Campus, News

Israel-Palestine, a Jewish Studies professor’s perspective

Jeffrey Blutinger is the director of the Jewish Studies program at Long Beach State and has spent an accumulated two and a half years living in Israel.

According to his College of Liberal Arts biography, his research interests “lie at the intersection of Jewish intellectual and cultural history.” Blutinger teaches classes on Modern Jewish history, Zionism and Jewish Nationalism and is a faculty advisor for Beach Hillel.

Q. What has your experience been like witnessing what’s happening in that area of the world?

A. So it’s been really painful… I cry a lot, and I can’t remember in my life a worse period…

Q. Do you know anyone who has been hurt by the violence?

A. I know people who’ve lost in the conflict. The first one was one of my teachers at Brandeis [University], whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered when their kibbutz was overrun. I think two of their children had made it to the safe room but their teenage boy had not, and they threw themselves over him to save him, and they were shot.

So the bullets passed through his daughter and son-in-law into his grandson’s body, but the grandson survived. His daughter and son-in-law were murdered…

Q. How has this violence affected the greater Jewish community?

A. Almost no Jew in America doesn’t know people who’ve lost people because the number of people killed is so enormous. You know, it’s like 1,400 doesn’t sound like much, but there are only 14-15 million Jews in the world…

The whole country has been traumatized. And I would say the Jewish community, yes, is equally traumatized…

Q. Do you think that faculty are being silenced in regards to this conflict?

A. I can’t speak to how they [faculty] feel because that’s their feeling, but I don’t perceive any silencing. There has been no attempt to actually bring any action to silence anyone or to punish anyone…I have not seen any effort, any petition, any motion, anything, even to pass any resolution to condemn any of them.

What I will say is that the Biden administration has reiterated, as of today, that college campuses are governed by Title VI, and Title VI prohibits recipients of federal funds from creating or allowing to be created a hostile environment for either students, staff or faculty. This covers antisemitism, anti-Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian prejudice, anti-Israeli prejudice…

Q. How do you feel about the rallies on campus that are in support of Palestine?

A. So the signs went up showing the paraglider which was used by the Hamas terrorists who massacred the people at the Peace concert…the massacre was on the seventh, on a Saturday. That poster was up Monday morning. The rally I believe was Wednesday, so that was four days after the massacre.

The second rally, which was a week and a half ago, was calling for the violent destruction of Israel. Things like “there is only one solution, Antifada revolution.”

This is not a peaceful resolution…

Q. Do you see all the campus rallies in support of Palestine as being in support of Hamas?

A. … the two rallies that I’ve witnessed…had calls for the violent elimination of the State of Israel, and within the content, presented the actions by the terrorists in murdering 1,400 people as a justifiable resistance to colonialism, and that there are no innocent victims of colonialism.

Now those sorts of statements and chants, to my mind, are supportive of the Hamas terrorists. Now that’s my reading. But they didn’t actually say we support Hamas.

Q. In your eyes, how would you see the pro-Palestine rallies protest without being antisemitic?

A. So Palestine must be free from the river to the sea is antisemitic. Well, let’s be clear about that, that chant is calling for the elimination of the State of Israel, because from the river to the sea… that’s the Jordan River and the sea is the Mediterranean…So that is a call for the destruction of Israel.

But when you combine that with the chant, “There is only one solution. Antifada revolution,” that is an explicit call for violence…those two chants together are calling for the violent elimination of the State of Israel…That’s antisemitic because you’re calling for the violent destruction of the largest Jewish committee on Earth. How is that not antisemitic?

Q. I’ve seen media portray Hamas as terrorists, but I’ve also seen it vice-versa where there are claims that Israel is the terrorist in this situation as they’ve killed thousands of people to counter the Israeli deaths caused by Hamas. How would you respond?

A. [People claim] you have to look at the wider context. You have to see what justified what they did… let’s look before, let’s look at the Hamas founding document. The Hamas charter in 1988, which is expressly genocidal, calls for the murder of all the Jews of Israel. That explicitly expresses genocide.

Q. Gaza only had one election in 2006 where Hamas won and there hasn’t been an election since. Do you think that the actions of Hamas represent Gazans as a whole?

A. …that is the government of Gaza. I’m very certain that many Gazans don’t like Hamas. I’ve seen reports that over half of Gazans don’t like the Hamas government, that being said, it is still the government. It was elected, though it hasn’t held an election since.

