Monday, January 9, 2012

Hampshire College, Israel, and Palestine: 1975 or 1938? And 2012? Still Seeking Civility on Campus

Just under a year ago, on the eve of an event about Israel and Palestine that promised to be controversial, I wrote a piece expressing the desire for a less polarized, more civil atmosphere on campus, one in which we could debate opposing political positions without intellectual charlatanry and demonization, addressing nuances rather than resorting to gross oversimplification.

What followed has been both deeply disturbing and, in other ways, gratifying.
It was deeply disturbing because what happened was far worse than even the most pessimistic among us might have expected. The talk, by an Israeli soldier, tore the campus apart. Activists from Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) did not merely protest outside the lecture hall (as was their right). They also disrupted and ultimately prevented completion of the talk, in clear violation of community norms. The speaker noted that this was only the second time that something of this sort had occurred. For the unashamed disruptors, their actions were a badge of honor. Responding to the administration’s condemnation of the disruption as well as the earlier verbal and physical harassment of an Israeli student, they and their supporters basically said:  "Zionists” are fair game. (1, 2)

For the rest of us—the majority of the campus population as well as outside observers—it was a mark of shame and a wake-up call. What was gratifying was seeing the tide begin to turn. Most students, regardless of their political views, were revolted. The administration, from the office of the President down through Student Affairs, finally grasped the seriousness of the situation. It saw that we needed to take energetic and positive steps to restore a sense of both civility and safety.

* * *
A shrewd visitor to campus, interested in these issues, recently looked around and said:

“The situation is even worse than I thought. I can tell you what your problem is: One part of the campus thinks it’s 1975, and the other thinks it’s 1938.”

He got it exactly right.

Allow me to translate (in case that is necessary) the historical references:

• 1975 refers to the year when the United Nations General Assembly notoriously defined Zionism, the founding philosophy of one of its member states, as racism (ironically, on the anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom in Nazi Germany). The UN finally repealed that infamous measure in 1991, in order not just to redress a wrong, but also to encourage movement toward peace. Two years later, Israelis and Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords (1, 2), affirming mutual recognition and the principle of a negotiated solution.

• 1938 refers to the tensions on the eve of World War II, when Jews felt cornered and abandoned: an expansionist Germany absorbed Austria, Britain and France browbeat Czechoslovakia into surrendering its fortified borderlands to Germany, and Kristallnacht signaled an escalation in Nazi antisemtism as well as the end of emigration.  By then, there were few places for Jews fleeing Europe to go anyway: neither the western powers nor Mandatory Palestine, where civil war was raging, offered a refuge.

In other words, one side is operating with ideological caricatures older than the students themselves, and the other feels isolated and threatened with social if not physical death.

Clearly, that is anything but healthy.

Last summer, the Boston Jewish Advocate caused a stir with an article entitled, “What's up with Hampshire College? A small Bay State campus becomes a hotbed of anti-Israel fervor." It quoted the Anti-Defamation League as saying that Hampshire generates more complaints about students being targeted for pro-Israel beliefs than any other campus in the New England region. As the article goes on to note, several students have alleged that the hostile climate involves elements of antisemitism.

This is a dire situation. A college, of course, is not obligated to be either pro- or anti-Israel, as such. However, expressing opposition to the destruction of a United Nations member state really should not be a very controversial opinion. Above all, an academic institution is duty-bound to uphold principles of open and rigorous intellectual dialogue.

The situation is not unique to Hampshire.  The Palestinian-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh has said that he felt safer in Gaza or the West Bank than at US universities, where he needed police protection and was called a Nazi for daring to question the activist orthodoxy: “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.”

Still, we are naturally most sensitive to the flaws in our own surroundings. And, as serious as the problem here is, it of course cannot completely describe a vibrant and productive institution in which faculty and students of widely varying views nonetheless flourish and engage one another.

And 2012?

My deepest hope is that Hampshire College will establish a reputation, not as the epicenter of conflict, and instead, as a model of conciliation. Two of the groups with which I have been in contact offer strong examples of how this can be accomplished.

