Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

FSJP and JAZ hold joint conversation about Jewish and anti-Zionist intersectionality

Courtesy Anna Feder
Anna Feder takes a picture of herself holding a sign she made for an event in 2021.

Following several initiatives to advocate for more conversations about Palestine on campus, students, faculty, and staff held a discussion on Wednesday about what it means to be both Jewish and anti-Zionist.

The event, which was held in the multi-purpose room at 172 Tremont, was organized by Emerson Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine (FSJP) and the newly formed Emerson Jews Against Zionism (JAZ). The discussion was moderated by interdisciplinary associate professor Yasser Munif.

According to Anna Feder, a member of FSJP and adviser of JAZ who recently wrote a “Letter to the Editor” regarding open discourse on Palestine, many Jewish people at Emerson are hoping to disprove the narrative that all Jewish community members at the college support Israel, which often frames the Jewish community as a monolith. 

Additionally, it was necessary to hold a space for Jewish students, faculty, and staff that are aligned with Palestinian liberation, she said.

“For those of us who are Jewish and anti-Zionist, it was really important for us to be visible in whatever ways that we can,” said Feder in an interview with the Beacon.

The event follows other efforts to push conversations about anti-Zionism and Judaism, including the “Israelism” screening in February at the Paramount Center and the announcement on the formation of JAZ during the March 29 walkout that followed the March 22 arrests. It also comes after the “Gaza from a Palestinian Feminist Perspective” Zoom event on March 27, which was sponsored by the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Beginning at 5 p.m., Celia, who asked to exclude their last name for anonymity, outlined a brief history of Zionism in a presentation that was initially shown during JAZ’s first meeting. The term Zionism was coined in the 19th century by Nathan Birnbaum and further defined by Theodore Herzl. According to Jewish Voice for Peace, Zionism is a political ideology that was created in response to European anti-semitism and nationalism and promotes the mass relocation of Jewish people to establish a Jewish-dominated nation.

Following the history presentation, five speakers—Nigel Gibson, Illona Yosefov, Feder, Griffin Willner, and Celia—described their experiences of “deprogramming” and becoming anti-Zionists.

Celia, who is a member of JAZ, grew up in a progressive Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. Despite growing up with a progressive Jewish faith, they were still taught “subtle Zionism” and were expected to have a connection to Israel.

“I’ve never been to Israel. I don’t have any connection to Israel, and even though I was told again and again growing up that I should have this connection, I never really did,” they said. 

Gibson, an interdisciplinary professor at Emerson, grew up in England in the 1960s. His mother is Jewish, and Gibson’s father converted to marry her. She was an “automatic Zionist,” he said. 

“I remember her saying in 1973 that Israel was surrounded by hostile states and had to be supported,” Gibson said.

He spoke about how he became an anti-apartheid activist after the 1976 Soweto rebellion against apartheid education in South Africa. He recalled being “disgusted” by white South Africans who spoke about the necessity of apartheid and violence against “non-whites,” which echoed the rhetoric used when talking about Palestinians today.

“As the anti-apartheid movement became internationalized and students in the U.S. demanded their colleges and universities to divest from apartheid, such calls are developing again on campuses around the country, bolstered by a new generation of anti-Zionist Jews willing to stand up against Israel, who are indeed also willing to think about being part of working out a way to live together in historic Palestine where everyone is free from the river to the sea,” Gibson said.

The Birthright Israel program, which offers all-expenses-paid trips to Israel to Jewish people around the world between the ages of 18 and 26, was founded in 1994. The program “seeks to ensure a vibrant future for the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel,” according to its website. Feder attended the first program trip in 1999. The experience made her question Israel and Zionism.

“That was, for me, the first time I was like, ‘something is deeply wrong here, and I need to investigate this,’” Feder said. “They want us to move here, but what about the other people who are living on this land?”

Since then, she has been critical of Israel and is currently a part of the Jewish Voice for Peace chapter in Rhode Island.

Willner, who identifies as three-quarters Jewish and one-quarter Christian, was raised in a “spiritually secular and liberal home” in New Jersey. He grew up involved in Jewish culture and life. Although he was immersed in Zionism from a young age through Jewish American and Israeli South American family members, he said he is working to unlearn Zionist ideals. 

