I read Adam Rubenstein’s recent op-ed (“SJP brings extremism to campus”) in the Collegian and would like to offer some thoughts on Students for Justice in Palestine’s (SJP) “extreme” narrative at Kenyon and where it leads us.
As a former member of KSJP for two years, I understand and fought for the group’s narrative. They tell the story of Palestinian indigeneity, making the claim of “Zionist settler colonialism.” This narrative implicitly denies Jewish connection to the land for millennia. SJP activists, as a matter of policy, exacerbate the conflict by refusing to engage in constructive conversations with their Zionist Jewish counterparts at American universities across this country. By refusing to engage with Zionists, my fellow student activists entrench the decades-long Palestinian and Arab leadership’s failure to recognise Israel’s legitimacy in the past, present and future of the “Holy Land.” They fail to negotiate and discuss concrete civil programs to improve Palestinian quality of life and access to opportunities and instead engage in the counterproductive goal of destabilizing Israel.
I sincerely believe that Palestinian civilians are just as human as myself or any other person. I do not buy any arguments that undermine this fact. Palestinians deserve all the human rights that Americans or South Africans or Indians or Jamaicans deserve. This statement is based on the truism that nationality (a modern European-inspired phenomenon) does not diminish humanity. This truism justifies the Palestinians’ right to the kind of political and civil society leadership that serves rather than hinders their access to full citizenship rights in a functioning secular democracy.
Unfortunately, Palestinian leadership — much like the rest of the world’s Arab leadership — shamefully fails the people whose human and economic rights it claims to defend. Instead, these leaders generally focus on selfishly building their political empires, filling their pockets with as many shekels or dollars they can collect or riding their careers on the smooth, but counterproductive, waves of populist political sentiment. Instead of focusing on their political failures (such as failing to build Palestinian civil society) this leadership repeatedly points toward an external enemy: the Jewish State of Israel. It blames all its failures on Israel because it refuses to be accountable for its own misdeeds, weaknesses or failures. Pointing sanctimonious fingers toward others is easier than pointing fingers at one’s self. But as the cliché goes, when one points a finger at someone else, four fingers point back. The Palestinian leadership is mirrored at Kenyon by the so-called “Students for Justice in Palestine.” Instead of engaging with Zionist Jews in constructive conversation, they, like Arab leadership abroad, spend their time pointing accusatory fingers at their perceived enemies.
How do these fellow Muslim, Arab and/or white American activists undermine Zionists’ legitimacy in the claim to Palestine-Israel? They grossly conflate and reduce complex social and historical realities to a false, oversimplified binary: indigeneity versus settler colonialism. Some of my fellow activists incorrectly and disrespectfully appropriate the term “indigenous” to define Palestinians vis-a-vis the word “colonizer,” which they repeatedly use to label Jews in the Holy Land.
The American college-based KSJP movement must come to terms with the fact that Zionist Jews have legitimacy in the discourse over Palestine because Zionists also see Palestine as their historical homeland, a place of refuge from the anti-Semitism that has thrived in almost every context in which Jews have lived since the destruction of the Second Temple of Solomon in 70 C.E.
Jews have actually lived in Israel-Palestine for millennia. Arabs have lived there for the last 1,400 years. If one cannot legitimately call a piece of earth home in 4,000 or 1,400 years, then I guess none of my readership is American, unless you’re Native American. Pack your bags today; go to Italy, South Africa, Germany, Great Britain and Ireland or Japan.
I cannot claim to hold the resolution to an issue that has survived more than seven decades. I do not offer prescriptive advice to activists who are passionately entrenched in their inherited positions about this conflict; my heart lies in India and in Southern Africa, not in Jerusalem. But I will say in no uncertain terms that reducing Zionist Jews to colonizers and Palestinians to an exclusively indigenous people creates a false binary that unjustly ignores the Jews’ historical and religious claims, while privileging Arab nationalist ambitions to Arabise all of North Africa and Western Asia. I find this rhetorical strategy deeply damaging to achieving human rights for everyday Palestinians and counterproductive to serving real justice in our amazingly diverse world.