Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day Meditation: Is Support for the Existence of Israel the Only "Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name"? Hampshire College Students Express Concern Over Campus Climate

Yes, support for the existence of a United Nations member state. I am not talking about its policies (many of which I myself may disagree with).

On Wednesday, February 9, on the occasion of the semi-annual "Hampfest" information fair of Hampshire College student organizations, the "signers" (the College's term for the officially responsible organizers of a student group) of SPICI (Students Promoting Israel, Culture, and Information) issued a statement of concern regarding the events of last semester and the recent controversy over the talk by an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier on campus.

As the letter makes clear, the students, who hold diverse religious and political views, did not take this step lightly. They spoke out because they felt they could no longer remain silent. The Hampshire incidents, one should also make clear, did not occur in a vacuum.  We may call our educational philosophy "distinctive," but in this regard, at least, we are all too typical.  The problem is one that is assuming dangerous proportions on many an American college campus, although the situation has not yet deteriorated to the level of that in the United Kingdom.

It used to be that homosexuality was forbidden and persecuted. Fortunately, we have moved beyond that sort of bigotry. Ironically, it seems that support for Israel is instead now the only "love that dare not speak its name"—on the college campus, at least (yet another way in which that rarefied environment differs from the real world). There are many things for college students and their professors to get exercised about, but this seems to be only one capable of polarizing an entire campus in perpetuity. Would that students were so energetically debating the impact of printing on the Reformation, the Frontier Thesis, or the causes of World War I (is one not allowed to dream?).
Sadly, the most distressing issue is not even the substance of the debate (people are, after all, entitled to their opinions), but instead, the silencing of debate. Examples are legion.  A year ago, students at the University of California at Irvine notoriously shouted down Israel's Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren (video: 1, 2).  Two days after the copycat episode at Hampshire this year, the Irvine students, who had already received University sanctions, were (more controversially) indicted for conspiring to disrupt a meeting. The day before the Hampshire event, Edinburgh Students for Justice in Palestine prevented a speech by the advisor to Israel's Foreign Minister. (for this, my father defended Scotland from Nazi invasion?) The irony: The israeli diplomat, Ismail Khaldi, is a Muslim and an Arab. (video) One of the things that is so striking is that the scenes at Hampshire and the aforementioned universities are almost interchangeable: same tactics, same ideas, same slogans in some cases. Khaldi has called activists of this sort "part of the problem, not part of the solution."

If the college environment is foreign to you, listen to experienced Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, who writes for an Israeli newspaper. If this environment is familiar to you, listen all the more closely.  He reports being denounced as a Nazi and having to travel with security guards—but not in Israel or in the Arab states:
  During a recent visit to several university campuses in the U.S., I discovered that there is more sympathy for Hamas there than there is in Ramallah.
  Listening to some students and professors on these campuses, for a moment I thought I was sitting opposite a Hamas spokesman or a would-be-suicide bomber. . . .
  The good news is that these remarks were made only by a minority of people on the campuses who describe themselves as “pro-Palestinian,” although the overwhelming majority of them are not Palestinians or even Arabs or Muslims.
  The bad news is that these groups of hard-line activists/thugs are trying to intimidate anyone who dares to say something that they don’t like to hear. . . .
  I never imagined that I would need police protection while speaking at a university in the U.S. I have been on many Palestinian campuses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and I cannot recall one case where I felt intimidated or where someone shouted abuse at me.
  Ironically, many of the Arabs and Muslims I met on the campuses were much more understanding and even welcomed my “even-handed analysis” of the Israeli-Arab conflict. After all, the views I voiced were not much different than those made by the leaderships both in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. These views include support for the two-state solution and the idea of coexistence between Jews and Arabs in this part of the world. (read the rest)
To be sure, the issue on campus is about Israel and Palestine. However, it is not a college's job to be pro-Israel or anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian or anti-Palestinian. It is a college's job to provide the tools and the space for those of its members who wish to determine and debate where they stand in that conflict—and, let us remember, the two parties have agreed to work toward a peaceful solution. If they have agreed that they can talk calmly about it, why can't we?

On an even more fundamental level, then, the controversy on campus is about the nature of an academic community. I am of course aware of the complex philosophical, legal, and political arguments about the nature, limits, and ideology of "free speech."  (So, no lectures, please.) But there is a very simple reason that last week's episode and the harassment cited in the student letter are unacceptable.  Here at Hampshire, we are all subject to the norms for community living, which are part of the official student policy handbook. Having just completed a two-year term on the Community Review Board, which adjudicates disputes involving community life, I am quite familiar with those norms.  The "rights that afford personal protection and ensure the college’s commitment to learning and the advancement of knowledge through free inquiry" guarantee community members—defined as including guests—"the right to freely express their ideas provided that the method of expression does not violate any other rights," "the right to reasonable security from threat or physical abuse or mental anguish," freedom from "Verbal threats to do violence, psychological intimidation, and harassment," as well as freedom from discrimination on the basis of "national origin" and "religion" and other "protected factors."

