On my first day as a student at UMass Amherst, I was forced to defend half of my identity. My Resident Assistant (RA) gathered everyone on my floor and asked each person to discuss their background, so we could become better acquainted. I was excited to hear about students’ unique narratives.
When it came to my turn, I introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Ariel Lutati and I’m an Israeli-American.” Right away, I felt an uneasy feeling fall upon the room, and my RA simply stated, “Oh.” I inquired if I had said anything strange, and the RA replied, “I just want to let you know I’m an anti-Zionist, and I don’t want to talk to you about it.” I was speechless.
Half of my identity was erased, and I couldn’t even respond.
Since then, my experience at college has been positive. I go to Kabbalat Shabbat every week, have many Jewish friends and am happily involved as the Israeli-American Council’s Mishelanu Fellow. My role as a head of UMass’ branch of the leadership program for Israeli Americans studying at American colleges allows me to express my Israeli identity and expose Israeli culture to everyone on campus along with partners such as Hillel. We bring pro-Israel students together to have a dedicated voice on campus and to show fellow students that Israel, and Israelis, are about much more than what you see on the news.
The overall environment on campus for Israelis and Jews remained peaceful for quite some time. However, May 4 marked the first Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) panel in UMass Amherst’s history. The panel featured two stars of the BDS movement, Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour and rock star Roger Waters, who have criticized Israel’s very existence and are seen by some Jewish leaders and pundits as anti-Semitic. Hundreds of local residents and UMass students flooded the Fine Arts Center to propagate an anti-Israel agenda. Students for Justice in Palestine garnered enough attention and funding to host a second BDS panel on Nov. 12, titled: “The Attack on BDS and Pro-Palestinian Speech.”
IAC Mishelanu, together with UMass Hillel, immediately responded to the panel with a successful peace walk to offer the opportunity for students to #Dare2Discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but my group of Israeli-American students faced a different fight. For us, fighting against anti-Israel propaganda wasn’t only political — it was personal, too. The very ideology behind the BDS movement relies heavily on the Arab League and their three No’s — no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel and finally, no peace with Israel. Israeli Americans not only have to argue in an environment where anti-Zionism assumes a “political stance,” but also one in which we need to validate half of our existence.
Many Israeli Americans avoid the fight against BDS for this reason. Every argument regarding Israel requires us to substantiate our personal and ethnic connection to Israel. BDS creates a dehumanizing climate where every time Israel is discussed, opposing students and faculty debate the political aspect rather than ask us about the culture. What clothes do we wear? What kinds of foods do we like? What music do we dance to? Israeli Americans would much rather answer those questions. And we think that bringing a sense of humanity and normalcy to light in regard to Israel is an impactful way to change the narrative on campus.
Earlier this month, I, along with hundreds of other Mishelanu Fellows, were together at the Israeli-American Council’s National Summit in Miami. To be around that many like-minded Israeli Americans dealing with the same issues on campus as I am inspired me to never stop advocating for Israel and my culture.
I believe that Israeli Americans play a unique and important role in the debate on Israel in the U.S. Instead of defending Israel through political dialogue, I believe Israeli Americans can effectively use our personal experience to share a rich, loving and inclusive culture that embodies what it really means to be an Israeli Zionist.
Ariel Lutati is a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.