Q. What do you think Hamas wants in this situation?

A. Hamas doesn’t want a two-state solution. This is not about independence for Gaza because Gaza is already independent. This is about eliminating Israel.

Q. Can you really call Gaza an independent country? Many governments still consider it to be a territory occupied by Israel and they have no control over any of their borders. Gaza has to depend on Israel for the majority of their water, electricity, etc.

A. So I would say independence as a political statement. There’s obviously the issue of political independence and whether a country is truly politically independent. And then there’s economic and social independence. There are lots of countries in the world that are not fully, economically and socially, independent, but that doesn’t mean they’re not separate countries.

The issue is that the Hamas government has chosen not to use any of the massive aid it has received… from the Qataris, from the Gulf states, from the U.N…

Q. Hasn’t Israel restricted Palestinian’s ability to leave Gaza prior to this conflict? That is why many people consider the Gaza Strip to be an “open-air prison.”

A. The issue is that you have a territory whose political leadership is at war with two countries that border it. It’s at war with Israel overtly, and it has designs on Sinai and the Egyptian government views it as a threat as well. So that has led to a policy of containment. So any policy of containment could then be viewed as you have imprisoned the country that is being contained.

Rulers of Gaza also have agency and they have abilities to make choices on how they use their resources, and they have chosen to direct all their resources into attacking Israel and maintaining a war with Israel. And when they get a chance, massacring every Israeli they can find rather than actually build…

Hamas has no interest in developing the Gazan economy in that direction. Their motivation is the destruction of Israel, and the murder of all the Jews in Israel. And they have directed all the resources of Gaza to that goal, which has left the territory in a constant state of war since 2006 and 2007.

Q. It doesn’t seem like Israel is holding Hamas responsible for their actions, but rather the people of Gaza. You said Hamas has killed 1,400 Jews, but the Israeli government has killed over 10,000 Palestinians since the Oct. 7 attack. Can the word massacre be used to describe what the Israeli government is doing?

A. I don’t think so… I don’t think Israel is deliberately targeting civilians to kill them, which is what Hamas does. Israel is attacking Hamas militants located in a civilian area.

What I would say is that there’s a difference between…the person being targeted as a civilian, or they’re killed because they’re next to a military target.

Q. I’ve read reports that Israel bombed a refugee camp in Gaza because they claimed Hamas was there. Is it justifiable to risk the deaths of innocent people for the chance of wiping out Hamas?

A. How do you fight a war against a military target that places itself surrounded by civilians? It’s not such an easy thing…We’re talking about, I don’t know how many fighters Hamas has, but it’s certainly in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands who are in underground bunkers underneath Gaza City.

Q. I’ve seen people reluctant to use the word genocide when referring to what’s happening in Gaza. Would you use that word to describe the situation?

A. By no stretch of the imagination can it be referred to as a genocide… the issue is that not every war is a genocide. I think sometimes we focus on this idea of making something a genocide and if it’s not a genocide, then we’re saying it wasn’t bad.

But if you look at what’s happening in Gaza, it is a war between two different political organizations, the State of Israel and the State of Hamas.

Q. What word would you use to describe it if not genocide?

A. It’s a war. There is a state of war between Israel, and the Gazans are held hostage.

Q. Do you think that Israel is holding Gazans responsible for the actions of Hamas?

A. I would disagree, I’m holding their government responsible. The fact that the government is not responsive to the will of its citizens is a tragedy, but in the end, that’s why I described the Gazans as hostages to their government.

I’m not holding the Gazans responsible for the crimes of their government, but that doesn’t mean Israel should ignore the crimes of the Gazan government. And we [the United States] would never in this country tolerate that condition if it was threatening us…

We have to choose between a lot of very bad options, there are no good options.

Q. Do you think that what is happening in Gaza is a reasonable way for Israel to respond?

A. I don’t know what the military goals are. I don’t know what the military options are. So I’m certainly reluctant to endorse any of the military actions of the Israeli government.

I think their [the Israeli government’s] strategy should be to rescue the hostages…and then prevent Hamas from being able to do something similar in the future, and that they should do that in a way that minimizes civilian casualties.

Q. Do you agree with people calling Israel an apartheid state?

A. There’s certainly within Israel proper, legal integration and equality, and de-facto segregation and inequality.

So in terms of legal apartheid… Israel doesn’t have that.

