22 May 2024

Jacob Engelberg, a British Dutch academic at the University of Amsterdam, made a powerful appeal to Zionist Jewish colleagues to reconsider their attachment to Israel and their concomitant fear and prejudice towards Palestinians. His appeal was originally published in Vashti.

To those who are afraid – reflect on the roots of your fear

Zionism depends on a terrified diaspora. But a Jewish ethnostate that subjugates Palestinians in our name does not make anyone safe.

To those who are afraid – reflect on the roots of your fear
To those who are afraid – reflect on the roots of your fear

Jacob Engelberg speaks at a staff walkout in solidarity with student pro-Palestine protests at the University of Amsterdam. Credit: Shantan Kumarasamy

On 13 May, staff across Dutch universities participated in a national walkout in the wake of student demonstrations against their universities’ complicity in Israel’s genocide in Gaza. The walkout was organised in protest of the repressive measures of these universities’ Executive Boards – which repeatedly called the police to evict peaceful protestors, resulting in mass police violence – and to show solidarity with the protesting students’ demands for disclosure and cessation of, and divestment from, ties with complicit Israeli institutions and companies. Below is the speech of one of these staff members, British-Jewish academic Jacob Engelberg, who is assistant professor of film, media and culture at the University of Amsterdam and a contributor to Vashti.

Hello friends. I join you today as a Jewish anti-Zionist member of staff here at the UvA [University of Amsterdam]; I name myself as both Jewish and anti-Zionist because dominant discourses circulating – from the Israeli state to the Dutch media to our own CvB [Executive Board] – tend to imply that we do not exist. I assure you, we are many.

I have been working with colleagues in negotiations with our CvB to demand moral action from our university in the face of Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people in Gaza. I have been deeply inspired by the passion and moral clarity shown by our students in their call for the university to disclose, boycott and divest. These urgent calls have been met, however, with repression, intimidation, defamation and violence, as the CvB refuses to negotiate in good faith, spreads lies about its own students and then recruits the police to violently repress dissent.

We will not stand for the erosion of democratic freedoms at the institution in which we teach and learn. Indeed, teaching and learning cannot take place without the democratic freedoms we hold dear.

I stand here today not only as an academic, but as a Jewish member of our university community. Much has been said about how Jewish people are feeling on campus, but always in a way that erases the presence of Jewish students and staff, including Israeli students and staff, within our Palestine solidarity work. Instead, our community is presented as monolithically Zionist, and critique of the state of Israel is rewritten as antisemitism. In Dutch media and politics, we have heard the lie that the student movement at the UvA is antisemitic.

This is a characterisation unrecognisable to those, like myself, who visited the encampment and joined students in their various forms of protest. These lies efface the Jewish students and staff whose efforts in these actions have been steadfast, and who were among those brutalised by the police. The notion that these forms of violence are necessary to secure our safety is a risible distortion of the notion of safety.

I am, of course, well aware that there are many within my community aligned with Zionism, who consider it intrinsic to their Jewish identities, and who see denouncements of Israel’s actions as a threat to their very being. To the Jewish students and staff who feel afraid at the sight of Palestine solidarity protests: I believe your fear. I implore you, however, to reflect on the roots of that fear.

My wager is that, like me, you were taught by figures in our communal institutions to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. I expect you might have a visceral response to seeing the Palestinian flag, to hearing the phrase “From the river to the sea,” or even at the very mention of the word Palestine. I want you to know that these responses are the cumulative effects of years of distorted narratives about Palestine solidarity, the history of the Zionist project and the meaning of a free Palestine.

I call on you to think critically about the presuppositions we have been taught to make, to listen to the voices we have been told to ignore. The university, at its best, should be a place where you can do this work of critical reflection.

Israel’s impunity depends upon the support of a terrified diaspora, whose approval is garnered through distortions of real fears of Jewish unsafety, against which Israel then positions itself as the antidote. It uses the trauma of intergenerational experiences of antisemitism, and particularly the trauma of the Shoah, to justify its actions. Let us be clear that a Jewish ethnostate that subjugates, displaces and murders Palestinians in our name does not make anyone safe.

Crucially, Israel’s cynical deployment of Jewish fear turns our attention away from where antisemitism is burgeoning in our societies: in the far-right nationalist parties gaining momentum globally; in the transnational conspiracy theories circulating centuries-old lies about our people; in the rise of neofascism that has already taken the lives of our community members as they pray in shul. Zionism turns our eyes away from where antisemitism needs to be most forcefully resisted, encouraging us, instead, to turn on our Palestinian, Arab or Muslim siblings. We must refuse this cynical ploy.

It was in my years as an undergraduate that I first began to question the Zionist doctrines with which I had been raised. I felt many fears, among them the fear that were I to critique Zionism, I would find myself bereft of community, bereft of ethnicity, bereft of identity, bereft of culture. What I discovered, however, was a rich tradition of Jewish anti-Zionism with a legacy that stretches from the Bundist movement in Imperial Russia to the very student protests we see globally today. Jewish anti-Zionists have built and will continue to nourish Jewish communities that stand, without reservation, in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

I am grateful for the invitation to speak today and I stand beside you in the struggle for a liberated Palestine in which all can live freely under conditions of radical equality from the river to the sea. Thank you. ▼

Jacob Engelberg is assistant professor of film, media and culture at the University of Amsterdam and a contributor to Vashti.