Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Arab-Israeli Conflict at Home: Struggling for Civility on Campus

Amidst all the recent despair over the apparent collapse of peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis came a surprise last week: a New York Times Op-Ed piece—”Good News From the Middle East (Really)”—that expressed optimism rather than pessimism. The identities of the co-authors may have been almost as surprising: Jeffrey Goldberg, a Jewish journalist at The Atlantic, and Hussein Ibish, an Arab-American academic and a Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.

Naturally, the essay aroused controversy of all sorts. Some at each end of the conflict spectrum regarded the views of the one author or the other as a betrayal of their respective integral positions. Many disagreed with various specifics. And even many of those who agreed with the sentiments could not accept the rosy prognosis. All that was to be expected.

The piece is full of policy proposals and urges various sorts of concrete cooperation between the two sides on the economic, political, and security levels. However, it was the closing sections that really caught my attention. In order to “reignite hope,” the authors say, both sides need to make clear their long-term intentions. “Polls show that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians say they both want a two-state solution, but also say they believe the other side is lying. Peace will not come if politicians refuse to prepare their citizens for it through clear and consistent language.”

Hard to argue with that—or this: Ibish and Goldberg insist that, although practical rapprochement is needed, the other requirement is therefore trust and empathy, “the softening of heart”: the ability to understand (even if not fully accept) the position of the interlocutor. They conclude:
The two of us have been following the Middle East peace talks for years, and we are not naïve about the chances for peace. We disagree on a dozen aspects of this conflict, which is not surprising for an Arab and a Jew. But we also know that giving up or walking away is not an option, because the alternative to compromise is the abyss.
Say what one will about the specifics of the piece and its prescriptions: Arab and Jew walking together rather than walking away, knowing that the choice is between “compromise” and the “abyss”—it is a lesson and a model for the people in the region and for those watching with concern from afar. It’s also a model that seems very far away here on the American academic scene, where the Arab-Israeli conflict has become arguably the single most polarizing political issue.

In particular, it is because the so-called “Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment” (BDS) movement directed against Israel has come to monopolize the Palestinian activist scene. It is among the approaches that Ibish and Goldberg find unhelpful:
THERE are, however, Palestinian initiatives that are completely counterproductive. Continued threats to unilaterally declare independence are pointless and provocative. Support for boycotts against all Israeli products and companies also serve only to convince Israel and its supporters that the Palestinians seek its elimination. Israel is a member of the United Nations and must not be delegitimized. It is understandable that Palestinians are supporting boycotts of products made in settlements, however, since the settlements are illegitimate and must not be legitimized.
Law of unintended consequences: One of the ironies of the intensified activism is that the majority of students, who have no preconceived notions or vested interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict, tend to run from it like the plague. To them, it connotes polarization and confrontation here at home, something to be avoided rather than studied. That is a shame in more ways than one.

Far more regrettable than indifference has been a coarsening of tone, a decline in civility, an erosion in trust and feeling of community. Anger has replaced inquiry—and diatribe, dialogue.

As those who have followed events at Hampshire will know, our campus has been wracked by controversies over the Middle East, notably reactions to the fighting in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, followed in February by a failed attempt by the BDS advocates of Hampshire College Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to bring about divestment from Israeli holdings.

Since then, the atmosphere around the issue has become positively toxic. To be sure, I should stress, academic life continues as normal: most students and faculty just keep their heads down and get on with their work—perhaps an effective coping strategy, but no solution in the long term. Noting the problem, the administration, through the offices of the President, Dean of Faculty, and Special Assistant to the President for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, has begun a series of initiatives to promote dialogue and civility. A group of faculty, as well as staff from the Office of Spiritual Life, had in the meantime begun its own informal conversations. It was none too soon.

Fear of conversation has in at least one case given way to fear for one's safety.  Toward the end of last semester, a student who had expressed sympathetic views toward Israel received anonymous messages described as death threats. This was unprecedented. The College administration promptly issued a strong condemnation. Soon thereafter, a group of eight faculty members involved in Middle Eastern affairs (I among them) issued a statement of support for the President’s letter. (The signatories included faculty associated with Students for Justice in Palestine.)

