The Saturday morning after Passover began, I woke up to photos, sent to me by other students, of an art display targeting Israel newly erected in Harvard Yard near Canaday Dorm. Created by the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), it featured a black-and-white rail of cattle cars, bearing the names of Israeli and American companies, above a fenced-off area resembling a concentration camp. The display also included paintings of the entirety of Israel, “from the river to the sea” as some activists opine, in the colors of the Palestinian Authority’s flag. One panel described Zionism as “racism settler colonialism white supremacy apartheid.”
As a Jew, I was alarmed: at stake is my people’s very right to our ancestral homeland, which, according to history, religious tradition, and scientific evidence, was first inhabited by Israelites over three millennia ago.
Friday, April 29th, the day after Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, was far worse. The Crimson published the editorial, “In Support of Boycott, Divest, Sanction and a Free Palestine,” which misrepresented and targeted Jews and Israelis, by standing “broadly and proudly” for the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Signed by the entire Editorial Board, the piece was promptly condemned by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as “disturbing,” only serving to “isolate and intimidate the Jewish community” and “spread misinformation.” The ADL asserted that the editorial “shows no understanding of the region’s past or present,” urging Crimson editors to “ask why they deem it necessary to expressly single out the State of Israel” and imploring them to “[promote] engagement and dialogue … for a future of self-determination, security and peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.”
The editorial lacks any backing for its abrasive claims, conveniently choosing to elide the tangible evidence that dates Jewish artifacts in the region back thousands of years. Both the rhetoric in the editorial and on the wall is “delegitimizing” towards Israel, to use the Crimson’s own language. To endorse a movement whose founder calls for no State of Israel in the Jewish homeland and to paint over the entirety of Israel in colors of the Palestinian flag is to tacitly oppose the Jewish right to a state and Jewish self-determination.
The Crimson classified both its writing and the PSC display as efforts toward “civil discourse and debate,” not “straw-manning legitimate arguments and obfuscating difficult … discussions.” But the editorial succeeds in only the latter. It claims that civilly speaking out against Israel will result in ousting by traditional media, but puts forth a view of civil discourse that is, at best, obscenely broad. The piece even faults the Associated Press for firing a reporter who referred to a Jewish philanthropist with whom she had political differences as a “naked mole rat” and supported a student at Stanford who threatened to “physically fight Zionists on campus.” It also links to an account of CNN’s firing of Marc Lamont Hill, an academic who, in a speech before the UN, called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” The Anti-Defamation League reads such phrasing as a dog-whistle term, often used by U.S.- and UK-designated terror group Hamas, to call for the destruction of Israel. Hill was further condemned by his employer, Temple University, for statements expressing “anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence.” The Crimson’s examples are far from encouraging “civil discourse and debate”: They are politically and religiously charged attacks.
Further, the Crimson attempts to portray their views on the Israeli-Arab conflict as solely a movement to “empower the vulnerable and oppressed,” a product of an “overwhelming power imbalance.” To reduce a politically complicated conflict to oppressor and oppressed neglects Hamas’ intentional targeting of Israeli civilians, Jewish and Arab alike. It fails to account for the anti-Semitism that runs rampant in schools controlled by Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), where textbooks portray Jews as big-nosed canards pulling the strings of world finance and politics and contain political cartoons of Israeli prime ministers in Nazi uniforms with Stars of David in place of swastikas.
