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Who invited ‘Breaking the Silence’ to Columbia?

College campus can be a hotbed of angry anti-Zionist rhetoric, but our discussion around these IDF vets was nuanced and normal
Frima (left) and myself at the BtS SIPA event
Frima (left) and myself at the BtS SIPA event

Today my friends from Columbia University were in Hebron touring with Breaking the Silence (BtS)[1]. They are part of a first ever “Palestine Trek” organized by fellow Palestinian students at Columbia. I led a similar “Israel Trek” or “I-trek” last year. I was asked to return to lead the same trek this year, but when I asked if we could meet Breaking the Silence on the trip, I received wishy-washy responses — and so I chose to decline the position of “trek leader” and not participate. More on why I made this decision could be written in another article — but today I want to share why I chose to introduce my non-Jewish, non-Israeli Columbia friends to “Breaking the Silence” on campus last fall.

In early October, I invited Breaking the Silence to speak at my campus. Speculations about who “sponsored” this event quickly came. It was me, an Israeli, Jerusalemite, born and raised, who had invited the organization to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). As vice president of the UN studies working group at SIPA and as someone who has watched the Israel/Palestine debate on campus for four years now, I felt they would be the perfect voice to bring to my international school.

I came to Columbia University in January 2015, I’ve watched the Israel/Palestine debate on campus from all angles. When I first came to campus, I was running away from my complex home and wanted to engage with other global issues. I found that most of the Israelis I met felt the same way; none of them rushed to join the heated undergraduate conversation of BDS groups vs J Street vs AIPAC. Reflecting back, I think these conversations are legitimate, but they have always felt foreign to me. I was used to debating in Jerusalem with others living the everyday complexities of the city; this was simply a different playground.

So I tended to look down on these 18-year old students, who were motivated by passion rather than actual knowledge. However, over time, I changed my opinion. I myself was studying about development challenges in Africa, peace-building in Timor-Leste, the complex politics of the UN Security Council, and many other global issues. I was engaging deeply with policies in countries different than my own. And so I realized that these students had the right to do the same with regard to my country.

In conflict resolution theory, we learn that it is both grassroots activists, as well as external debate, pressure, and interventions that together lead to change. And so, the conversations about human rights, and the abuses that happen under the military occupation, do not belong exclusively to Israel or Israelis. At the same time, it is also emphasized that countries in, or emerging from, conflict are not blank pages and their people are not projects. Ultimately, internal actors should be the main agents of change. Still, there is no hierarchy or monopoly with regard to who is “allowed” to talk about these issues. We have different perspectives, biases, and expertise, but we all have something to contribute to the conversation.

During my time at Columbia, I have studied with professors and students who held a variety of opinions about my home. While at times painful, I never took their criticism personally and never felt in danger on campus. Their opinions were not motivated by anti-Semitism either. Each engagement with different opinions enriched my understanding, allowed me to reflect on how I and we got here, and also gave me the strength and hope to find solutions.

Still, as an Israeli on campus, I was between a rock and a hard place. Never feeling at home with any of these pro- or anti-Israel groups. I finally found my refuge among other international students of diverse backgrounds. I started my masters at SIPA in September 2017 and met comrades just like me. We all come with our own identities and the scars we bear with them, but we shared one thing — we cannot be simplified into a “pro-” or “anti-” criteria. We own our diversity, and we embrace and challenge our complex identities.

At SIPA, the issues around Israel and Palestine are discussed, but not any more or less than any other global issue. My friends are just as concerned about human rights abuses in Yemen as they are about those in Gaza. They are thinking just as hard about finding sustainable solutions to climate change and migration. And so, in this space, I felt that it would be relevant to introduce them to Breaking the Silence’s unique voice, which would enrich our ongoing conversations about all these global issues. My friends came curious and open-hearted to the Breaking the Silence talk, and were shocked to learn that I was getting backlash back home for organizing the event.

The event took place before a packed room of about 75 students from all over the world, some with a deep connection to and understanding of the issue and others simply with great curiosity. The political affiliation of the people in the room did not matter — they all respected the testimony of the BtS representative, Frima, and her bravery in talking about her army service in critical terms. We had received warnings the day before that the student organization known as “Student Supporting Israel” (SSI) were going to protest the event. They were also wrongfully claiming, back in Israel, that the hosts of the event were in some way supporting the annihilation of Israel and its people. I was nervous and asked for security to be present.

SSI did show up to hand out propaganda flyers in the entrance to the room, I did not stop them — as I felt Frima’s frank testimony and the ensuing conversation with the students present would overpower their anger. A few of the SSI members also sat in on the event, coincidently next to a Palestinian friend of mine. He later told me how they muttered under their breath angrily the entire time. The SSI students asked predictable provocative questions, but in the midst of open minds, no one noticed or acknowledged their presence too much. Only Frima, the BtS speaker, and I were really aware of the behind-the-scenes controversy this event was stirring. This was precisely its success. We had managed to rightfully normalize a conversation around Breaking the Silence, without giving in to those who wish to demonize it.

My SIPA colleagues, to whom I later disclosed the controversy around the event, could not comprehend why BtS was perceived as being so threatening, or deemed so radical. How could the deeply personal experiences of veterans like Frima be called “lies,” and how could BtS’s anti-occupation rhetoric be labeled as an anti-Israel or even an anti-Semitic act? To them, the event was just one of many events that day on campus.

I want to be very clear about one thing. Never, ever, in the four years that I have lived in the USA, have I had a conversation about Breaking the Silence that has led to the other person “hating Israel more/hating Jews …”. My conversations have always led to people understanding better the complexity and nuances of opinion in Israel and understanding that there is a difference between Netanyahu’s government and occupation politics, and the Israeli public. As well as understanding the importance of standing with organizations opposing such government policies.

So, give people credit that they will be able to understand and appreciate the complexity BtS represents, even if they have not spent their whole life in Israel or studying about it. Ultimately, ownership of the conversation on the Israeli Palestinian conflict, or the right to speak about it, belongs to no one.  In our globalized era, grassroots activism must be complemented with global action. Both “top down” and “bottom up” initiatives are needed to bring about change.

As nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia are on the rise, we must reach out to others sharing universal values of tolerance and appreciation for diversity, and strengthen their voices. We all have a part to play. I played my part by bringing Breaking the Silence to SIPA, where we created the space for a rich and powerful conversation, that can only benefit the pursuit of peace. What can we do next?

[1] Breaking the Silence is an Israeli veterans’ organization, which collects testimonies from Israeli veterans about their time serving in the West Bank (the occupation). Their mission is to end occupation by exposing the public to the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories from the perspective of those who enforce it. In recent years they have stirred up much controversy in Israel as some have claimed their actions, especially abroad- to be treason.

About the Author
Gabriella Ginsberg-Fletcher was born and raised in a religious pluralistic community in Jerusalem. She has spent the past 6 years studying in New York, most recently completing her MPA in Economic and Political Development and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
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