In the meantime, one of our students has arranged for a talk by a member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), part of the “Our Soldiers Speak” initiative that seeks to explain “what transpires on the front lines of battle as well as the context from which the media extracts military events.” Students for Justice in Palestine has now responded with an open letter to the President, both taking issue with her condemnation of the harassment last semester and criticizing the appearance of the IDF soldier.

The event takes place tonight.

* * * 

I reproduce the key documents here in their entirety and without further commentary. There is much that could be said, but I think they speak for themselves.

1) Administration Letter

Friday, December 17, 2010

Dear Members of the Hampshire Community,

We are dismayed to learn of recent incidents where students on this campus have been subjected to physical, verbal, and written harassment, threats, and intimidation because of their political views in support of the state of Israel. The College has received several reports recently involving such acts of bullying. In one particular case, repeated acts of physical and verbal harassment have been followed by a threatening letter directed at an individual on our campus. These actions are in clear violation of our Norms for Community Living and will be investigated with appropriate sanctions administered in accordance with our policies.

These incidents represent a clear violation and they also come in a context of other identity-based interactions on our campus that are of concern. One of Hampshire's priorities is to work towards building a campus where people of all identities feel welcomed. While conversations around Israel and Palestine are often loaded with emotions, it is our responsibility to ensure that they take place in an environment of respect and care for all members of our community. At different times, we both have had the benefit of participating in conversations that have been honest, personal, academic, and hard. It is also evident to us, though, that not all of the interactions around these topics that take place on our campus are positive.

At Hampshire we are committed to open dialogue and protest. However, we will not tolerate attacks and discrimination in any form against any individual or group. The instances of vandalism against the property of students who identify either with Israel, Judaism, or who express particular opinions about the Israel/Palestine situation in the Middle East, go against the values of inclusiveness that we want to foster in our community.

We encourage everyone on campus to participate in the many programs that engage with conversations around this topic from varying points of view. These conversations are not always easy, and on occasion will stir strong emotions within us. Still, we urge open discussion and participation even when it requires us to dialogue appropriately with people with whom we might have differences, and even strong disagreements. There will always need to be space for dissenting voices. Allowing space for those voices while appropriately incorporating our own will bring us closer to the goals of inclusiveness that we hope continue to remain at the center of our values.


Marlene Gerber Fried
Acting President

Jaime Dávila
Special Presidential Assistant for Diversity and Multicultural Education

2) Faculty Letter (signed by eight professors)

To The Hampshire Community:

As members of the faculty whose teaching and scholarly work intersect with the issue of Palestine and Israel, we would like to express our complete support for President Marlene Fried's statement of December 17. We join with her in saying: "At Hampshire we are committed to open dialogue and protest. However, we will not tolerate attacks and discrimination in any form against any individual or group. The instances of vandalism against the property of students who identify either with Israel, Judaism, or who express particular opinions about the Israel/Palestine situation in the Middle East, go against the values of inclusiveness that we want to foster in our community." Intimidation, threats and harassment have no place at Hampshire.

3) SJP Letter

Students for Justice in Palestine reflections on Dec 17th 2010 letter from Acting President Fried and Special Presidential Assistant Davila in Response to Threatening Incidents on Campus

On January 17, President Marlene Freid [sic] and Dean Jaime Davila wrote a statement to the campus reporting incidents of threats and personal violence to students who identify politically with the state of Israel. As a politically-engaged student group that is predicated on principles of social justice, we find it necessary to condemn alarming acts like these that have been recently directed at individuals on our campus. Personal attacks against students regardless of their political association is inappropriate, futile and does not progress any sort of vision of social justice that we strive to realize. While we are still not fully informed about the specific incidents that took place, there were allusions to the reported incidents stemming from anti-Jewish hatred. We sincerely hope these conclusions came from a critical examination by the administration of the difference between anti-Jewish intolerance and opposition to Zionism, which is the predominant ideology behind political support for the state of Israel. In light of that, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) would like to take the opportunity to state unequivocally: we stand against anti-Semitism alongside all other forms of racism and cultural oppression. We consider anti-Semitism to be linked to the genesis of the system of injustices we are working to uproot in solidarity with Palestinians.

