An open letter to the Columbia University Gaza war protesters from a pro-Palestinian activist in Israel

Apr 26, 2024 | Read Now, Voices

As a graduate of Columbia College (Class of 1991) and a peace activist who lives in Israel, I am watching videos and reports from my alma mater’s campus and wondering what I would have done if I were a student there now.

I am an activist and have been all my life. I believe strongly in the ability of grassroots movements and peaceful protest to change the world.

When I first moved to Israel, my activism was focused on feminism and religious pluralism. Today, however, I strongly believe the most pressing issue in Israel-Palestine today is solving the conflict.

Since well before the current extremist right-wing Israeli government was elected, I have been demonstrating against the occupation (later also the Nation-State Law declaring Israel officially a Jewish state) and working for Jewish-Palestinian partnership within Israel’s borders. My debut novel, “Hope Valley,” is about the friendship between a Palestinian Israeli woman and a Jewish Israeli woman in the Galilee.

I am a very active member of Standing Together, a movement of Palestinian-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis working in complete partnership towards an end to the occupation, Palestinian self-determination and a more equal, just and peaceful society within Israel. I am involved in a variety of groups and organizations committed to a vision of peace, justice and equality for all people on the land from the “River to the Sea.”

[The Jewish Telegraphic Agency Op-Ed continues]

And when you call out, “Say it loud and say it clear, we don’t want no Zionists here!” you are fomenting violence against and silencing other Columbia students. You may disagree with them, but does that mean they have no right to inhabit your shared campus — or even live? Do you think I, an activist in the struggle for peace and equality for all in Israel-Palestine, have a right to live?

Make no mistake; I have no problem with the keffiyehs you wear or the Palestinian flags you wave. But why is nationalist self-determination good for Palestinians and not Jews? Why is living in the Diaspora good for Jews and not Palestinians? And why do Palestinians have a right to live in security, but Jews do not? Unlike you, I do not even consider myself a nationalist. But I do believe in people’s right to live in safety, and I do not believe in double standards.

While I am an activist advocating for Palestinian rights, I also advocate for Jewish rights. While I march for a ceasefire, I also march with the families of the hostages and am volunteering to translate into English testimony from the Oct. 7 massacre — which is absolutely horrifying, even if there are those who deny it happened.

While I protest many of my government’s policies now and in the past, I do not think Jews have a moral obligation to commit suicide rather than enter sometimes tragic gray areas that are part of defending a country. Turning the other cheek is not expected of anyone anywhere. Why expect it only of Jews?

While you in the United States demand that we be sacrificial lambs, you inhabit and benefit from a country unequivocally acquired through colonialism and grown through slavery. This is not the case with Jews in Israel (although the British may have had colonialist aspirations by being here), even if agenda-driven pseudo-historians try to convince ignorant students that it is.

Israel is far from perfect. I am outraged at the Jewish-supremacist, messianic, theocratic, anti-democratic direction in which the country is currently headed. But the answer is to try and change that direction, not call for the country’s destruction.

I understand and relate to your show of solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza. The situation there is heartbreaking and devastating. But so is the situation here in Israel. The scale is just different, for a variety of reasons that are just as much the fault of Palestinian leadership as Israeli.

Our political leadership on both sides are using us all as pawns in this bloody conflict. It must end. They must agree on a political solution, and we, the grassroots from both nations, must demand this.

If you from abroad want to demand something, demand a resolution of the conflict and peace in the region, not the annihilation of one side. As has been often stated – there was a ceasefire in place on Oct. 6. What there wasn’t was a political direction from either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership to achieve long-lasting peace.

The situation here is so much more complex than you care to understand. There is a bloody conflict going on, with people suffering and dying on both sides in brutal ways, not just in the past months but for the past century. One who studies the history and present will know that both sides are culpable and responsible for the conflict and its resolution.

Student activists, I too question the Zionist project. I grew up on the Zionist narrative. But when I discovered I had been told only part of the story, my answer was not to believe the Palestinian narrative over the Zionist one — because it, too, is only part of the story. The answer is to acknowledge both stories and both people’s suffering and try to find a way to hold it all and everyone’s humanity.

My ideal is for us to all live in peace and dignity on this land from the River to the Sea. That means two states, with perhaps down the line more open borders and cooperation — if we do the work to reconcile and heal. That is what my Zionism is about. Not Jewish supremacy or theocracy or even having a Jewish state; it is about having a safe place for Jews to live. But not at the expense of another nation. And so, my vision for this place would have to be safe for everyone.

And so, if I were at Columbia today, I would not join your protests. Because now I know I do not have to choose sides. I do not even have to buy into the idea of “sides.” This is a battle between those who support violence and an all-or-nothing approach to this conflict, and those who want to find a way for us to all win out by sharing this land. It saddens me deeply that you are choosing — perhaps out of latent Jew-hatred — the way of violence and hate instead of cooperation and mutual understanding.

There are people living here in this very real place. We are not a theoretical idea. And some of us are Palestinians and Jews who are working together tirelessly to make our vision of peace and equality a reality. If you want to promote peace on this land, please support our work. What you are doing now undermines it.

Haviva Ner-David
is rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, on Kibbutz Hannaton. She is a certified spiritual companion with a specialty in dreamwork, working with couples and individuals. She is the author of “Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi’s Soul Journey,” and the novels “Hope Valley” and “To Die in Secret. “

View this Jewish Telegraphic Agency Op-Ed from April 26th