Willner came to Emerson to be surrounded by a more liberal environment compared to the less-inclusive and homophobic environment he experienced during his childhood. After Oct. 7, however, he had his Jewish identity questioned and was called antisemitic, as an active member of Emerson Students for Justice in Palestine (SPJ) and a member of JAZ.

“Were my distant Holocaust relatives less genocided than others? Was the swastika drawn on my desk or other swastikas spray-painted on my elementary school less terrifying? I don’t think so,” Willner said. “I think I know what antisemitism is… I’m just as Jewish as Ethiopian Jews. I’m just as Jewish as the Jews colonizing land in Israel, unfortunately. I’m just as Jewish as my grandmother with no ties to Israel who makes offensive statements, and I’m just as Jewish as the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist Jews who are calling for Palestine to be free from the river to the sea.”

Yosefov, an instructional technologist at Emerson, moved to Israel as a small child during the Oslo Accords and identified as a Zionist for the first 20 years of her life. She moved to the U.S. in her 20s, ​​where she was first exposed to anti-Zionism in media and politics.  

“I consider myself very Jewish… but everything that I ever learned about Judaism never really fit within Zionism,” Yosefov said. 

She spoke about the modern state of Israel being a response to European nationalism, which excluded Jewish people and eventually led them to create their own nation. She added that the basis of Zionist education is a “Jews-aren’t-safe framework.” 

“You have to defend Israel because your existence depends on it,” Yosefov said, and added that it pressures the Jewish community to remain “complicit in the genocide” in Gaza. 

Following the speakers, audience members were invited to participate in a Q&A session. In response to a question about how to have productive conversations with friends and family who are Zionists, the speakers emphasized prioritizing in-person conversations and talking about personal connections with Palestinian friends.

Celia discussed connecting with their mother on a religious level, which is something they both have in common since their mother wanted them to be raised with Jewish values. They spoke about talking to God about the pain and suffering of Palestinians.

“I connect with [my mother], and I say, ‘these are the values that you have instilled in me and that God has instilled in me,’” they said. “I’m following what Jewish values believe and not what the state of Israel believes.”

An attendee spoke about navigating both the necessity and the difficulty of initiating these conversations.  

“I struggle to find the balance between where I feel like it is my job as someone who was fed the Zionist rhetoric and I know how to speak their language,” an attendee said. “I want to be a part of the resistance as much as I can because I know the words I can use to change minds and the ways that they’ve been indoctrinated that can be changed.”

In response, Feder advised to set boundaries in these conversations instead of engaging in hostile discussions. In an interview with the Beacon, Feder said that when having these conversations, it is also important for Jewish community members to recognize the difference between feeling unsafe versus feeling uncomfortable because their beliefs are challenged. 

“You have a finite amount of energy. Decide where it’s best to put your energy,” Feder said at the event. “I can see wanting to have those conversations, particularly with family and people you love, but figure out what your boundaries are and set them. You need your energy for things that might be more productive.”

Another attendee discussed their birthright trip in 2017, where they hoped to find community, but the trip eventually led them to embark on a journey to become anti-Zionist.

“I was smart enough not to give into the propaganda, but I was not smart enough to realize my own complicity in knowing this information and focusing on community,” they said. 

The attendee asked the speakers to talk about how to balance having Jewish pride while also being anti-Zionist.

In response, Celia emphasized how long Jewish history is and how Israel has existed for 75 years in comparison. 

“My ancestors are still a part of my history, and I can still be proud of that heritage and the values and my culture without supporting Israel,” Celia said. “In regards to building community, there are a lot more Jewish anti-Zionists than you think. That’s something that we’ve definitely found building JAZ.”

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About the Contributor
Hannah Nguyen
Hannah Nguyen, Editor-in-Chief
Hannah Nguyen (she/her) is a junior journalism major from North Wales, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in publications like The Boston Globe, North Penn Now and AsAmNews. Outside of writing, she enjoys thrifting and painting her nails. (see: https://linktr.ee/hannahcnguyen)

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    - / Apr 13, 2024 at 10:29 pm

    Being Jewish is an ethnic and/or religious identity. Being anti-Zionist is not an identity. Intersectionality is about overlapping identities. Thus, the article title “Jewish and anti-Zionist intersectionality” is incorrect. Being Jewish and anti-Zionist is not intersectionality, it is a political position that Jews (and many others) have held since the Zionist movement began, because Zionism is a political platform. Finally, I hope the Beacon will consider providing space to political views beyond anti-Zionism and this is far from a binary discussion.