A Feb. 3, 2020 UC Berkeley student union meeting where pro-Israel and anti-Israel students groups debated a measure to remove a controversial anti-Israel display. (Photo/Sunny Shen-Daily Californian)
A Feb. 3, 2020 UC Berkeley student union meeting where pro-Israel and anti-Israel students groups debated a measure to remove a controversial anti-Israel display. (Photo/Sunny Shen-Daily Californian)

Zionism. Indigenous. Occupation. Let’s define our terms.

I used to play “chess” with my youngest son. I loved playing with him, but the “game” he played was hard to understand. Without fail, no matter what the board looked like, in three moves he would take his pawn, jump over all my pieces and tell me that he took my king. Game over.

Not a surprise, he won every time. He followed his own rules. We had discussed how the pieces moved and the point of the game, but we did not have a shared language about the rules, and therefore it was impossible for us to talk about strategy. We lacked a common language. His pawn could jump over all my pieces and take my king; my pawn, however, just moved forward one or two spaces.

He loved playing this way, and he thought we were playing the same game. From the outside, it looked like we were. Even though we were looking at the same board, with the same pieces we saw two different games before us.

Terms, rules and definitions mean something, whether in playing games, negotiating strategies or discussing difficult topics.

Recently there have been many attempts to discuss the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and in these conversations, people are both unknowingly and deliberately misusing terms.

The words are misused to attack, vilify, simplify and incorrectly mischaracterize, what is a very complex situation.

What I now believe, more than ever, is that in order to engage in meaningful, productive conversations and dialogue, we need to speak the same language.

What I’m seeing these days on social media is exactly the opposite.

Social media is full of posts that deliberately redefine language and fail to capture a deep, nuanced understanding of a very complicated issue. Just because my son moves his pawn five spaces at a time doesn’t make it a rule. Definitions mean something. And both the deliberate use and misuse of language is frightening and dangerous

So I want to define a few terms, so we can start to speak the same language.

Zionism. There is a growing narrative that Zionism and the establishment of modern Israel is the continued colonial enterprise by the British to establish a state for the Jews coming from Europe after World War II. Yes, the establishment of Israel, like all nations at that time, was a result of a short-sighted vision on how to create nation states. We now know that those actions, no matter where they happened in the world, did not honor the people living on that land at the time.

Moreover, Zionism is much more than that.

It is the national liberation movement of a minority, oppressed people that have been yearning to return to their ancestral homeland since their expulsion in 70 C.E. For almost 2,000 years, Jews throughout the world have yearned to return to their homeland, the central place of their religion.

While modern Zionism is roughly 200 years old, the idea of Zionism is not new. To reduce Zionism to a 200-year-old idea is inaccurate and ignores the thousands of years of the Jewish peoples longing to return to their homeland.

At the same time, to ignore the damage the colonial enterprise has had on the histories of people is to deny the consequences of creating a nation state. We need to hold both of these competing truths, at the same time. It is not easy, but it’s important.

Indigenous people. What does it mean to be indigenous? Is there an amount of time that a people have established their roots in the place in order for them to be indigenous?

In the United States, it is clear who was on this land before the arrival of the Europeans. But what does indigenous mean to a land, like Israel, that has seen empire after empire and kingdom after kingdom conquer the land and expel its inhabitants?

If we use the United States as a guide, that would force us to date our understanding of indigenous people to the time of the Bible before Joshua conquered the land. The reason the area is called Judea and Samaria is because of the people that lived there long before the modern area.

Because of the uniqueness of this land and its history, it is inaccurate to call anyone indigenous to the land of Israel.

We all have been implanted there at some point, and we all have been kicked out at some point.

We must both recognize that Palestinians have a strong and long history with that land, generations of villages and families in the same space and we must understand that there were generations of earlier inhabitants, including Jews. The misuse of the word indigenous ignores the complex reality of the generations of people that have lived on the land since biblical times.

Occupation. We can have a robust discussion about the merits of the term occupation to describe the land east of the Green Line and west of the Jordan River, and what obligations Israel might have as an occupying force.

There have been many conversations about the implications of having Israeli citizens settling in the land captured after the Six-Day War in 1967. In fact, there are many mainstream Israelis and members of Knesset that refer to this area as occupied territory.

Those who claim Israel has been an occupying country since 1948 ignore the history and the actions of the United Nations in establishing Israel. Referring to the occupation starting in 1948 denies the internationally accepted establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people. It was the final step in making the dream of a minority people, Jews, a reality.

I am ready to have discussions, debates and dialogues about the land and what occupation means.

These questions and debates are serious and important. And, for sure, Israel needs to reconcile the impact the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 on the Arab population living within those borders. Let’s be honest about the term, though; this is not occupation.

As we enter into conversations, let’s begin by creating a shared understanding about the definitions of these words.

I love sitting down and playing chess with my son, not so I can win, but rather so I can see his strategy, understand his way of viewing the board and learn how he sees the game.

Only when we can agree on the rules and definitions of our discussion can we begin to have these very necessary and even more difficult conversations. With agreed-upon definitions, we can move towards productive dialogues that will bring us closer to hearing and seeing each others’ truths.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman
Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman is executive director of UC Berkeley Hillel.