beyond will join me in this mission to promote respectful and productive discussion and friendship.

Stanford’s administration, professors and students have failed to support the Israeli community and students who support Israel. This pervasive, anti-Israel commentary rarely comes with intentions for respectful dialogue. It promotes the misperception that one cannot support both Israel and Palestine, and that supporting Israel is inherently “anti-Palestine.”

Denying me, an Israeli citizen, protection from harassment and ignorance at Stanford is a tremendous oversight on the part of a community that prides itself on diversity, tolerance and open scholarly discourse. Quite simply, these ignorant and hateful comments have no place on our campus. I ask that you treat me with the same humanity in this conversation as you would peers from any other political, religious, ethnic or racial background. 

Contact Zohar Levy at zlevy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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