Prior to starting college this past year, I found it difficult to understand the seeming widespread popularity of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement on college campuses. In my youthful naivety, I assumed that college students were inquisitive and would not buy into slanted versions about the situation in the Middle East without doing their own independent investigation and carefully listening to both sides of the debate. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at Stanford University in the fall of 2014 and there was no sign or symptom of BDS to be found. My faith in the ability of students to distinguish fact from fiction was restored, albeit very briefly. The only conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus of which I was aware took place amongst some friends and I at the Hillel House on campus, an organization dedicated to, among other things, Tikkun Olam (healing the world). In this environment, students exchange ideas and opinions respectfully and with open minds.
However, as the sunny California weather cooled down and Winter Quarter rolled around, I felt a chill as I left a dining hall on campus and found myself staring at a table with a huge poster demanding, “DIVEST: STANFORD OUT OF OCCUPIED PALESTINE.” As I walked by the table, a girl holding a sign with the same mantra asked “excuse me, do you have a few moments to speak about Israeli-occupied Palestine?” I politely responded, “I am very conversant with the situation having just returned from living in Israel for a year, and I do not agree with the BDS movement.” As the people at the table laughed loudly as if on cue, I realized that they had no interest in having a real conversation, but rather were intent on imposing their agenda on students who had little or no knowledge of the current situation in Israel. Hoping that this was an isolated event, I soon found myself bombarded with posters containing the words “Palestine” and “Divest.” How ironic and unfortunate, I thought, that the individuals responsible for these posters purported to seek justice. Certainly they could not be ignorant of the fact that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is democratic, and enjoys no shortage of self-criticism and reflection while simultaneously offering educational and employment opportunities without regard to race or religion.
As a malevolent storm gathered force, a petition for the University to divest from Israeli businesses and boycott Israeli institutions was circulated around campus. Though I was able to dismiss the demeaning reception I received at the table outside the dining hall, I now was becoming concerned that people such as myself, who were anxious to present another more accurate side to the story, were in jeopardy. There was the potential for becoming a social outcast and far worse was the prospect of becoming a target of intimidating threats and physical violence. Although I would like to think that students would not resort to such sordid methods, there have been too many instances of such threats and attacks on other campuses.
Although members of organizations, such as SJP: Stanford Students for Justice in Palestine and SOOP: Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine, and I can agree that the Palestinian civilians are oppressed, the burning issue is the cause and nature of the oppression. Starting with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinians have been plagued with corrupt leaders who divert much needed resources (provided by the international community, including Israel) for their own personal gain. An even more egregious diversion of funds has been perpetrated by the terrorist organization, Hamas, in the Gaza Strip. The funds and construction materials flowing into Gaza could have been used by Hamas to build a solid infrastructure for its citizens and resorts to attract tourist dollars. Instead, Hamas has used those resources to build underground tunnels that lead from Gaza to Israeli schools with the intent to kidnap and murder Jewish children. We received a preview of that scenario when three Jewish students were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists this past summer. As if that were not enough, Hamas intentionally plants missile launchers aimed at Israel in mosques, hospitals, and schools in Gaza, knowing that Israel will return the rocket fire to the source. The Hamas leadership is notorious for forcing Palestinian civilians to act as human shields. As the Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, said on this subject: “We [Israel] use missiles to protect our people, they [Hamas] use people to protect their missiles.” Despite Hamas’ despicable abuse of its citizens, the Israeli Defense Forces goes to greater lengths than any other army in the world to warn Palestinian civilians of any impending attacks that are targeting terrorists who purposely plant themselves among civilians. In the face of these warnings, Palestinians are given the impossible choice by Hamas to either stay in the target area or be shot by Hamas if they leave.
These various forms of oppression by Palestinian leadership are conveniently ignored by pro-Palestine organizations, and their audience is only told one small part of the story. Given these omissions and distortions, it is not surprising that students fall prey to this propaganda because they do not have the luxury of time to do their own full investigation of the current situation.
Ideally, to gain a broader, more balanced perspective and understanding, students should take advantage of programs that allow them to visit Israel and gather facts on the ground. There they can actually speak with Palestinians who serve in the Israeli legislature, teach in Israeli universities, enjoy popularity as successful performers, produce Israeli TV programs and movies, and work as professionals and business people. Recognizing that most students will not have that opportunity, it is important for them to maintain open and questioning minds, and not to accept posters and petitions at face value. It behooves students to read articles and attend presentations offered by credible sources on both sides of the issue. Finally, it is important to maintain a respectful dialogue, rather than interrupting speakers or laughing at those with whom they disagree.