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Beyond a polarized discourse on Israel-Palestine on college campuses

American universities will soon open their doors for the fall term. With the capacity to influence views on Israel-Palestine during this tense time of conflict, and mobilize future leaders on campus, it would be a shame to waste the opportunity with continued ineffective polarization.

By Yasmeen Serhan

Though Israel’s latest operation in Gaza seems worlds away for some, it feels closer to home for many within Palestinian and Jewish communities. This, too, rings true for many college students, for whom the conflict is often displayed in the form of mock-checkpoints, controversial speaker events and public demonstrations on their campuses.

In the next few weeks, many American universities will begin opening their doors for the fall term, and hundreds of thousands of student activists will resume their efforts to educate their peers about matters that mean the most to them. With Israel’s violent operation in Gaza still fresh in mind – if not still in progress – it’s certain that the unrest in the region will have a profound impact on the ways in which Israel and Palestine groups orchestrate their advocacy on campus.

What is uncertain, however, is if such action will make any difference.

Students for Justice in Palestine activists at Boston's Northeastern University protest the school's decision to suspend SJP for one academic year, March 2014 (photo: Northeastern SJP)

Students for Justice in Palestine activists at Boston’s Northeastern University protest the school’s decision to suspend SJP for one academic year, March 2014 (photo: Northeastern SJP)

It certainly won’t with leaders like Chloe Valdary at the helm. Valdary, a student at the University of New Orleans and a consultant for the pro-Israel media-monitoring organization CAMERA, penned an op-ed Monday for Tablet Magazine in which she deplored Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for what she called, “[invoking] my people’s struggle for your shoddy purposes.

Rather than address the areas in which she and SJP disagree in a thoughtful critique, Valdary instead resorted to slander, accusing the organization of promoting Arab supremacy, violence, and apartheid-like systems of rule in which Jews are barred from purchasing land and traveling to certain areas based solely on the fact that they are Jewish (the irony, of course, being that such restrictions could also aptly describe some of the realities of Palestinian life under military occupation). In doing so, Valdary attempted to collectively reduce an entire movement to an offensive stereotype, based on nothing more than the obscene pretext that it somehow suffers from inherent moral inferiority.

Not only was Valdary able to grossly mischaracterize SJP and its members as anti-Semitic, genocidal faux-activists with a hidden agenda, but she too managed to almost perfectly encapsulate why Israel-Palestine discourse on college campuses is often fraught with ineffective polarization. Like Valdery’s piece, such discourse is often successful only as much as it gratifies one perspective of the conflict, promising only to further alienate those with whom one disagrees.

Such is the case at most universities where Israel-Palestine advocacy is most prevalent. One example is the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has time and again taken center stage. In February a group of UCLA students brought forward a resolution calling for the UC system to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s military occupation in the Palestinian territories. Though the university’s Undergraduate Students Association Council voted 5-7-0 against the resolution, the decision followed a nearly nine-hour deliberation period, in which hundreds of students talked past each other in support for their respective side.

The conflict was again highlighted during the university’s student government elections, during which many students called for their leaders to sign a pledge to refrain from taking free or sponsored trips with certain pro-Israel organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC, that could compromise their ability to remain objective regarding Israel-Palestine issues on campus. In both situations, the Westwood campus was divided along ideological lines, sparking intense polarization within the campus community.

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine hold a 'die-in' on campus in solidarity with the people of Gaza during Israel's Operation Protective Edge, March 3, 2014 (photo: SJP)

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine hold a ‘die-in’ on campus in solidarity with the people of Gaza, March 3, 2008 (photo: SJP)

College students have always played a critical role in facilitating social change. And just as students have historically advocated for solutions to issues worldwide, it remains crucial that American college students do the same – if not for their own inherent interest in the conflict, then at least for their government’s investment

But student activists must be willing to recognize that continued polarization is ineffective. While public demonstrations and protests may make a temporary statement, they often do little to educate those who know nothing about the conflict, and they certainly don’t engage those with whom they disagree. Thus, such displays often become nothing more than public confrontation and one-sided discussions, leaving little room for meaningful dialogue or learning.

