By Dina Omar, published Oct 12, 2010 in the Columbia Spectator
“Explore What’s Yours”: This is the slogan of MASA Israel Journey, Barnard and Columbia’s new partner in a study abroad program. A close reading of the three-word phrase suggests a multitude of problematic ideas because it seems like a harmless catch phrase. However, after discerning the meaning of the phrase and placing it in context against the backdrop of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the message is quite insidious, to say the least.
On the first issue, what is the meaning of “yours”? MASA funding and scholarships are only available for Jewish students. Moreover, many Jewish students may find MASA’s exclusive appeal to Jews offensive to their values. For example, last year MASA launched an $800,000 campaign urging Israelis to report Jews “in danger” of marrying non-Jews. The campaign sought to persuade Jews in the Diaspora to come to Israel and re-evaluate their assimilation into “other” cultures. MASA apparently believes that assimilation or intermarriage serve as “strategic national threats” that need to be prevented. So not only does the MASA program discriminate against most Columbia students, but it also expressly promotes a version of Jewish identity that—by suggesting Jews don’t belong anywhere but Israel and with anyone but other Jews—is immediately problematic, if not offensive to many Jewish people.
On the second question: What is the “what?” Obviously, it is Israel–which ties into the first question about what “yours” means, which suggests that “what” belongs to Jewish students in the Diaspora. When asked, “Do the Zionists have any historical claim to the land of Israel?” during a discussion at the University of Washington in 2003, late professor Edward Said said that he did not deny that Jews have a historical claim to the lands but that, “it is not the only claim,” nor is it the most legitimate claim. In 2004, the Hebrew University confiscated lands that belonged to more than 250 Palestinians. These families were displaced in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Certainly the Palestinians who were displaced to provide housing for Jewish students at the Hebrew University would contest the notion that Israel (or Palestine) belongs more to Jewish-American students than it does to themselves or their families. This program suggests that Haifa or Jerusalem belongs more to American Jews than it does to the Palestinians who have lived there for generations.
On the final question: “explore.” Considering that many consider Israel to be a colonial state built on top of Palestine, the term “explore” is quite insensitive, to say the least. “Explore” suggests adventure as if the land is an uncharted frontier for Jewish students to discover, claim, and stake out as their own. This invitation to “explore” surely glosses over Israel’s racist policies limiting and removing Palestinian people, homes, and histories and the continued occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza.
On the surface, studying in Israel seems like a fun and expense-free opportunity for Jewish-American students. However, if one looks a bit closer at projects like this study abroad program, one can see the role such programs play in Israel’s colonial project to create and maintain a “Jewish State” while expelling or marginalizing the indigenous Palestinian population. The MASA program relies on the narrative that Israel is and must remain a Jewish state—otherwise, how can it belong more to Jewish-Americans than Palestinian refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel? Furthermore, to claim that Israel is a Jewish state as such would require people to believe in an Israel that’s very different from the one that actually exists. Twenty percent of Israel’s population is Arab and that is not including other non-Jewish minorities . To call Israel a Jewish state would require implicit endorsement of the practices that aim to make that idea a reality. If the Jewishness of the state of Israel is predicated on importing as many Jewish people as possible to the state and exporting or eliminating as many Palestinian people as possible, then that requires the erasure of Palestine. If this imagined reality is something study abroad programs are helping to accomplish and manufacture, is this MASA partnership something Columbia University and students should support?
The author is a graduate student in the department of anthropology. She is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine.