By Olivia Laramie
Rising tensions between Palestine and their occupier, Israel, has caught the attention of many media outlets in recent months. On Oct. 27, The University Union, a campus student organization at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, hosted a debate, “Opposing Views on Israel and Palestine.” The event was co-sponsored by the Students for Justice in Palestine and the Student Alliance for Israel.
Palestinian views were represented by Joseph Levine and Yousef Munayyer. Levine is a Professor of Philosophy at UMass. He is a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Academic Advisory Council, a network of scholars for justice in Palestine. Munayyer, a UMass alum, has served as the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund & Palestine Center and as a Policy Analysts for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).
Israeli views were represented by Jay Berkovitz and Justin Cammy. Berkovitz is a Professor and chair of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at UMass. He also has rabbinic ordination, meaning he is a rabbi with the authority to answer questions of Jewish law. Cammy is an associate professor of Jewish studies and comparative literature at Smith College.
The first question was posed to the Palestinian side: “What gave the Jewish government/ people the right to settle in Palestine?”
Professor Levine answered, “There is no such right. They cannot ground claim against others who do not have the same religious beliefs. The right to the land resides with the indigenous people.”
Professor Berkovitz countered that response by arguing that the Jewish people are an indigenous people to the land. “Equally important is the cultural and religious attachment to the land, Berkovitz said. “Early twentieth century Muslim authorities actually affirmed Jewish attachment to the land. The return of the Jewish people to their homeland did not occur after the holocaust, [it occurred before].”
Munayyer agreed with Berkovitz that Jews have a connection to the land, but disagreed with Berkovitz’s view of Zionism. Berkovitz stated that Zionism is an anti-colonialism movement;, however, Munayyer argued the opposite. Munayyer argued that Theodore Herzl, considered the founder of the Zionism movement, identified Zionism as a colonial project. “He even wrote a letter to Cecil Rhodes, the godfather of the colonial movement, begging him to support the movement because it was a colonial project. He also, by the way, referred to the Arabs of the land as the indigenous population.”
Another topic of debate was whether Palestine is in the state of Apartheid. Many politicians and media organizations equate the situation in Palestine to that of the South African Apartheid that existed from 1948 to 1994.
Berkovitz argued that they were different, saying the South African Apartheid was based on skin color. He stated that people of color were denied access to an education, to voting, etc., but such is not the case in Palestine.
Munayyer disagreed. “Arguing this way is like arguing that an orange is not a fruit because it doesn’t look, taste, feel like an apple,” he said. “Apartheid is the use of systematic human rights violations against one group of people to ensure political power remains in the hands of another group of people,” he said, arguing that this is exactly what is happening in Palestine.
“The only way towards peace is through the dismantlement of exclusivist policies of the state of Israel. Yes, the Jewish people have a connection to Palestine but it in no way gives them the right to deny the Palestinians theirs. Ending the occupation, the right of Palestinian refugees, and full equality to all who live between the river and the sea regardless of ethnicity or religion is the path to peace,” Munayyer said.
Cammy argued that Israel is not an apartheid state. “Israel has proven to be one of the most flourishing democracies in the region. The reality is that Palestinians in Israel have more democratic rights than most Arabs in any other Arab country in the region. That’s just a fact: rights to appeal the Supreme Court, rights to be elected to parliament, rights to form their own political parties...”
Both sides agreed to disagree on this issue in order to move on to new questions. They did agree on one thing: that the occupation of Palestine by Israel should end, but they disagreed on how this should occur. They also agreed that each other’s were not Anti- Arab or Anti- Semitic, they were simply political disagreements.