Disheartened by our incoming undergraduate student government’s statement in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, I am writing to urge our USG to be proactive in listening to its constituents in the future. I abhorred learning about the violence in Israel. I mourn the needless loss of life on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pray for a solution stronger than a cease-fire. However, I do not endorse our incoming USG’s performative and borderline anti-Semitic response.
SG’s mandate is “to further the interests and promote the welfare of the students at the University of Chicago; to foster a University community; and to represent the body more effectively before University authorities and the community at large.”
Nothing in that mandate requires our USG to speak for the people of Israel or the people of Palestine. Yet, while they presumed to do so, they neglected to listen to the population they are in fact charged with representing: UChicago students. Students like me view Israel as we view the United States, understanding that the decisions made by Israeli leadership are not always shared by its citizens.
I want Israel to champion moral leadership, just as I want the United States to do the same. However, as an American, I live with the horror of regular and fatal instances of police brutality as well as the inescapability of gun violence. I lived four years under a federal government that I worked to prevent, one that wound up separating families and caging children. As painful as these incidents were, I remained committed to making my country a better place. While I criticize these policy decisions, they do not convince me to boycott or delegitimize everything American.
Israel needs America’s support. Unlike America, Israel is surrounded by enemies. Lebanon and Syria, two of Israel’s immediate neighbors, both deny its right to exist. Israel is the only democratically elected government in the region and the only one addressing women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.
Yet Israel is constantly held to a standard higher than almost every other country. In 2020, the United Nations (U.N.) condemned Israel as the only nation to infringe on the rights of women. Among the three countries that defended Israel was the United States.
In a 2019 letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Palestinian Authority supported the displacement and killing of Uyghurs by the People’s Republic of China. However, it seems the only country deserving of culpability and punishment is Israel. While horrible civil rights abuses leading to far greater loss of life are sadly commonplace today, I ask why our USG took the time to single out Israel for criticism.
As incidents of anti-Semitism are increasing in the United States, I am reminded that Israel—despite its flaws—is the only nation where I can be safe in observing my religion. Just last week, my cousin had his bar mitzvah in North Carolina, but the celebration required an armed guard due to security threats.
American Jews should not be held responsible for the human rights violations of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Like Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu has altered governmental procedures, allowing himself to remain in power in some form or another for more than two decades. This is not democratic. A few years ago, Israel’s parliament was given three chances to form a government. After failing three times, Netanyahu was given one more opportunity, at which he again failed. Netanyahu is at the edge of power, trying to start a war to keep it. I hope that the three indictments against him are followed through on, that the Israeli people vote en masse for change, and that we will see a meaningful improvement in treating Palestinians with greater dignity and security. Everyone deserves to feel safe in their home.
I understand that USG might disagree with me, citing organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, but this organization does not speak for all Jews. More importantly, they do not speak for UChicago students. They might also say my claims over delegitimization are merely a justification for the violence. However, this view sets a very dangerous precedent. It implies that the only good Jew is one who hates Israel. I do not endorse that view, and I would hope the same from our USG.
Finally, I want to reaffirm my stance. I am not excusing any violence or bloodshed. I am not excusing Netanyahu or Israel’s National Security Council, and they are not justified in occupying Gaza and the West Bank. I am also not claiming that my experience rivals the experience of those displaced by the conflict. However, my experience in Israel showed me that Palestinians and Israelis work and live side by side as trusted friends, neighbors, and coworkers, as is illustrated in this piece published by an Israeli surgeon last week. It is with them—the people of both nations caught in the middle—where I find hope.
I ask that our USG listen to its core values and the voices of all the students it represents. I also ask that they refrain from similar incendiary statements in the future.
Ben Gerhardt is a third-year in the college.
Correction on May 29, 2021, 3:02 p.m. CDT:
This article has been modified to distinguish between Student Government (SG) and the incoming Undergraduate Student Government (USG). The author's critique is of the incoming USG’s statement. Outgoing SG has made no such statement.