Back in Berkeley, this week is one of my least favorite of the year—and not because of the sudden onset of midterms and papers. The heavy load of schoolwork pales in comparison to the stress, anxiety, and sadness I feel while walking down Sproul Plaza surrounded by the propaganda, the shouting - the uncivil discourse of Israeli Apartheid Week and Israeli Peace and Diversity Week.
I look into the eyes of Students for Justice in Palestine members who may or may not know I’m Jewish and may or may not be waiting for me to try to get through their mock checkpoint. I look into the eyes of my Hillel friends who are glaring at me for not actively participating in counter-actions. I am trapped between two extremes, observing their inability to work together or even kindly acknowledge one another. I feel helpless.
This year, I’m abroad. I get a break. I’ve escaped the craziness of Berkeley for a semester.
But of course, as much as we like to think we’re groundbreaking trailblazers, Berkeley (and college campuses in general) aren’t all that unique.
Israeli Apartheid Week exists all around the world, including in Madrid, my home for a while. With a tinge of fear, I planned to go witness some of the Spanish events myself. Yet, with only two events listed—without a location, mind you—on the website and the failure of the coordinators to response to e-mails left me without the opportunity to witness IAW-Madrid first hand.
Berkeley’s IAW group would be ashamed by their passive advertising.
Still, the event’s existence sparked my interest to find out more about the popular Spanish opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At home, I live in a bubble filled with people who are engaged with the conflict in some way or another, but I imagine that if I popped that bubble, the average student wouldn’t have a strong connection or opinion.
In fact, I’ve talked to a number of “unaffiliated” friends who sort of know what’s going on but couldn’t really give you a well thought out response.
Experiment time. What would a random Spanish student (actually, my friend) say about what’s going on in Israel?
I think she was reluctant to answer and cautious of offending me. She thinks that while the Palestinians certainly aren’t saints, Israel is acting in the wrong. She thinks that Israel is mistreating the Palestinian people and in a way, forgetting the past of Jewish oppression. To her, the Wall is a disgrace.
She believes in the right for Palestinians to have equal representation in the Israeli government—Israel and Palestine aren’t necessarily ready to have independent governments (which I interpret as not ready for a 2-state solution, a concept I firmly believe in). She says that it’s time for Israel to take the lead and make better offers to the Palestinian people in order to reach a solution.
According to her, this opinion is fairly common in Spain.
I assured her that I am not hurt or offended. Her response was a bit one-sided, but I don’t completely disagree and I appreciate learning. My main question is: from where does this opinion originate?
I turn to the most obvious source: the media. When I search “Israel” in Spain’s main newspaper, El País, the headlines are a conglomeration of titles regarding Iran, the recent hunger strike by Palestinian Khader Adnan, and one that particularly caught my attention: “EE UU-Israel: la hora de divorcio” (The United States and Israel: The Hour of Divorce).
While none of the articles blatantly demonize Israel, you would think of Israel as nothing but a war zone (perhaps with some camels wandering around). An article titled “El antijudaísmo básico de los españoles” (the basic antisemitism of the Spanish) explains that a 2002 survey revealed Spanish people consider Israel and Iran to be the two most antagonistic countries.
The survey also revealed that regarding the conflict, 33% of Spaniards fault both sides, 26% blame the Israelis, and 4% blame the Palestinians. Certainly an improvement from 1991, when 57% found the Israelis at total fault. Yet, the Spanish opinion is still certainly biased against Israel. Events like Israeli Apartheid Week must only add to the one sided image.
But maybe that can change. Friday night I returned to the Chabad house in Madrid for services and Shabbat dinner. A couple representatives from the Israeli government’s program “Faces of Israel” talked about their efforts to present a more well-rounded image of Israel and her people around the world. They don’t avoid the conflict or aim to make everyone in love with Israel—they simply want to show people that Israel is a diverse place with many opinions (even greater than a 2 to 3 ratio!), a modern lifestyle, and diversity.
Perhaps initiatives like these can start a conversation that differs from the one I’m accustomed to in Berkley. A conversation with civility and respect. A conversation with true dialogue. A conversation that maybe one day will turn into the chance for peace.
Israeli Apartheid Week has followed me abroad. But my undying will to find a better way has been a trustworthy travel companion too.