We need productive dialogue among Jewish students at Oxy

Illustration courtesy of Alice Feng

Two weekends ago, I brought my grandparents to Hillel’s Love Shabbat in Lower Herrick in the pouring rain. Hillel had the largest turnout I had seen in a while. We sang and prayed together, sharing dinner. As the first-year representative of Hillel, I had the power to share spiritual traditions at my college with generations before me.

Before I joined Hillel, I took a hiatus from Judaism. I became a bat mitzvah at 13 and did not continue to become a confirmand. Graduating from an extremely liberal school, I spent most of my high school years surrounded by atheism. I mirrored the liberal views of my peers who wanted to use freedom and secularism to understand the world, but as a consequence, I lost faith and found myself disillusioned by religion.

The first time I attended an Occidental Hillel event, I reconnected with a familiar tradition and realized the power of Judaism. Hillel events at Oxy were purely about celebrating the traditions of the Jewish faith and emphasized community. I had a spiritual place to exist, people to share a meal with and a place to appreciate Judaism. Moreover, Hillel’s welcoming environment was one I wanted to show others; I quickly found myself inviting my friends on Friday nights to join me, regardless of their faith.

My grandparents asked whether my Jewish friends went to Hillel. Not all of them, I said. I explained the dissatisfaction with Hillel on campus; while Hillel at a local level has remained politically neutral, Hillel on a national level is pro-Israel. As a result, there are people on campus against Hillel as an organization. Furthermore, online forums like Oxy Confessions reflect the greater societal dialogue about the Israel-Palestine conflict, voicing anti-Zionist sentiments that have made some Jews scared and uncomfortable. Online forums such as Oxy Confessions do not adequately allow for productive dialogue. Because the posts are rhetorically flawed and presented without context, they often do nothing but reinforce students’ original positions.

For context, Zionism is defined as a nationalist movement to create a self-ruling homeland for the Jewish people. As a result of that movement, Israel was created in 1948. Anti-Zionism opposes this nationalist movement and the state of Israel.

Many have scrutinized anti-Zionism because it has different motivations according to different people. Some Jews have argued that anti-Zionism is a guise for anti-Semitism; anti-Zionists, on the other hand, believe that position suppresses criticism of Israeli policies. In that case, anti-Zionism brings up a significant point: just because one is critical of Israel does not mean they are necessarily anti-Semitic. Israel, which is criticized for its occupation of Palestinian territories and inhumane treatment of Palestinians, is very far from perfect. However, that does not mean students have not voiced their critiques of Israel with anti-Semitic language.

It is important to make a distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which forums like Oxy Confessions fail to do. We need to call out human rights violations when we see them, but it would be idealistic to assume that no anti-Zionist arguments are driven by anti-Semitism. Jews who have been discontent with the growing trend of uneducated, anti-Zionist arguments on campus have a legitimate concern. Images of Jews as dark, demonic figures, the comparison of Israelis to Nazis (the very sources that perpetuated the largest act of anti-Semitism) and the assumption that all Jews should be held responsible for Israel’s actions are all examples of anti-Zionist arguments that are anti-Semitic.

Oxy Confessions such as “found out this guy I have a crush on is a Zionist and now I know my taste in men is trash” may seem tame; however, this insensitive discourse contributes to Oxy’s static definitions of what makes someone a Jew, a Zionist or an anti-Zionist. Jews, who represent less than one percent of the world’s population, are increasingly pushed out of leftist spaces, including the ones at Occidental College. We are miseducating our campus with these widespread stereotypes — such as conflating Zionism with white supremacy, equating Judaism to being pro-Israel and naming all critiques of Israel as bigoted.

We need religious spaces for groups like Hillel just as much as we need political spaces for groups like the Jewish Student Union. When I asked my uncle Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and author whose work has been published in the New York Times, The Nation and The New Yorker, about how the two groups could work together on campus, he responded that it is hard to resolve this fundamental split in the Jewish community. He reminded me of the old joke: “For every two Jews, there are three arguments. So arguing about Israel, even a serious and divisive argument, is in keeping with a long tradition with Judaism itself.” Thus, Occidental College not only politically reflects the discourse of the nation but attests to historical disagreement within Judaism.

Judaism has a cultural appreciation for civil debate and plurality of opinion. But if Occidental College wants to promote meaningful discussion, both Hillel and JSU need to change their culture and guidelines so that their members know how to voice their opinions in educated and respectful ways. The Restorative Wellness Circle for Jewish Students, which is taking place on Mondays at 5 p.m. in Lower Herrick, is an example of positive discourse among the Jewish community. This is just the beginning; there needs to be more communication between the groups about how we can promote conversation, not isolate and confuse students. Furthermore, Oxy Confessions shouldn’t post confessions that equate Zionism with immorality. We need to work together to generate definitions of what constitutes anti-Semitism and what constitutes anti-Zionism. We need to stop using online forums for political dialogue; they do nothing but promote frustration, tension and bitterness.

To be Jewish is beautiful, complex, cultural, political and everything in between. My fellow Hillel members and I are not bad people, just as JSU members are not bad people; we all want to see positive change in our political and religious communities. I am not pro-Israel, but I support the religious and cultural space my local Hillel chapter has cultivated — a complicated distinction I wish students at my school would understand.

Maddie Solomon is an undeclared first year. She can be reached at solomonm@oxy.edu.