A Message to UC Berkeley: We Are Zionists Because We Are Jews
In the defining spirit of our times, which promotes diversity and inclusion by encouraging individuals to self-identify, to celebrate their will to determine their identity — whether driven by gender, race, or religion — what has transpired at UC Berkeley and other anti-Israel institutions is an assault on Jewish identity.
Jewish activists and legal luminaries commented that universities are trying to establish “Jew-free” zones — and they are. These student resolutions aren’t really about Israel; they are about Jew-hatred. Just as the Jew was once unfairly ostracized as the “other,” and held to a standard different from every other ethnic group, so too is Israel today treated unfairly and as uniquely evil. And given that the vast majority of Jews support Israel’s right to exist, it becomes clear that this treatment really is about Jews — not any specific Israeli policy or action.
Let’s put it this way: What other group is demanded to excise an integral part of their identity in order to participate in culture or student life? Anti-Zionism is an attack on Jewish identity. What is transpiring at UC Berkeley is a violation of people’s freedom to identify with a core component of their heritage.
Imagine banning Black individuals from student groups because they hold pan-African views. Imagine a coalition of campus student groups announcing that Black Americans are welcome, just not the ones who believe that they are indigenous to Africa.
Accepting only Jews who tear away their historic limbs or their ancestral legacy is not inclusion. It is discrimination at its highest form; it is also a form of abuse.
Our abusers set the terms of how we show up in the world. They maintain that we are welcome in the form of ashes, but insist that Jews with power, with weapons in their hands, Jews with borders, Jews who have returned to their ancestral homeland, are evil. And what’s worse, they dictate to us what it means to be a Jew. And we run — we run in circles — with our heads aching from the mental gymnastics of having to prove why anti-Zionism is antisemitism, our hearts confused by the gaslighting.
Ladies and gentlemen: why do we face Jerusalem when we pray, why do we break a glass under a canopy on our wedding day, why are there commandments that we cannot perform outside of the Land of Israel; why did our people weep “by the rivers of Babylon when we remember Zion,” why must our “right hand forget its cunning if we forget Jerusalem”?
As I write this, 81 years have passed since Jews were murdered at Babi Yar. There, they showed up as their full selves. At Babi Yar, Jews came as Jews. They came to be murdered because they were Jews.
There, they had no choice — no one told them Jews could stay home but “all Zionists of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, 1941 at 8 a.m. at the corner of Melnikova and Dokhterivskaya streets [next to the cemetery].” There, they came as their full selves; there, they perished as their full selves.
Today, everyone celebrates dead Jews. And in this tenuous festivity, we cast down our eyes, and show up, but never as our full selves. But here’s the caveat: as my mother, who was told to “go back to Palestine” by her Soviet Russian co-worker, says: “when they say Zionist, they mean Jew.”
That’s why when you’re the only Jew in your class or among friends and Israel is brought up, everyone turns to you — the Jew. That’s why when you, post “Shabbat Shalom” on your Instagram, the likelihood that someone will comment “#FreePalestine” is almost guaranteed. And finally, it’s why synagogues and Hillels are vandalized with the slogan “Free Palestine.”
Because when they say Zionist, they mean you — Jew.
Some will say this is a legal struggle, others will say it’s a moment ripe for Jewish civil rights. All are correct. I say this is our moment — our moment to show up as our full selves. Yes, we pray toward Jerusalem, yes we break the glass under the wedding canopy to remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, no we cannot cultivate land in the Diaspora as we would in Israel, yes we say “next year in Jerusalem” at the end of the Passover seder.
We are Jews, because we are Zionists; we are Zionists because we are Jews.
Dr. Naya Lekht is the Director of Education at Club Z, a Zionist youth movement whose goal is to cultivate the next generation of proud and articulate Jews.