There is no clear cut victim or victimizer. Hamas is using recent clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque to promote violence and terrorism. The Hamas militants storing rockets in schools and hospitals in Gaza, to be launched at densely populated areas in Tel Aviv, are not intrinsically victims. The Israelis murdered earlier this month by a suspected Arab attacker, just trying to enjoy a night out at a bar are not inherently victimizers by virtue of their religion or nationality. The Israeli Defense Forces, in such an attempt to not victimize innocent people, drops warning pamphlets and makes phone calls to civilians in the area before striking military targets which Hamas often chooses to locate near civilians. Palestinian terror groups once kidnapped and murdered three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank, with the goal of “sparking a new Palestinian uprising.” The requirement to respond to violence, like these examples, does not and should not excuse any immoral action by an IDF soldier. Actions like abusing a detainee or harassing children are atrocious. However, these actions are not supported by the IDF, almost always resulting in prosecution for the soldiers who perpetrate them. Simply, Israel and its soldiers should not be held to any higher or lower standards than other nations, especially when Israeli prosecutors are ultra-sensitive to potential abuses by soldiers and move quickly to exact charges. The double standard that exists concerning the IDF is precisely why it is IDF policy to repeatedly warn civilians potentially in harm’s way to evacuate. Lastly, settlements may very well be an obstacle to peace. Yet, when Israel vacated settlements and allowed for an autonomous government to be elected in Gaza in 2005, the region was left with a terror group in power who was not only unwilling to negotiate, but far more actively hostile with less regard for its citizens than even Fatah.
Reducing the situation to victims and victimizers allows the Crimson to claim they cannot “nuance away Palestinian’s violent reality,” but they similarly cannot boycott and divest away the Israelis, children included, who grow up with less than three minutes to run to the nearest bomb shelters before rockets land. Neither can they dismiss the Palestinian Authority’s reward payments to the families of murderers who kill Israelis, innocent or not, given with funding received from the international community.
In a 2020 editorial entitled “A Place for Discussing BDS on Campus,” the Crimson Editorial Board had dismissed the BDS movement as not delving into the nuance of the region’s geopolitics. The more recent piece shifts the Crimson’s editorial focus from calls for nuance and understanding to misrepresenting facts and encouraging aggression and marginalization. This editorial speaks of the Palestinian “cry for freedom.” It would behoove the Editorial Board to consider the lack of free elections in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, as well as PLO/PA leadership’s continual denial of statehood. Beginning in 1947, Arabs in the region were offered their own state in a peace deal no less than four times, in addition to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 with the objective of beginning to create separate states. Each offer was accepted by Israel, and turned down by the PLO/PA. Their rejection of peace, freedom, and statehood was further underscored by the Arab League’s Khartoum Resolution calling for “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” Of course, the Crimson fails to mention that this “cry for freedom” could have been mollified a number of times, yet each time Palestinian and Arab leadership denied the offer. The Crimson Editorial Board should address these “well-established, if rarely stated, facts” before it continues to endorse a movement that denies Jews the opportunity for peace.
Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of BDS, described it as categorically opposed to a Jewish state in its current location. Barghouti has rejected the archeological evidence linking modern day Jewish communities to Ancient Israel. He even said in his recorded speech for an Israel Apartheid Week event at another university, “I clearly do not buy into the two-state solution,” further writing in an opinion piece that he favors a single state where “Jews will be a minority” in our cultural and religious home. The Crimson claims that art displays depicting Holocaust-style imagery, with Israelis in place of the Nazis, and panels equating Zionism, the Jewish desire for our homeland, to white supremacy and colonialism, are not anti-Semitic.
Yet this editorial provides a platform for anti-Semitism to flourish. One is left wondering why the Crimson thinks that endorsing BDS, whose founders, like Omar Barghouti expressly oppose Israel’s right to exist in the historic Jewish homeland, but support the right of another group, is not anti-Semitism. To single out Israel for economic, academic, technological and cultural boycott is to single out the Jewish people. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in its Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, characterizes calls to sanction Israel and not other countries with atrocious human rights track records, as well as attempts to conflate the Holocaust and Israel’s defense, as anti-Semitism. The U.S. government is one of thirty-one countries that adopted this definition.
The editorial also fails to recognize how BDS hurts the over two million non-Jewish Israeli citizens, many of whom walk the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with little worry. Undermining claims of apartheid, an Arab party exists in the governing coalition of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Over two-thirds of Israeli Arabs support the inclusion of Arab parties in the governing coalition, with over half saying conditions are improving and about two-thirds holding optimism for conditions to improve in the future. These statistics reflect a democracy, where minority groups have a say in governance and are hopeful about making things better. Meanwhile, Hamas’ charter calls for “killing the Jews” and claims Jews are pulling the strings of politics in an anti-Semitic canard, having caused every major world war and revolution.