The answer, of course, is not an end to public protests, which can often serve as important tools for peaceful demonstration and community building. Rather, it’s about investment in more opportunities for students to openly discuss and debate the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without fear of alienation or compromising one’s beliefs. At the very least, such events would provide a forum to educate students who don’t know much about the conflict and give them the confidence to start discussing it more with their peers. It may even allow someone with whom one might disagree to better understand an alternative view.

At no other time is ones life is the culture of education and engagement with new ideas more ubiquitous than in college – and it is not a time to be wasted. As the generation tasked with bringing about a just solution to this interminable conflict, it is imperative that we begin to take steps to engage with one another in a way that doesn’t recreate the generations that have passed this conflict down to us. We certainly won’t agree on everything, and we shouldn’t expect to. But at the very least, we can provide the forum and the tools to discuss Israel-Palestine in a way that allows students to not talk past each other, but with each other.

With the escalation and violence in the region at its worst in recent memory, the world is finally watching. Our actions in the coming months have the capacity to influence views and mobilize future leaders. It’d be a shame if we wasted it.

Yasmeen Serhan is a Palestinian-American student studying international relations at the University of Southern California. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

Related:
A house divided: Campus divestment reveals cracks within the American Jewish establishment
Is an attack on Israel an attack on Jewish identity?

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    COMMENTS

    1. Richard

      Having followed the Is/Pal activism at two large Northeastern universities I attended where both sides were well-represented, I can confidently say that almost nobody outside the activist groups care – activism about the Is/Pal conflict is pure masturbation for students involved and will never affect anything. Aside from the necessity of stopping assaults and physical intimidation of Jewish students, which has become a real problem, there is no reason to pay attention. The drama queens with fake checkpoints and walls have been at their shenanigans for a long time and they’ve remained a sideshow. Student activists should focus on local issues they can actually have an impact on.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Natasha

      The problem is, people can let their emotions get in the way of solutions.
      While it is important to mobilise the respective groups, it’s actually more important to understand and not alienate the other side. Prove you are reasonable people, show the same understanding you expect the others to show of your opinions. Find common ground.
      Enough of Jews being called zionists and Muslims being called terrorists.

      The way I see it, both pro Israeli students and proPalestinian students are both driven by concern of civilians in the south of Israel from rickets and tunnels, and Palestinian concerns in Gaza and West bank from air raids, tanks, and blockades.
      Both sides are driven against the policies and tactics of either the Israeli government , or Hamas. Because they perpetuate an endless cycle of hate, revenge and violence. Nothing gets solved by throwing weapons at civilians who happen to be on the wrong side of the border.

      I hope this generation will work to break the cycle of hate, revenge, polarisation, violence on Israel and Palestine.

      Reply to Comment
    3. bar

      If the pro-Palestinian activists on campus would stop with their endless lies, misrepresentations, half-truths and targeting of Jewish students who disagree with them, then yes, perhaps campuses could be a place where people learn and come to mature conclusions about the conflict. Sadly, the pro-Palestinian activists not only have no intention of stopping, they plan to ratchet it up a notch.

      And let’s be clear that NOTHING other than bigotry can explain the emphasis of the pro-Palestinian activists on the Israel-Arab conflict when next door in Syria, more people have died in the past three years than in the past century of Arab-Israeli fighting, or when every last Christian in the ancient Christian community of Mosul has been evicted by the Jihadist ISIS which is on its way to conquer a third of Syria and a third of Iraq in the most brutal way possible, or the non-stop murder, torture and rape of Iranians who don’t fit the Iranian leadership’s mold of appropriateness whether it be political activism or homosexuality. I could continue and mention Boko Haram, Sudan, or the killing of 550 Egyptians in a single day’s protest just last year.