There are members of the current government that would want to make Israel an apartheid state. No question about it.

Q. How does the West Bank affect whether or not you believe Israel is an apartheid state?

A. …where things get really complicated is what do you do about the West Bank?

If you believe… that the West Bank has been effectively annexed into Israel, then you do have a two-part system that is legal, in which the Palestinians in the West Bank don’t have political rights within Israel. If you think that the West Bank is still an area under military occupation that is jurisdictionally separate from Israel and has not been annexed, then it is not an apartheid state, it is a state that is still in a peace process to resolve that.

Now, the people who argue that Israel is an apartheid state, argue that based on the policies of the last 50 years regarding the West Bank and we should treat the West Bank as effectively annexed Israel. And I see that argument and I understand where that argument is coming from, but I don’t agree with it.

I’m not saying that argument has no merit, but I would treat that as specific to the West Bank as opposed to treating the treatment of Israeli Palestinians as second-class citizens as apartheid because as a legal structure, it’s not.

Q. Do you agree with the claims that Israel is a settler-colonial state?

A. Settler colonialism, who’s the colonial power? …British support for Zionism began with the Balfour Declaration in the fall of 1917 and ended with the white paper of May of 1939. So it lasted…maybe 21 years, but Zionism as a movement predated the Balfour Declaration by 60 years…

…It’s [Israel] not acting on behalf of French colonialism or British colonialism or anything there, it is a diaspora-based nationalism… that is seeking a homeland… So it’s a really different economic structure. It’s a different political structure. It’s a different geopolitics.

Q. Do you agree with the ceasefire campaign?

A. Well, right now, the problem with the ceasefire is what does that mean to have a ceasefire with 240 people still taken hostage? All that does is reward Hamas for taking hostages…It’s an intolerable situation.

The only reason to have a ceasefire is for the release of hostages. If they want a ceasefire they can release the hostages.

Q. Do you agree with people’s critique of the Israeli government using racist language in reference to Gazans?

A. To say that I have problems with the current Israeli government would be an understatement. I don’t agree with dehumanizing language at all. I think it’s always in conflict, in war, we have a tendency, a very strong tendency, to dehumanize our opponent and that’s a mistake.

I think dehumanizing language is something we should never do because then it lays the groundwork for once you dehumanize you can carry out atrocities because you’re not carrying it out against people.

Q. I know you said that antisemitism always rises when conflicts happen in that region of the world. Do you think islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment are on the rise as well?

A. Oh, absolutely. I support strengthening our application of Title VI on campus, which prohibits both discrimination and creating a hostile work environment/ learning environment for Jews, Israelis, Muslims and Palestinians equally.

I strongly, strongly oppose Islamophobia.

Q. Do you see the worldwide support of Palestine and Palestinians as antisemitic?

A. No, I don’t think it’s antisemitic to support Palestinians. I don’t think it’s antisemitic to support Palestinian rights or to support an independent Palestine. I do think it’s antisemitic to call for the violent destruction of the largest Jewish community in the world, which is Israel. But I don’t think that support for Palestinian nationalism or an independent Palestinian state is antisemitic at all.

Q. Do you see a critique of the Israeli government as antisemitic?

A. Not at all, no more than a critique of President Biden, President Trump or President Obama.

Q. Is it antisemitic for Palestinians to want historic Palestine back?

A. No. It’s not antisemitic for the desire to have all of historic Palestine back. It would be antisemitic to call for the murder of all the Jews of Israel. If there was an easy, political solution to this problem, it would have been reached a long time ago. The problem is there’s no easy solution and there’s going to have to be compromise.

But that being said, I don’t think it’s antisemitic that someone whose family came from Jaffa [a part of Tel Aviv] wants to go home to Jaffa.

…if you want to avoid antisemitism, don’t call for the murder of the Jews of Israel. That’s all I’m saying.

Q. What would you consider a fair peace?

A. I have not abandoned my hope for a two-state solution, in which the West Bank and Gaza would be an independent Palestinian state. I think that is the only solution, two states existing in peace and harmony and economic cooperation with each other…

Q. Why not a bi-national state with Jews and Palestinians living together without national borders?

A. I could imagine in 100 years, but in order to have a binational state, Jews and Palestinians together, you would need for the Palestinians to be able to be self-confident and independent. They need independence from Israel in order to have their own country and develop themselves economically, politically and socially.

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