July 27, 2013
Most American Jews, myself included, are quick to distance ourselves from extremist fringes within our own community. We condemn those who try to block Women of the Wall from praying at the Kotel and from those who throw feces on the Jerusalem gay pride parade. We distinguish our support for Israel from support for radical settlers who set fire to Palestinian olive groves. “They don’t speak for my Jewish values,” we say.
Thus, I hoped my Jewish community would recognize the need to condemn David Horowitz’s campaign against Sadia Saifuddin’s nomination as a University of California student regent, accusing her of anti-Semitism and supporting terrorism. Saifuddin, rising Berkeley senior and former student senator, will be the first practicing Muslim to serve on the University of California’s governing board.
I expected push-back on Horowitz from a group like the Anti-Defamation League, who in response to false allegations of Muslim extremism leveled at New York Jets’ lineman Oday Aboushi, appropriately said, “Being pro-Palestinian does not mean you’re an anti-Semite or an extremist.” According to that logic, Saifuddin’s pro-Palestinian activism should not discount her as a legitimate candidate, right?
Apparently not. Instead of rejecting Horowitz’s hateful propaganda, many Jewish organizations joined in protest of the nomination. StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein called Saifuddin “divisive” and “bigoted.” The ADL warned that they would, “observe her actions … closely.” Rabbi Aron Hier of the Simon Weisenthal Center called the choice “antithetical to everything campus climate stands for.”
Why the vitriol? Because Saifuddin co-sponsored a BDS resolution at UC Berkeley this year. It seems our community is only supportive of someone identifying as pro-Palestinian as long as they aren’t an activist.
I publicly fought BDS both as a freshman and a senior at Berkeley. Those experiences deeply impacted me. While I emerged very critical of the resolutions and many in the pro-Palestinian movement, I became equally disturbed by the way the Jewish community mobilized against them: too often stigmatizing BDS and its supporters as anti-Semitic instead of engaging in substantive political debate. Attacks on Saifuddin represent the worst of this problem.
Did I ever hear anti-Semitic statements from divestment supporters? Some, certainly. But I also met many divestment supporters who challenged those remarks when they heard them, were committed to universal rights for all people, appreciated the history of Jewish suffering, and had turned to BDS out of a deep frustration with the lack of political movement toward an end to the occupation.
Saifuddin is one of those people. While we disagree on how to bring peace and justice to the region, this does not make Saifuddin unfit to serve as a UC Regent. Throughout the BDS debate, when Saifuddin and I were staunch opponents, she consistently treated me and other Jewish students with compassion and respect. True leadership requires engaging those with whom you disagree, and I, along with the many other Jewish students who support her nomination, trust Saifuddin will do that.
How would we react if others tried to prevent a Jewish student from serving in student government because she was an Israel advocate? Our denunciation of this misguided campaign would be swift and vociferous. I’m proud to be part of a community that learned from our history to be sensitive to the pain of discrimination. I’m not proud when we overlook those lessons when the victim of prejudice is Muslim, especially when those propagating it are Jewish.
As a Jewish woman, I am proud to know the first Muslim woman to serve as a UC regent. I wish I didn’t need my Jewishness or pro-Israel credentials to legitimize this opinion, that I could just be another proud Berkeley student cheering the success of my peer. Nonetheless, when some seek to narrowly impose the Israel-Palestine debate on yet another conversation regarding someone’s commitment to public service, it is imperative to say that they don’t speak for me. More American Jews would be wise to disassociate ourselves from such fear mongering.
Despite my opposition to BDS, I recognize it is a non-violent protest that will only continue gaining broader traction in the absence of a resolution to the conflict. Until our community realizes this and learns how to honestly participate in this debate, we will only exacerbate the problem. Attempts to shut down the conversation through blanket slandering of BDS supporters as anti-Semitic won’t work and are counterproductive; they portray our community as reactionary, Islamophobic and increasingly isolated.
Categorically dismissing a person’s credentials because of a single-issue political disagreement is “divisive.” Stigmatizing them as a religious extremist is “bigoted.” Attempting to stifle anti-Israel dissent on university campuses is “antithetical” to the culture of intellectual pursuit so central to Judaism.
Mazel tov, Sadia. I look forward to seeing how you and other students rise above the prejudices in our communities to foster a more open and inclusive campus life.
Simone Zimmerman is from Los Angeles, CA and a recent graduate of UC Berkeley. She currently serves as the president of the J Street U National Student Board.