Clearly, a group of people whose members are unable to discuss their differences peacefully should not call itself a "community."  Just as clearly, it should not call itself a college.The situation has to change. Time is running out.

Here, now, the students' letter:
The signers for Students Promoting Israel, Culture, and Information’s statement on the incidents reported on in Acting President Fried’s December 17th letter and response to Students for Justice in Palestine’s reflection:

In light of recent incidents at Hampshire, and in response to the reactions of various groups on campus to those events, we feel that we must offer our own statement to add to the public discourse.

Violence or the threat of violence against any person for their beliefs, political or otherwise, is unacceptable in any context. The instances of physical, verbal, and written harassment, threats, and intimidation which were addressed by Acting President Marlene Gerber Fried and Special Presidential Assistant for Diversity and Multicultural Education Jaime Davila in their letter to the Hampshire community are examples of such violence, and we applaud both the administration and faculty for publicly speaking out in response to these acts. Furthermore, we trust in their ability to discern between actions fueled by ethnic or religious hatred and those of political intolerance; to suggest that they have not done so is as dismissive of the events that have occurred as it is cowardly.

We feel that is it is equally irresponsible to condemn the violent incidents and then immediately justify their basis, as the letter recently distributed by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) seeks to do to. This document turns what should be a statement in support of denouncing “threats and personal violence to students who identify politically with the State of Israel” into a heated proclamation that unnecessarily attacks insignificant nuances in the President’s letter and inappropriately defines personal identity as the authors see fit.

As the signers for a group that does its best to represent the wide range of affiliation with or support of Israel found within Hampshire’s student body, we understand the term “Zionism” as the right to Jewish self-determination. To claim that such a broad orientation is inherently aligned with current policies of Israel’s government and military is ludicrous; by the same logic of such a statement, anyone who believes in the foundational values of the United States is implicit in each and every one of the country’s institutionalized intolerances, military operations, and genocidal history.

At the intersection of our shared public position as representatives for SPICI and our respective personal Jewish affiliations, we feel a need to address the recurring introduction of antisemitism into discourse that concentrates specifically on anti-Zionism, often proffered without relevance or basis, or used to dismiss the validity of any Jewish narrative in support of Israel. (And here we must contend another point in SJP’s most recent letter that appears consistently in their rhetoric: that a Zionist perspective and Jewish identity are artificially “conflated.” While the SPICI signers see Zionism and Judaism as two very separate things, for many Jews a connection to Israel is an integral—if not defining—part of their personal identity, and ought to be respected as such.) It is our firm belief that anti-Zionist sentiments or actions are not inherently rooted in antisemitism, but the truth of the matter is that they can be and often are connected, especially within the Hampshire community. Each of the SPICI signers has been personally approached by increasing numbers of students expressing their discomfort with the antisemitism they face from their peers and educators alike, often but not exclusively apparent around anti-Israel demonstrations on campus. These concerns are legitimate, and they are worth the consideration of the entire community when voiced—and even more so when they are silenced.

Nor should the question of antisemitism be arbitrarily brought up in order to distract our campus’ conversation concerning the events that have occurred. In the case of the repeated acts of physical, verbal, and written harassment about which Hampshire’s acting president wrote in December, the victim was targeted for vocally supporting Israel, not for any religious or ethnic affiliation. To our knowledge, no individual or group has been publicly accused of direct responsibility for these incidents on our campus, and by no means are we in any position to place blame or point fingers in this regard. We do believe, however, that such aggression does have a source in the militarized rhetoric and political attitude that has become widely accepted in our community, a violently passionate form of “activism” that is practiced by some groups more heavily than others. Whether the perpetrator of a harmful act is a member of an organized group or not, responsibility for encouraging a discourse and environment in which the perpetrators felt that such action was acceptable must be introspectively acknowledged.

The scene in the Main Lecture Hall last week proved demonstrative of the need for such introspection. Despite our personal feelings about the event, (which were and are still varied) we attended Sgt. Benjamin Anthony’s presentation as SPICI signers and representatives of Hampshire’s Israel-identified community—only to find ourselves in the margins of an audience that was more focused on itself than on the stage: a crowd that was too absorbed in its own dynamics to actually consider the content of the evening’s remarks. Opposing views were polarized on all sides long before the day of the event, and consequently every banner-waving, flag-draped student in Franklin Patterson Hall that evening attended to expressly agree or disagree with the speaker; not one of them came to have their views challenged. Is that really all the integrity that’s left of Hampshire’s academic values?

Although SPICI did not plan, organize, or even sponsor this event, its student signers all support and commend the efforts of all Hampshire students to bring to our campus speakers with whom they identity and align themselves, regardless of our own personal opinions about the presentation or its message. To assert that any voice has no place at Hampshire is both small-minded and audacious in its lack of common respect and its defiance of the pursuit of intellectual curiosity for which Hampshire has stood since its very inception. Every member of a community of ideas should consistently challenge their own perspectives, and be challenged without being threatened.

It is our sincere hope that this letter, which was very difficult for us to write and even harder to sign, will contribute to a conversation that must be held throughout Hampshire college, by students, staff, faculty, and administration alike.

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