As a Jewish educator, supporter of Israel, and advocate for progressive causes, I find myself caught in the middle when some of my friends and union colleagues take up the cause of peace and justice for Palestinians, without enough context or complexity to stave off concerns that their advocacy results in antisemitism.
At the upcoming virtual Representative Assembly (RA) of the National Education Association (NEA), delegates are scheduled to consider two New Business Items (NBI-29 and NBI-51) that direct NEA to undertake certain actions expressing solidarity with Palestinians. As a former RA delegate and active NEA member, I’m writing this post primarily to my union colleagues who will vote on these NBIs, but also for general interest and information for anyone taking note of the debate. NBI-29 uses stronger language and delves into broader geopolitical issues. NBI-51 is interesting in that it aims to expand knowledge and solidarity regarding the plight of Palestinians, yet makes no mention of Israel – a choice that likely makes it seem less controversial. If NBI-51 is passed, I doubt it can be carried out with a similar omission, and then the issues I raise below will come to the fore once again.
Let me be clear from the start: it is not antisemitic to criticize Israel or its policies. Israeli citizens and Jewish supporters of Israel do it all the time. I would agree with critics of Israeli policy and actions on a number of important points, including: Israeli forces and various governments going back decades are responsible for a long list of unjust policies and inhumane acts, failures that have cost thousands of Palestinians their dignity, their homes, and their lives. Israel’s military has responded with disproportionate force when Israel has been attacked, killing and injuring tens of thousands of Palestinians in the past 20 years. Israel must do better, and there is no safe, secure future for Israel that doesn’t include Palestinians secure in their homes and in their rights to live freely. Israeli incidences of collective punishment are unjust. The United States should be actively involved in brokering peace, and should link ongoing military aid to improvements in Israel’s policies and treatment of Palestinians. Israeli settlements and expansion in Palestinian territories should be frozen and a process of gradual withdrawal should be planned and implemented. Israel is responsible for unjust detentions, acts of torture, and killings. As the larger, stronger nation, Israel bears extra responsibility for bringing about peace, and has instead chosen policies that have prolonged the conflict. And…
Hamas is a terrorist organization elected as Palestine’s leadership. Hamas has as its goal not peace with Israel, but the destruction of Israel and annihilation of Jews. Iran supplies weapons to Hamas, as it does to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, threatening Israel (a nation the size of New Jersey) on multiple borders. Hamas has used abduction, torture, and assassinations to stifle internal dissent. Hamas carries out militant actions from civilian areas and facilities, and recruits and uses children in operations. Hamas terrorism and rocket attacks have caused indiscriminate destruction, and killed and injured thousands of Israelis in the past 20 years.
I’m imagining different readers’ reactions to the two prior paragraphs. If you identify first as a supporter of Palestine, you were probably in agreement with the criticisms of Israel, and perhaps bothered by my focus on Hamas in the next paragraph, maybe questioning my use of the term “threatening” without addressing “proportionality,” or feeling that I should have included the social welfare efforts undertaken by Hamas. If you are a supporter of Israel, you wanted me to mention Israel’s history of ceding control of land in exchange for peace, and you were waiting for me to mention terror attacks, and you probably agreed with everything I said about Hamas.
Getting back to the New Business Items (NBIs) at the NEA Representative Assembly. As I hope I’ve made clear, I can handle the criticism of Israel and the expression of solidarity with Palestinian victims. But when such a complicated, ongoing conflict is simplified to this extent, identifying Israel’s culpability with no mention of Hamas, the effect is to make Israel’s supporters, and Jewish supporters in particular, wonder why the nature of the conflict is unacknowledged, why the terrorist organization involved is invisible here (if not tacitly endorsed in NBI-29’s reference to “heroic struggle” – can “the” struggle can be separated from “the” leadership?). Meanwhile, a predominantly Jewish nation is the only nation beyond the US held up for criticism in the NEA-RA – twice this year (if both NBIs move ahead independently), and in prior years. There are no NBIs condemning the ongoing genocides of the Uighur and Rohingya people, none concerned with the suffering in ongoing violent conflicts in India, the Pashtun region, Central America, or East Africa.
And (maybe) that’s okay. The U.S. does have a unique relationship with Israel, and a unique responsibility, due to our support for Israel and its military. Criticizing Israel does not obligate a critic to address every nation that deserves it.
Criticizing Israel without context and without concern for other conflicts has an antisemitic effect, even if unintended. Antisemitic individuals and groups may see in these efforts justification or validation for hatred of a distinctly Jewish nation; based on these NBIs, you could not infer anything about the history or even the existence of a conflict, which leaves the door open to framing Israel’s actions as something originating solely from some base cruelty
If my BIPOC friends or colleagues tell me that I’ve done something, said something, or overlooked something racist, I take that feedback seriously and try to improve. I don’t respond by telling them “you’re wrong, I’m not racist.” I hope my reaction is always to listen and understand, apologize and change, and I hope my reactions are similar if I’m called out for a mistake or oversight concerning nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, ability, age, or language.
When Jewish educators and community members state that the singular criticism of a Jewish nation without context for its actions feels antisemitic, it seems we are infrequently accorded the same respect.
Please, listen: it’s the combined effect.
Criticizing Israel only, despite the nature of the conflict, and only Israel, among the nations of the world engaged in conflicts, makes many Jewish individuals feel that religion is a primary reason for the one-sided and unique scrutiny. If we’re wrong, then it shouldn’t be too much to ask that Israel’s critics also acknowledge and condemn the genocidal goal in the Hamas charter, along with the violent provocations and human rights violations systematically carried out by Hamas. It should be uncontroversial to affirm that all victims of indiscriminate violence are worthy of our empathy, regardless of their religion or nationality.
So… here’s my resolution:
Whereas, NEA’s NBIs 29 and 51 raise legitimate criticism of Israel, and solidarity with Palestinian victims is logical and compassionate, and
Whereas, these NBIs make no mention of Hamas or Iran, no mention of attacks against Israel, and no statement of solidarity for people who suffer or die from Hamas attacks, and
Whereas, there are no NBIs relating to any other international concerns or conflicts, be it
Resolved, that NBI-29 and NBI-51, lest they appear to be examples of or give validation to antisemitism, should be either suitably amended, or voted down.
- A quick note about sourcing: I wrote this blog post in relatively little time, relying largely on background knowledge, and occasional quick verifications through multiple neutral/reliable sources. My opinions are of course, opinions, and any underlying facts are easily checked on your own through a variety of media, government, and NGO sources.
- One might ask: Isn’t this critique of the NBIs kind of like responding to Black Lives Matter by saying “all lives matter”? No. The situations are too vastly different to engage in that logical/semantic argument – and besides, as I hope I made clear, I’m dismayed by Israel’s human rights failures and supportive of Palestinian rights. And yes, “some Jewish educators support these resolutions and don’t find them antisemitic.” Okay. No group of people has a monolithic view of such issues, and no subgroup holds veto power over others.
- By the time this post is published, I’ll be on vacation and not planning to engage continually on this topic, so I’ve turned comments off. I’ve said my piece, and others may agree or disagree. I hope we can do so respectfully.