      But no, the campus activists will continue to focus on this sliver of land controlled by the Jewish people despite the fact that they have the sole functioning democracy in the region, have given the Palestinians control over their own destiny and have made a number of peace offers that could have culminated in a Palestinian state.

      If the author really meant what it, then she would stop with the emphasis on Israel. There are millions of people in the world desperate for help.

      Reply to Comment
      • Goldmarx

        “And let’s be clear that NOTHING other than bigotry can explain the emphasis of the pro-Palestinian activists on the Israel-Arab conflict when next door in Syria”

        When Syria is the recipient of $3 billion/year in US foreign aid, that’s when we can have a discussion of the activist’s motives.

        Reply to Comment
        • bar

          Oh? And I thought the goal was humanitarian. Or peace. Or the end of a conflict.

          You mean that the goal is to stop $3 billion in loans and grants to Israel, most of which go to USA defense contractors? If so, then why don’t we see any such groups protesting Egypt? Jordan? The Palestinian Authority?

          I’ll repeat again. The ONLY explanation is bigotry.

          Reply to Comment
          • Goldmarx

            But how much money do those countries or entities get in comparison to Israel?

            The rallies I’ve seen in New York have also targeted Egypt as a collaborator in the oppression of Gaza, especially in Union Square.

            Reply to Comment
          • bar

            It’s irrelevant whether they get as much. The point is that they get. End of discussion.

            Bigotry.

            Reply to Comment
    4. ish yehudi

      once again- someone puts up a title purporting to call each side out, step out of the box– but in the end, the whole article only puts fingers one way… Come on Yasmeen, is it only one side that is polarizing the campus debate?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Deborah

      Really glad that the students on my campus are interested in being educated rather than “community building,” which is not the purpose of the university. I agree that the point of education is for people to be able to articulate, disseminate and argue viewpoints. That doesn’t require passionless conversation or fake, managerial imposed “balance.” It requires disciplined if strenuous disagreement without administrators getting in the way with various efforts to placate donors, alumni, etc.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Mikesailor

      The reason for the polarization lies within the definition of Zionism: A “Jewish” state. Ergo, everyone not Jewish is either persona non grata or, at best, a second-class citizen. That fact, and the inability of the Israeli Jews to delineate borders makes conflict inevitable. The stupidity and racism engendered within the Zionist community is mind-boggling. Yet, the Jewish community, both within Isarael and in majority in the Diaspora continue condoning and often applauding the worst excesses done in the name of “Judaism”, not Zionism per se. Conlflation of the terms is endemic caused, for nthe most part, by the Jewish “community itself. They define Israel as the “Jewish” state and threaten all who disagree with the premise as either “self-hating Jews” or “antisemitic”. The funniest thing is both calumnies are losing their sting and both are beginning to be worn proudly by those who see the injustice of the Zionist position for what it is.

      Reply to Comment
    7. JohnW

      “Ergo, everyone not Jewish is either persona non grata or, at best, a second-class citizen. ”

      Is that so? What you say is as true as:

      An Italian state, ergo, everyone not not Italian is either persona non grata or, at best, a second-class citizen.

      Or

      A Russian state, ergo, everyone not not Russian is either persona non grata or, at best, a second-class citizen.

      Or

      A Greek state, ergo, everyone not not Greek is either persona non grata or, at best, a second-class citizen.

      Or, heaven forbid …

      An Arab state, ergo, everyone not not Arab is either persona non grata or, at best, a second-class citizen.

      Yes, yes, yes, just give it to me in the neck, Mikesailor for saying such a thing about an Arab state.

      God, you people are something else. Your hypocrisy is mind bogglingd. Did I say hypocrisy? I should have said racism. If Jews behave like all humans do, you single them out for discriminatory treatment. Nothing Jews do is acceptable to you people. Did I say people? I should have said scum.

      Reply to Comment