Israel on Campus: Creating Dialogue
As always, it's a complicated time in Israel. With Israel's "National Unity" government about to pull out, unilaterally, from the Gaza Strip, while simultaneously building a controversial "Separation Barrier" intended to stop terrorist infiltrators from the West Bank -- but also severely disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians -- how to evaluate one's feelings and opinions about the Middle East has never been more complex. [See Margaret Strother-Shalev's essay in this issue for a more lighthearted take.] In Israel today, thousands of activists are blocking roads, threatening violence, and wearing bright-orange ribbons to protest the "Disengagement" from Gaza. On the other side of the fence (literally and figuratively), pro-Palestinian activists from around the world are calling the Disengagement a subterfuge to annex territory and decide the borders of a future Palestinian state via the oppressive Separation Wall.
These divisions are mirrored on American college campuses, where Israel's public image has grown increasingly... complex. Opinions that were once confined to the far left and the Arab community -- that Zionism is a form of colonialism, or racism [see article], or that Israel itself is illegitimate -- are now widespread among campus activists and, as shown by Columbia's recent scandal surrounding a Middle Eastern Languages & Culture professor, faculty as well. Is there dialogue on college campuses, or only sloganeering? Zeek Associate Editor Dan Friedman sat down (virtually) with two just-graduated campus activists who are engaged in dialogue, to discuss their successes and failures, and how the surprisingly positive results of their efforts might be duplicated elsewhere.
Zach Gelman was a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder last year and is now the Israel on Campus Coalition Fellow in Washington DC. The Israel on Campus Coalition is a Jewish-philanthropy-funded organization " dedicated to working collaboratively to assist students in fostering support for Israel on the college campus." (Note: the first thing that Zach said in our conversation that "what I am saying here is solely my personal opinion and should be used to reflect beliefs or positions of the ICC or any of its member organizations and my opinions should be reflected as such.") He has organized pro-Israel speakers on campus, worked with diverse communities, and is part of the Jewish community's organized effort to raise Israel's profile on campus.
Samuel Hayim Brody, a frequent contributor to this magazine, is a recent alumnus of the University of Virginia, where he was active in the Israel-Palestine dialogue group there. In addition to his articles for Zeek, Sam has participated in several left-wing activist activities in Israel and America, and is active in anti-globalization and other politically-based activism.
DF: Zach, do you want to kick off -- what are the prevailing beliefs about Israel and/or Palestine on campus?
ZG: It's hard to identify a set of prevailing beliefs about Israel and Palestine on campus in general; a lot of the dialogue or lack of dialogue reflects campus-specific situations, and because of that there are very different beliefs that change on a campus by campus basis. Students of varying levels of involvement have vastly different ideas of Israel and Palestine. ... Some may not know where they are on a map, others are very involved and can tell you very specifically about what is going on. For example, students at a large state school may have better access to resources about Israel (professional, academic etc.) than a student at a small school where less attention is paid to that institution [by the Jewish/Israeli communities.] Because of these kinds of factors, students may have vastly different opinions about Israel and Palestine.
DF: Who are the people, or groups of people who are the campus opinion-makers?
SB: At my school, the University of Virginia there are pretty much three main groups. The first group is the vast majority, which includes those who are apathetic and for whom this issue is not on the radar. The second and third groups are the advocacy/activist groups, which are called Hoos (that's a U.V.A. shorthand for "Wahoos," our nickmame) for Israel and Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine.
DF: Who are the students in SPJP?
SB: They're mostly Arab-American or students of other Middle-Eastern descent. And then a few white lefty kids. There are only one or two actual Palestinians from the West Bank at UVA, and they came to SPJP events but their involvement wasn't necessarily the most prominent.
ZG: I think that Sam’s explanation is generally true... However, while at University of Colorado (CU) we also had the apathetic, and the advocacy groups, there were other actors that play an important role, including professors, key administration officials, and student leaders... and this changes on every campus, and changed at CU from year to year
DF: What are the general agendas of the two advocacy groups? For example, when I was at college the PalSoc -- Palestinian Society -- would periodically try to stop Zionists from speaking at any official events. Meanwhile, the NUS (national union of students) had a "no platform for racists" policy, and the UN had ruled that Zionism was racism so that meant no platform for Zionists.
SB: Both groups want to seem appealing and to attract new members, and so they refrain from setting out comprehensive platforms. Hoos For Israel for example wanted to incorporate people who would lean more towards Labor or Yahad as well as Likud, so it didn't take many explicit stands on stuff that would've caused splits there. Meanwhile, SPJP described its mission as educational, just raising awareness about Palestinians.
DF: Zack mentioned key administration officials – how does the administration get involved?
ZG: There can be key officials who can cut red tape for events to happen, be advisors to student groups, attend events in an official capacity…
SB: That's interesting – we also had profs act as speakers or panelists for some events, and also as funders for things like periodicals.
ZG: I remember when I started school the Palestinian group was very active and had all kinds of events and were very "out there" so to speak on campus but the last three years this group has essentially died...there are still students with anti-Israel opinions...they just do not organize in a meaningful way on campus in the ways that they used to.
DF: Do you think that is because they've lost crucial people or...?
ZG: They have become very individualistic (e.g. powerful individuals who can push their anti-Israel agenda), but at CU, it was no longer very group-driven.
SB: My school's trajectory was pretty different – when i started there in Fall 2001, there was no organization on the issue at all, because there was a prospect of peace. Then some people, including myself, complained that Hillel was being used too much for Israel political stuff, so HFI was created--
DF: And on the other end, SPJP was born around the same time?
SB: Yes...I think that a lot of people who would join their group, in my experience, have joined our campus dialogue group and have become more willing to engage in meaningful conversations about the future.
DF: So you (and others) polarized campus!
SB: Not really, over the course of the years, the two groups would compete for attention, but mostly they would all just attend each others' events. It created a safer space for Jews who wanted to do religious activity through Hillel not to have to identify with the strong right-wing message on Israel that was frequently being pushed.
DF: Your campuses sound so lovey-dovey, we kept having to fight to keep the Israel Society (I Soc) an official organization. Palsoc, and many on the left, seriously called us racists and tried to ban I Soc from campus.
Jacob J. Staub
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The Wheel World
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