However, what is very clear to us is that the letter issued to every member of the Hampshire community was not primarily concerned with acts of anti-Semitism, but with vocal opposition towards expressions of Zionism. The letter included elusive suggestions to a conflation of personal Jewish identity and Zionist identity. The reference by the President and Dean's language in the letter to such issues as “identity-based interactions” purports that "political support for the state of Israel" is primarily an issue of identity. Consequently, President Freid [sic] and Dean Davila propose it should be treated with the same amount of sensitivity that the school treats people's identification with a specific cultural heritage, religion, race, gender, or sexuality. Historically, Hampshire has recognized a need to intervene in “identity-based interactions” after significant pressure from students, staff, or faculty to address forms of racism, classism, sexism, or trans/homophobia. In this situation, however, Hampshire is choosing to create a safety net for people whose political beliefs are actively being called into question on campus; not because of their general marginalization but because of their actual impact in being linked to the racial oppression of the Israeli occupation.

To understand someone's identification as Zionist, one must understand the current and historical political context for Zionism's impact on Palestinians as the main victims of Israel's policies of oppression. For one to claim their identity as Zionist, they are professing a loyalty to the state of Israel's institutionally racist Jewish-only laws, its illegal expansionist occupation of Palestinian land, the apartheid-like separation wall carving up the West Bank, and the systematic practice of displacement and ethnic cleansing that has affected Palestinian history for more than sixty years. A declared identity as Zionist therein carries responsibility for the consequences of this ideology and the policies which it dictates. This fundamentally includes an adherence to a settler-colonial state engaged in attempts to effectively remove all Palestinians from the hyper-imposed borders of Israel. The Palestinian struggle is one of the last anti-colonial movements of our time and requires our solidarity. It is paramount for our community to reconsider how it understands the politics of Zionism and the Israeli occupation without confusing matters of personal identity with systemic political oppression.

For the open letter to propose inclusive conversation regarding this issue insinuates an equivalence between the reality of those living under the illegal occupation in Palestine and the occupier themselves – Israel. According to PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), “any presumed parity between Israel and the Palestinians ignores the concrete reality of Israel's colonial oppression... [Conversations] premised on such symmetry between the "two sides" are therefore detrimental to the application of international law and the pursuit of justice."1 Discourses about Israel/Palestine on Hampshire's campus nearly always center on the dominant Zionist narrative because broad support for the state of Israel allows for Palestinian voices to be silenced or marginalized and almost entirely excluded from this campus.

On Thursday, February 3rd 2011, an Israeli soldier is being brought to campus in an attempt to justify his participation in the brutal occupation of the Palestinian people. We find it reprehensible that at a time in which Hampshire is calling for increased 'civility' in our political discourse, a representative of the Israeli 'Defense' Forces would come to our campus in an attempt to garner sympathy for the 'hardship' he endured while serving his time. We do not think his presence is justifiable on our campus by any means and encourage those attending the event to remain critical of rhetoric often used to sanitize the destruction of Palestine. We sincerely hope the administration, students, staff, and faculty will consider their role on Hampshire's campus to separate one's affinity for the state of Israel as it comes into question and that of one's professed identity.


Hampshire College Students for Justice in Palestine

For more information concerning the occupation and Palestinian solidarity, please see:

* * * 

The administration responded by making clear that it would not prevent from speaking anyone who presents views peacefully, and by affirming the right to and need for “open dialogue and discussion.”

I was about to say, “The administration, to its credit”—but fortunately, I stopped myself in time. Thanking a college administration for defending academic freedom and civil debate should be like thanking a historian for getting the facts right: superfluous. As the saying goes, “accuracy is a duty, not a virtue.”

What will happen at tonight’s event is anyone’s guess.

Stay tuned.


the sad red earth said...

I'll be interested to read your account of the event, Jim. The SJP letter is entirely in the spirit, like the English Guardian's response to the so-called Palestinian Leaks, of outsiders who, rather than help mediate a dispute, actively promote the virtue and cause of only one side, and thus prolong it.

Hannah said...

Interested to hear what you have to say...

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Interesting letter these SJP folks issued. I almost wanted to say that a person so verbose must feel his/her guilt. But I didn't say it, so...