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Silent No Longer

By Caleb J. Esrig and Jacob A. Fortinsky
Caleb J. Esrig ’20, a former Associate Editorial Editor, is an Economics concentrator in Quincy House. Jacob A. Fortinsky ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

This week is the annual Israeli Apartheid Week run by the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee. For the past few years, we have watched it with dismay. We have seen the annual disregard for veracity and truth. We have observed the destruction of dialogue and the harm wrought on the cause of peace. We have eyed the contempt shown to Jewish history and narratives.

And we will not remain silent any longer.

Combined, we have spent years living and working in Israel. We have volunteered for non-profits, interned in the Knesset, and worked for universities. We are proud liberal Zionists, believers that the quest for a Jewish homeland is only complete with a Palestinian state alongside it. And we are confident that our fellow Harvard students will believe in and support that quest too.

Yet, the entire premise of this week is factually incorrect. Israel, quite simply, is nothing like apartheid South Africa.

Within Israel’s 1948 borders, Arab citizens make up more than 20 percent of the citizenry. Like in other democracies, Israeli law guarantees equal individual rights for all, but minorities are subjected to discrimination not dissimilar to that in the United States. Indeed, Arab Israelis serve in the Knesset, the military — although most are not conscripted — and on the Supreme Court, and they even receive funding for religious institutions. Encouragingly, more Arab Israelis have positive views of the Israeli presidency, police, and military than hold negative ones. They approve of the Knesset at almost double the rate Americans do of Congress.

In apartheid South Africa, people of color largely could not form multiracial parties, possess full voting rights, live in the same areas, or even have interracial sex. Equating this with Israel is simply delusional.

If the organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week wish to distinguish between Israel proper and the West Bank, where Palestinians live under military occupation, they do not do so publicly. Israel captured the West Bank during defensive maneuvers in the Six-Day War, and the situation there is a military occupation. It must end. That is why we are so supportive of the 2000 and 2008 peace proposals made by Israeli prime ministers to Palestinian leadership.

Those were full two-state solutions, with a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and sovereignty in Gaza and the West Bank. They were met only with rejection. This so enraged former U.S. President Bill Clinton that he banged his fist on the table and yelled: “You are leading your people and the region to a catastrophe.”

Palestinian pain at the hands of Israeli policies — from the Nakba to the present — is real and legitimate. And understanding the history and narratives of both sides is critical. There are two peoples, and a solution demands recognizing that no peaceful future will arise through one alone.

We have worked at Harvard for years to foster this mutual understanding. We have supported progressive pro-Israel movements, helped bring to Harvard a diverse range of speakers — including Breaking the Silence, an activist group dedicated to exposing the mistreatment of Palestinians by the Israeli military — and led and backed respectively the creation of the Coalition at Harvard for Israel and Palestine, a group affiliated with J Street, a left-wing Israel advocacy organization. The cause of peace requires this mutual understanding.

But this cause of peace is harmed by PSC’s hosting of speakers like Omar Barghouti, who founded the campaign to boycott Israel. He has frequently endorsed violent resistance, including explicitly against Israeli civilians. He has said that ending the occupation will not end the boycott movement and that he opposes a Jewish state “in any shape or form.” He even explicitly traces the boycott movement not to the occupation, not to the founding of Israel, but before either, to the presence of Jews anywhere in Israel. And we will not remain silent in the face of such destructive rhetoric.

His movement is used gleefully by anti-Semites around the world to cloak their hatred. Perhaps that is why, at a PSC event this week, a participant felt comfortable ranting about the “so-called Jews” and the “myth of the Holocaust.” When the organizers finally responded, at the end of the event, they did so only by condemning “all forms of oppression” and mentioned anti-Semitism only to compare its denunciation to that deserved by Israel.

The cause of peace is further wounded by speakers like Marc Lamont Hill, who called at the UN for “a free Palestine from the river to the sea.” This exclamation, chanted again at a PSC event this week, is not a call for peace, justice, or democracy. By encompassing the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, it makes no distinction between settlements, occupied territories, and cities that have been Jewish for thousands of years. It advocates the eradication of any Jewish sovereignty in the historic Jewish homeland.

The cause of peace requires recognizing the Jewish narrative. It demands understanding that Israel is not an abstract idea but a real refuge. Seventy years ago, this importance became clear. Almost one million Jews then had a thriving culture in Arab nations, including Egypt, Algeria, and Yemen. Those countries today have just a handful left.

Arab countries robbed, expelled, and murdered their Jews. This is not new. But for the first time in two thousand years, Jews facing destruction could not be annihilated. This time, they had a homeland to which they could flee. Today, they and their descendants comprise the majority of the Jewish Israeli population. And we will not remain silent as this history of persecution is ignored.

This history cannot be forgotten. It is why in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, the founders of Israel declared that the country “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” They knew that a Jewish homeland is not complete until all are equal.

It is a vision that is far from fulfilled. Next week, when Israelis vote in the Middle East’s only free elections, they will hopefully bring it closer to fruition. We hope that the Harvard community, by recognizing the problems with apartheid week and the need for mutual understanding, will do the same.

Caleb J. Esrig ’20, a former Associate Editorial Editor, is an Economics concentrator in Quincy House. Jacob A. Fortinsky ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

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