The broad-based Israel on Campus Coalition sends a pair of representatives—David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has written about the peace process as both a journalist and a scholar, and Ghaith al-Omari, Executive Director of the American Task Force on Palestine, who has served as part of the Palestinian negotiating team at Camp David and as an advisor to Mahmoud Abbas—to colleges and universities. Rather than just parachuting in to present pieties and platitudes in a one-off performance, they insist on doing at least three events so that they can start a sustained process of communication. Typically, they might begin with a luncheon roundtable hosted by leaders of various student groups, followed by a facilitated dialogue session. Later in the day, they speak to classes. Early in the evening, they join faculty for dinner or dessert. Finally, they take part in a larger event for the campus as a whole—a lecture or panel discussion, including question-and-answer from the audience.

The team has scored great successes, even in some of the most “difficult” venues, such as the University of California, Irvine (1, 2, 3). "Civility, we felt, was missing on campuses," says al-Omari. Sometimes, the partners explain, the mere sight of the two appearing together is enough of a surprise or a shock to prompt students to move beyond stereotypes and start thinking differently.

A report in the Georgetown Hoya could have been written about Hampshire:
“The campus discourse, we thought, was too much about recriminations, Makovsky said." "Usually the campuses are ahead of the curve on issues, but on this one issue across the country, we felt the campuses are behind the curve. While people are talking to each other in the Middle East, why can't they talk to each other in the Northeast?" [. . . . ]

Rather than forming factions, students should recognize that the interests of Israel and Palestine are not diametrically opposed, al-Omari said.  
"You can be a pro-Palestine advocate without being anti-Israel," he said.  
He illustrated the way in which campus dialogue seems focused on the "zero-sum approach," which states that what is good for one nation is bad for the other and the "tribal approach," which delves into the history of both nations to justify conflict. Neither of these viewpoints, he argued, leaves room for objectivity or potential consensus. [ . . . . ]
"If we are serious people for a two-state solution, then we have to build up both sides of the two-state solution," Makovsky said. "We found that the faculty was not attuned to these developments on the ground, that their thinking was stuck in a very confrontational age. What we want to do is bring the message to the students that you've got to be forces for coexistence."
In al-Omari's words, "You have to move beyond the tribal lines in a policy debate. Once you look at this as a policy issue, you always can find policy solutions." And as Makovsky puts it, "For the most part, what's needed is to basically treat the students as adults, not just PR targets."

The program of the “Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding” at Queens College does just that. It is difficult but necessary. Founded by Professor Mark Rosenblum, it employs a methodology of “walking in the other side’s shoes.” As a once largely Jewish campus that now boasts a considerable Muslim population, Queens College might seem an unlikely place for dialogue but it has become an ideal one. Motivated by the tragedies of the Second Intifada and the 9-11 attacks, Rosenblum explained to the New York Times, he sought a way to bridge the widening gaps that were destroying education as well as human lives. In words that, again, could as easily be applied to Hampshire, he says, "It was hard to teach in a classroom where students had such preconceived ideas and had essentially become propagandists for their own side," he said. "It was quite nasty and ruthless.” 

His classes now require students to study and then “make the best possible case for the other side.” It works. "I did not expect anybody to change their position," he said. "My job is just to get you to feel a little bit of confusion by revealing that what you thought was a black and white struggle has a little more gray." Or, as one of the Muslim students put it, the class did not diminish his dedication to the Palestinian cause, but it did enable him to see the conflict in a new way: "People stop spreading legends and start talking the truth," he said. "It is so easy to hate people on the other side when you don't talk to them and you don't have to know them. But when you engage in discourse with them, you see they feel the way you do about your people. It's not so easy to hate them anymore." Classes ran overtime, and students who met in classes continued their dialogue after the semester was over.

In both cases, part of the message is: it’s easy to demonize when you’re dealing with abstractions and straw men. In dialogue, one has to deal with real people and real complexity.

Hampshire College is a leader in so many areas with accomplishments we could draw upon. Why not this one? The projects practically suggest themselves.

We have a distinguished Peace and World Security Studies Program. We have a large population of “international” students. Why could we not create a program in which Arab and Israeli students and scholars live and learn together and teach others? We are pioneers in sustainability and environmental science. Why could we not involve our students in efforts to address these issues in the Middle East, from energy to agriculture and water resources? As the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, based on cooperation between Arabs and Israelis, puts it, nature has no borders. After all, our new President was the leader of a major environmental organization. Could there be a better opportunity?

Now, contrast all this with “hotbed of anti-Israel fervor.” Is that all we have to show for all the years of “activism” around the Middle East conflict here? Should we allow ourselves to be defined by negation?

Is that really how we wish to be known?

Surely, we can do better.

Why not pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace?

Why not? Really, why not?