On Wednesday, Nov. 1, at 4:30 p.m., Professor Avinoam Patt, the head of UConn’s Center for Judaic Studies, gave an update on the current situation in Israel and Gaza at UConn’s Hillel House. The talk was open to all students and faculty and focused on the historical context behind the events, outlined from the perspective of a historian and professor.
The first question proposed to Patt was on the movement of Zionism, defined as support for a Jewish national or religious community within the geographical region of Palestine, in Jewish tradition referred to as the Land of Israel.
“Zionism expresses an ancient religious longing for the Jewish return to Israel,” Patt explained, “A centrality toward the Land of Israel, praying towards the East, and a return to Jerusalem have been parts of the Jewish religion since antiquity.”
“Zionism as a political movement essentially emerges as a solution to the problem of antisemitism and widespread outbreaks of violence in Eastern Europe,” he said.
In the late 1800s, Zionism gained popularity as a potential solution to antisemitic violence and pogroms across Europe, and migration to and eventual establishment of a Jewish state on the historical Land of Israel emerged as a central focus of many of the movement’s leaders.
“There were multiple periods of Jewish migration to Israel,” Patt explained, “both the communities that existed over the centuries as well as from Eastern Europe in 1881 to 1904; again from 1904 to 1914; and then after World War I from 1919 to 1939 in different waves.”
After the British departure from the region in 1947, the United Nations supported the partition of the British Mandate in Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Waves of Holocaust survivors and Middle Eastern Jews expelled from their countries joined existing Jewish communities within the bounds of the modern State of Israel.
Queried about the difference between opposition to Zionism and antisemitic ideology, Patt expressed a view that “there is nothing wrong with legitimate criticism of the State of Israel and its policies” and called attention to recent mass protests within its own population against “what seemed to be an erosion of democratic norms [and] a feeling that extremist right-wing groups had taken over the government.”
“That’s an open, free, and legitimate political protest that doesn’t cross any line.”
Patt noted the usage of Nazi imagery to identify, criticize or attack the State of Israel, the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust in criticisms of Israel, the usage of “classic antisemitic tropes” and the targeting of Jews as a monolithic group are actions which clearly cross the line into antisemitism.
“Jews control Hollywood, Jews control the banks… Israel controls Hollywood, Israel controls the banks, Israel controls the White House – those are classic antisemitic tropes,” Patt said, “Nobody speaks for all the Jews. There is a common expression – two Jews, three opinions. Lumping all Jews together is stereotyping them together.”
“Attacking Jews anywhere in the world as a way of attacking the State of Israel is one of the most disturbing things we’ve seen emerge over the last few weeks. I’ve seen examples of this previously, where Hillel will be targeted and attacked just because it’s a Jewish institution and painted with anti-Israel graffiti – that’s antisemitism because you’re directly targeting a Jewish person on the basis of their identity, as if all Jews identify with the State of Israel.”
Following further discussion of Zionism and its opponents, the talk turned to the historical context surrounding the conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
“In 1967, during the Six Day War, Israel, threatened by a dual invasion from Egypt and Syria, launched a preemptive strike. They eventually conquered the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights – the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt after the Camp David Accords of 1978, and Gaza remains a Palestinian refugee area. In 2005, Israel decided it did not want to maintain any settlements in the area and disengaged.”
Following the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, in which the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) removed all formal military installations and troops from the region, the politics of the territory were turned on its head. A political crisis developed in Palestine between a new government in Gaza led by the Islamist group Hamas and the existing Palestinian National Authority (or Fatah) in the West Bank.
Patt provided historical context on the surprise attacks by Hamas in Israel on Oct. 7 of this year and addressed the failure of Israel to prepare and defend against the assault.
“Oct. 7 was the day after the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, where on Oct. 6, 1972, Egypt and Syria launched what at the time was a very successful surprise invasion of Israel through the Golan Heights and through the Sinai Peninsula.
After the war, government officials took responsibility, and they studied it in commissions of inquiry, and what they found out was: not only did the military screw up, and not only did the intelligence screw up, but that after the victory in 1967, they bought into this concept that there’s no way [the Arab states] are going to attack.
The events of Oct. 7 are very similar. From a military and intelligence standpoint, it was a terrible failure, and I think it’s going to affect the response of Israel for years to come. We always talk about 1967 as a defining point. This will be even more, I think, a defining point in history.”
In the fiery political atmosphere surrounding the aftermath of the attacks of Oct. 7 and the ongoing Israeli offensive in Gaza, Patt feels that “compared to a lot of other schools, [the University of Connecticut] is a good place to be.”
“UConn PD is very specifically stepping up patrols, monitoring and observances. There is this concentrated effort as well to try to keep the temperature down. There is an understanding that the more things get inflamed, the more dangerous it becomes – it’s physical safety, but also trying to create a safe, secure environment where people feel they can say the things they need to.”
Students interested in further study of the history of Israel and its conflict are encouraged to explore POLS 3464: Arab-Israeli Conflict, HEJS 2200: Israel: History and Society, the one-credit pop-up class UNIV 3088: Why the Jews? Confronting Antisemitism and associated classes in the ARAB and HEJS departments that tackle Arabic and Jewish language and culture.