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Imagining Otherwise

Opinion | April 24, 2017

My mother took me to my first live concert when I was eight or nine years old. We saw Sweet Honey in the Rock perform at Boston Symphony Hall. I’ll never forget when they sang their rendition of Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children,” and how hard my mother worked for the duration of my childhood to hold its principles true for my brothers and me. She abides by their words still:

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you, but they are not from you, and though they are with you they belong not to you.”

 

The day after the TCU Senate passed SJP’s resolution demanding that Tufts divest from four multinational companies profiting from Israeli apartheid, I went home to celebrate Passover with my family. We put olives on our Seder plate to remind us of Palestinian olive groves destroyed or stolen by the occupation, and drank to life, and to the freedom of everyone on this planet.

 

At some point in the night, my grandfather said to me, “I wouldn’t be here if my parents hadn’t been able to escape Europe.”

 

I don’t think my grandfather is alone in this sort of existential notion. It’s common to feel like we owe our existence to the conditions of the past, and to some extent, this is true. The idea becomes dangerous, though, when we begin feeling a sense of debt not only to our ancestors and cultures but also to the nation-states inserted into our histories. Personally, my great-grandparents suffered and sacrificed in order to survive and maintain their Jewish identities, and I appreciate the fact that their actions led to my eventual birth and growth. But that I am here today, living and breathing and eating leftover matzoh, doesn’t make me indebted to anyone—not to the founding of the United States, of which I am an official citizen, or to the genesis of Israel, where I could choose to live a comfortable and privileged life because of my Jewish identity. I am no one’s child.

 

In 2005, Palestinian Civil Society called for a global campaign to boycott, divest from, and sanction (BDS) the state of Israel, inspired by the change accomplished by similar South African anti-apartheid movements. Today, a lot of conversations on campus surrounding the political controversy of Israel and Palestine center on Jewish students who self-identify as progressive and will often gladly voice a variety of coded stances along the lines of, “I’m pro-Israel and pro-Palestine,” or “I’m against the occupation but anti-BDS.” Many Jewish students see BDS as an attack on Judaism, and it’s true that criticisms of the state of Israel sometimes coincide with anti-Semitism. To me, though, this ideology seems rooted in a normative link between identity and state, and more specifically, between Judaism and Israel. Of course, there’s nothing startling about this association—Israel is, after all, the only Jewish state in the world, and plenty of historic opposition to the state has been anti-Semitic—but what does it really mean to be pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, or pro-state at all? Somewhere embedded in declaring anti-Semitism’s automatic connection to the boycott, divestment, and sanctioning of the Israeli state is a presupposed tie between statehood and personhood, and this, to me, is tragic.

 

I should add that I’m no stranger to associating one’s sense of self and belonging to a state. I understand the sparkling appeal of American flag-printed clothing, and there have been times when I’ve taken a certain pride in my Americanism. As a kid, on the Fourth of July, I’d remedy my mother’s refusal to buy me U.S.A.-lettered t-shirts by wearing as many articles of ill-fitting Red Sox apparel I could stretch over my body, and drawing American flags on my arms with markers. National pride is powerful and pervasive, and I’m in no way immune. Today, though, I find myself recoiling at nationalism. To me, the concept of a nation-state is completely antithetical to community and belonging. From its inception, the institution of the state has been inherently linked to war, exclusion, and the consolidation of power for the benefit of a select few. Modern democratic nation-states like the US were founded upon violence, and protecting and defending these states means protecting and defending their histories of colonialism and theft. So if our identities are so deeply entangled in nationalism, at what cost do we derive that sense of belonging? And at what point in time, I wonder, did it become such a personal blow to question the legitimacy of an empire that has never operated in the name of peace or justice in the first place?

 

Jewish people deserve to have a place to call home, somewhere to feel safe, and to have a sense of true belonging. But it’s not just unwise to tie our conception of home to a colonial empire—it’s violent, the same way American nationalism and loyalty to this oppressive nation-state is violent. When we make the mistake of equating home with nation and fall into unquestioning and unbreakable nationalism, we do ourselves a disservice.

 

It may be true that if my great-grandparents hadn’t been fortunate enough to leave the pogroms of Eastern Europe and immigrate to the United States, Israel would have been their only option for a home. But the reality either way is that these hypotheticals are predicated on the assumption that the creation of the state of Israel at the cost of Palestinian lives was the only way to save the Jewish people. We must imagine otherwise.

 

In bowing to the dominant narrative that without the Israeli state there could be no alternative to the complete annihilation of Jews, we limit ourselves. We limit our ability to conceive of change, of a shared and peaceful world. We perpetuate the hegemony of nation-statehood and colonialism. In fact, the very notion of change itself cannot exist within the realm of realism. As author Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out at the 2014 National Book Awards, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings.” So let us reach beyond our histories to imagine and push for an alternative world, in which asylum for one persecuted people does not necessitate the oppression of another.

 

After decades of death and demolition, the last thing anyone on the side of justice would call for is the destruction of a place people call home. This divestment resolution and other facets of BDS campaigns are not seeking the destruction of the Jewish people or their home, but an end to the violence enacted by an oppressive empire, and freedom for the people displaced and disempowered by this state. I ask other progressive Jews to join me in imagining otherwise, in rejecting the idea that we owe anything to nation-states and empires, or that we must defend their legitimacy in spite of their injustices. I don’t owe anything to a state—not my Jewish identity, and most certainly not my silence.