These facts are not to dismiss the dismal humanitarian situation in those areas. Rather than holding strictly to the stubborn refusal to negotiate or to make peace with Israel as expressed in the Khartoum Resolution, Palestinian leaders could quickly ease many of the human rights issues in their territories by choosing to work with Israelis rather than encouraging attacking the Jewish state. Fatah, the party that controls the West Bank, and Hamas, care little for their people’s suffering, choosing to reject much needed aid as a political statement about Arab countries signing peace deals with Israel. There has not been a free and fair election in the West Bank since 2006. Abbas, Fatah’s head, is in the seventeenth year of a four-year term and nearly eighty percent of Palestinians want him to resign. Nearly two-thirds of West Bank and Gaza residents favor Palestinian-Israeli cooperation to improve living conditions.
The complexities of the Palestinian Authority’s attitudes towards mixing politics and human rights reflect that both BDS and the PSC’s display dangerously simplifies a highly complex situation. This reduction neglects Jews and Israelis of all faiths who coexist peacefully amongst the broader international community and the continuation of very popular PA-Israeli humanitarian confidence-building projects. I stand strongly against anti-Semitism hidden in the denial of Jewish self-determination. For the Crimson Editorial Board to not objectively evaluate the claims of the BDS movement speaks to a prioritization of agenda over fact, bias over journalistic integrity.
Zionism runs far deeper than politics. It is the yearning for a long oppressed and displaced group to once again live in their home and have some measure of safety. When Jews step foot on Israeli soil, they carry the memories of the generations before themselves who wished for “next year in Jerusalem” at their seders, knowing it would never occur in their lifetimes. My grandfather, as the young child of immigrants fleeing persecution in eastern Europe, watched on television as a flag with the Magen David, the Star of David, flew over our people’s land. Until then, it had not had a Jewish leader in two millennia. Only after the Jewish people were nearly destroyed in death factories that resembled the Holocaust imagery on the wall, only after their nascent country was invaded by multiple neighbors, did the modern State of Israel ascend from the ashes and hope of more than sixty generations of exiled Jews prohibited to return home.
“Our hope is not yet lost, it is two thousand years old, to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem,” says Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. For nearly two thousand years, there was no Ben Gurion Airport, no way to return to our homeland. We were displaced, excluded from the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. From the time the Romans began to force Jews out from Judea until the mid twentieth century, my ancestors could not stand in Jerusalem and visit our holy sites. Thanks to the sacrifices of those who fervently believed we have a right to restore our own state, I can book a ticket on El Al Airlines today and walk through the history of my religion and people.
Israeli citizens are constantly re-asserting their right to exist in the face of terror attacks and hostile neighboring countries. Rockets aimed at civilians which sailed over Tel Aviv last summer and were shot down by the Iron Dome send the same message that courageous partisans and ghetto rebellions sent to those who wished Israeli extermination in the past: through centuries of attack, Am Yisrael Chai, the people of Israel, live.
Through Greek rule, Roman rule, Diaspora, Inquisition, Pogrom, Ghetto, cattle car, and gas chamber, Judaism lives on. There are accounts of European Jews being marched to gas chambers or before firing squads who found the courage to sing V’chol Ma’aminim, a high holiday prayer expressing faith, which, roughly translated, asserts that “We all believe” in God as our shield and redeemer. The Israeli flag flying over the Jewish historical homeland represents two thousand years of hope for a safe aliyah, ascendant return, to Israel. It represents an outpost of democracy in the Middle East and a state that Jews, Arabs, Christians, Druze, Baha’is and many others feel proud to call home.
Alex Bernat is a freshman at Harvard, and a member of the student board at Chabad at Harvard. This article originally appeared in the Harvard Independent.