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The Citizen

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An Open Letter to the Harvard Crimson from the Israeli Students of Harvard

Earlier this month the Harvard Crimson published an editorial endorsing the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel. We, the Israel societies of Harvard College and the Harvard Kennedy School, would like to respond. 

It is important to note that we welcome criticism of Israel’s policies and laud anyone, anywhere, who stands up for the oppressed. But far from moving the conflict towards resolution or seeking justice for its casualties, be they victims of terror, civilians, or heroic journalists, the Crimson’s endorsement of BDS supports a movement with deep ties to antisemitism and damages the pursuit of peace. In so doing, the Crimson’s editors fail all of us who actually live in the Middle East, both Israeli and Palestinian.

First, either consciously or unconsciously, the Crimson editors have aligned themselves with a movement the vast majority of Jews believe to be antisemitic. In its own words, BDS is not anti-occupation, but instead advocacy for replacing the Jewish state with a Palestinian one. BDS’s founder, Omar Barghouti, is clear on what his movement wants: “most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”

The obvious question is what should happen to the seven million Jews who live today between the river and the sea were BDS (and as of last week the Harvard Crimson), to achieve their goals. Hamas, whom a vast majority of the Palestinian residents of the region support, have a clear answer in their charter: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews, killing the Jews.”

We believe denying the Palestinian right to self-determination is wrong. But so too is denying that right to Jews. If the Crimson editors want to protest for everyone’s right to dignity – be they Jewish or Arab – we will join them at the picket line. But that is not what BDS stands for.

Second, the Crimson, in supporting BDS, presents a false narrative and fictional history. The editors say they are “proudly supportive” of the recent wall erected in Harvard yard calling Israel an apartheid, colonial and white supremacist state. Israel is none of these things.

Frankly, it is ludicrous and offensive to call Jews who arrived fleeing the death camps of the Holocaust, and their descendants, white supremacists. In fact, the majority of Israelis’ ancestry lies not in Europe but rather – like Palestinians and others – in the Middle East. Most of our grandparents came to Israel not fleeing the Nazis, but rather from places like Iraq, Yemen and Syria, countries Jews lived in for generations before being expelled after 1948. Our mother tongue is Hebrew, a Semitic language that shares its origins with Arabic and that is inscribed on ancient synagogues throughout Israel. It is baffling to call us colonisers.

Regarding the comparison with South Africa, whatever criticism we may or may not share with the Crimson’s editors regarding conditions in the West Bank – an area occupied but not annexed or governed by Israel – Israel is not an apartheid state. The repugnant South African regime was white settlers ruling a country whose ninety percent black majority couldn’t vote. In Israel, our government is elected by all our citizens equally, Jewish and Arab. We sit beside Palestinians on our Supreme Court, and vote beside them in our elections. Ra’am, an Islamist Arab party, is a member of our coalition government.  Comparing Israel to South Africa is insulting to Israel’s Arabs citizens who themselves reject the term apartheid, and who are working to make our shared country better.

Finally, what would BDS at Harvard mean in practice?

Almost every Israeli would have to leave campus. Most Israeli students receive scholarships with links to our home country, as goes for almost all international students. The Crimson would thus de facto expel us under the academic boycott which BDS demands. Whilst Israelis and Jews in the diaspora should not be conflated, BDS would send a clear message to us Israelis: Jews aren’t welcome at Harvard.

Far worse, however, is the impact BDS would have in Israel and Palestine. For decades, peace has been stalled by those on both sides who deny the other is a trustworthy partner. Israelis say Palestinians aren’t interested in talking or acknowledging their right to exist. Palestinians charge Israelis of the same. 

Will endorsing BDS help move Israelis and Palestinians toward peace? No.

The BDS movement is used by those in Israel who say that peace is too risky, and that we need to close ranks against a world that wills our destruction. Encoded in the Israeli national psyche is trauma that will not disappear because of economic pressure. In 1995, after the Oslo Accords, Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank ended in the second intifada. Buses exploded. Children stopped going to school. Many, both Jews and Arabs, died. In 2005, Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza; no blockade and no pre-conditions. Hamas eventually took over in a bloody coup. When rockets began to fall on Tel Aviv, Israelis once again lost their appetite to take risks for peace.

Most Israelis are not ignorant of or hardened to Palestinian suffering. We have just known war and death in a way the Crimson’s editors have never experienced.

To risk our lives for peace once more, Israel’s voters must be sure our children can still get on school buses without fear of them blowing up. The Harvard Crimson writes that “the arguments made against BDS could have been and indeed were once made against South Africa.” This is simply not true. BDS worked in South Africa because what was needed was nothing less than the total deconstruction of the apartheid state. An unsustainable regime had to be squeezed into oblivion. Israel is not South Africa. Israel, for all its many flaws, is a multi-ethnic democracy. We will vote for peace not because we are strongarmed, but when we know our partners in Palestine, America, and the world understand us, and support our right to exist.

The truth is that there will be no justice for Palestinians or Israelis without peace. And there will be no peace without trust and dialogue from both sides. The editors of the Harvard Crimson seek to bury their heads in the sands of self-righteousness, ignoring compromise and nuance to keep their own hands clean. They can afford to do so because they suffer from neither terror nor occupation. We hope one day that those in our region will enjoy the same privilege, but the Harvard Crimson’s support of BDS makes that future less likely. That is not solidarity, that is throwing stones from an ivory tower.