College students are expected to lead the curve and think beyond the limits set by previous generations. But when it comes to the discourse on Israel-Palestine, the scene on college campuses mirrors the stagnant reality, offering no real alternatives.
The discourse is shallow, infused with bigotry and often revolves around students’ wish to feel empowered or righteous rather than to intelligently investigate the history or reality of the conflict. A recent incident from the University of Texas at Austin of a clash between an Israeli professor and a Palestinian activist illustrates the damage this superficiality is causing.
On Friday November 13th, a Palestinian solidarity group walked into an event of the Israel Studies Institute at the University of Texas at Austin in order to disrupt it. Upon entering the room, the leader of this group tried to read aloud a statement from his iPhone but faced furious opposition by the event’s organizers and participants, especially Israeli professor of government Ami Pedahzur.
Quickly, the friction between the parties evolved into a pathetically childish shouting match. It escalated when one of the participants violently grabbed a Palestinian flag from the hands of the protesters who still weren’t willing to allow the event to proceed. At this point, Professor Pedahzur lost his temper — three people had to hold him back and calm him down so he wouldn’t assault the leading protester.
The Palestinian solidarity group focuses on professor Pedhazur inability to remain level headed as the only significant aspect of the event. But there is more to be learned from this story.
The lead protester tried to force the Israeli and American scholars in the room to listen to his truths—that some of his ancestors were murdered and expelled in 1948. However, nowadays, many Israeli scholars do not deny the suffering of Palestinians in 1948.
In fact, it was Israeli scholars such as Benny Moriss and Avi Shlaim who pioneered scholarship on the expulsion in 1948 and Israeli policy against Palestinians. Israeli academics, in my experience, are more likely to seriously discuss the bleakest parts in the history of the conflict than are most of the “experts” who walk from campus to campus, preaching their ideology.
The crux of the Israel-Palestine college campus activism problem is fundamentally an institutional issue. Most parties involved—including all prominent organizations—are interested in advancing their own goals through insincere rhetoric rather than deeply investigating the complexities of the conflict in a way that transcends the simplistic question of which side—Israeli or Palestinian—is responsible for the gloomy state of affairs between the people in the land.
The protester in UT Austin were not willing to listen to Israeli scholars. This is the method of the BDS movement—delegitimizing Israel entirely, not only as a political entity, but also as a society, treating every individual as an agent of the state. This notion is problematic for many reasons, but one of them is that any kind of progress made towards resolving the conflict without massive violence requires the involvement of Israelis.
A few years ago, Tammer, a new friend of mine from Gaza, read online that in order to fight your enemies you need to know them intimately. He befriended Israelis on Facebook and started studying Hebrew, which opened the door for opportunities to meet Israelis abroad.
Today, Tammer’s understanding of Israelis is multidimensional—he knows how to piss us off and how to make us laugh. While he still upholds that the occupation is an oppressive forces that must end, he no longer thinks of the Israeli people only as enemies, and he knows—despite having been shot by an Israeli soldier at a young age—that only a serious conversation between the respective societies can bring fruitful results.
Tammer, who actually faced the cruelty of the conflict, is much more able to have this conversation than most students at US and UK colleges I attended and visited. Oftentimes, activists on campuses think that their adversaries’ lies and misleading propaganda justify counter lies and counter, often shameless, propaganda.
You can find “pro Israel” activists who still do not recognize Palestinians as a people and pro-Palestinian groups who do not recognize Israelis as human beings. Both convictions demonstrate a peculiar denial of truth in favor of a fanaticized version of reality.
Our generation of college students is not responsible for the low level of discourse which they inherited, yet they have the capacity and the appropriate space to change it. There are ways to talk about Israel and Palestine intelligently and without compromising one’s own beliefs.
The aim should not be to agree on a topic, or “to make peace” but to foster frameworks for healthier disagreements. In order to do so, pro-Israel activists must understand, even if they don’t like it, that there are legitimate ways for Palestinians and their sympathizers to protest against Israel on college campuses. Pro-Palestinian activists must abandon the language that depicts Israel as the source of all evil in the Middle East, and stop calling, implicitly or explicitly, for the destruction of Israel.
At Brandeis University, from which I recently graduated, we took meaningful steps towards creating a better space for discussing topics related to Israel and Palestine. Our recipe included patience, diversity of voices and a focus on the respective societies rather than on blaming one side or the other for the whole conflict.
If I was still at Brandeis or enrolled at UT Austin, I’d invite Tammer to speak. For some of the students he would be hard to tolerate, but isn’t that the whole point?