The 2020-2021 academic school year saw an all-time high of 244 reported antisemitic incidents on universities across the country, including Cornell University. As rockets rained down on Israel from the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza, students at our university faced classic antisemitic harassment, including at least one student being called a “dirty Jew.” Hitler quotes and swastikas adorned a freshman dorm. When malicious lies and attacks against the only Jewish state come from professors and Cornell University sanctioned guest lecturers, it’s no wonder that students at our university harbor such ill-conceived and negative feelings against their Jewish peers.
In a talk delivered on September 23rd sponsored by Cornell University’s Institute For Comparative Modernities, anti-Zionist activist and Rutgers University professor Noura Erakat alleged that “Zionism, like colonialism, like apartheid, should be considered an abomination” and claimed that “all Israelis are settlers.” and “Israeli rule, wherever it exists, is equal to apartheid.”
Contrary to Erakat’s scornful mischaracterization, Zionism is the movement supporting Jewish self-determination in the land of Israel. Nothing more, nothing less. The reason for this ardent desire to be on this land is that Jews are its indigenous people. The fervency with which Jewish people speak about Israel is not simply because it is a home for a persecuted people, but because it is their home. The founders of Zionism did not arbitrarily pick a place to establish a Jewish state; instead, they decided that it would only be right to return home to the place where most of those living in Israel today have lived for generations. To that end, half of Israeli Jews are of Mizrahi descent, making them the largest ethnic group of Jews in Israel and just as indigenous to the region as anyone else. Taking this point further, the return home of previously exiled people would serve as decolonization and liberation of said people.
Therefore, deeming Zionism a colonial project perpetrated by white Europeans is egregiously ignorant and factually incorrect. In actuality, the greater Middle East has a history of oppressing, persecuting, and displacing Jews. In the seventh century, the Arab Islamic empire experienced a massive expansion and quickly became responsible for the peoples living in their newly acquired provinces; one of those peoples was the Jews.
Jewish people were put under dhimmi status in recognition of their shared monotheistic beliefs, and their lives were spared. However, this was not without being forced to pay a jizya tax, as well as face other restrictions such as a ban on riding horses, as that was a privilege reserved for Muslims only.
These practices were, in fact, a form of colonialism. When the Ottomans came to colonize the region and disrupt the status quo, they instituted a chain of submission: Muslims to Allah, dhimmis to Muslims, and unbelievers to all of the above. When the Levant was under British rule from 1921-1948, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin Al-Husseini, a Nazi collaborator, encouraged Arabs to target and attack Jews. Discrimination of Jews also extended to Arab lands in North Africa and the greater Middle East. Upon the Israeli declaration of independence in May of 1948, eight hundred and fifty thousand Jews were expelled from these regions.
What’s more, when Ms. Erakat proclaimed that the “founders of Zionism should be put on trial,” she essentially expressed a wish for persecuted people seeking refuge to be condemned for doing so. What is left out of the discourse surrounding a claim to the land and the legitimacy of Jewish return is that the better percentage of Jews who did make aliyah in the years preceding and following the declaration of independence did so out of desperation; these people were unwelcome in every other country on planet Earth. Whether they were Jews fleeing the Nazis in Europe and North Africa, who were turned away at the borders of the United States, Spain, Switzerland, and many countries during the Holocaust, or Jews expelled from countries like Iran, Egypt, and Morocco in 1948, those who fled lost their citizenship and had no choice but to immigrate to the one place where they were guaranteed entry and protection.
Ms. Erakat’s attempt to pass off a false narrative as standing up for a just cause is an obstacle to productive dialogue. Her sweeping generalizations about Zionism antagonize Jews and put a target on the back of the world’s only Jewish state. We cannot remain silent in the face of revisionist history and calls for “justice” that disguise blind hate for Israel.
Professors wield a tremendous amount of influence. Therefore it is their responsibility to ensure that the information they are sharing is accurate and paints a complete picture. Failing to do so is not only irresponsible but incredibly damaging and harmful.
Zoe Bernstein is a 2021-2022 CAMERA Fellow at Cornell University. This article was originally featured in the print edition of the Ithaca Journal on December 18th, 2021.