College Campuses: The American Battleground for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Gaza Strip, an approximately 30-mile long strip of land sandwiched between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, is the location of one of the most contentious and hotly debated conflicts in recent human history.

The latest iteration of the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict is now entering its third month with little hope of lasting peace, despite attempts by Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian President el-Sisi to quell indiscriminate rocket fire on the part of Hamas and to halt civilian causalities as a result of Israeli airstrikes.

This conflict, more so than any other between Gaza and Israel in previous years, is being fought beyond the borders of the Gaza Strip, beyond the Mediterranean Sea, and beyond the range of rocket fire. It is being fought not with tanks or missiles, but with words, boycotts, and student activism.

Right here in America, this conflict finds its newest battleground: the college campus.

Between 2001 and 2010, over 80 chapters of the preeminent pro-Palestinian student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), have formed. During that same time, the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) began its start as an umbrella organization under the guidance of Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world.

While Hillel neither collaborates with nor openly antagonizes pro-Palestinian organizations; the ICC commits itself almost exclusively to a pro-Israel agenda on college campuses. Now these organizations, along with various faculty and college administrators, are center-stage to some contentious and, in some cases, criminal incidents.

Naturally these organizations have been at odds over questions of Palestinian right of return, use of the word “apartheid,” use of the term “terrorism,” and who is truly to blame for the tragic loss of civilian life. Such topics should be ones for which factual debate, civil discourse, and a willingness to listen to a diverse array of perspectives would be not only applauded but heralded as a step in a positive direction for Palestinian-Israeli relations at home and abroad.

Sadly, incidents such as the Irvine 11, the Florida Atlantic University 5, and the New York University eviction notice incident all share a similar theme.

At one extreme are accusations of anti-Semitism, which members of pro-Palestinian organizations are labeled, potentially ruining their academic and professional futures. At the other end are accusations of blatant discrimination against Jewish and Israeli students on the part of those pro-Palestinian groups.

Where does the truth lie? And, how can one gauge intentions? Does this interfere with academic integrity and allowing full discourse on campus?

Ann Baker (name changed by request), a recent college graduate and founding member of her university’s SJP, dealt with such accusations at a very early stage.

“[I]t became difficult to get support from faculty and administration for events,” she said. “Nobody wanted to put their name on us, especially when pro-Israeli members of the student government began to write editorials about us, slandering some of our group members.”

What becomes toxic for pro-Palestinian groups, including Ann’s, are certain traditional events which are seen by some as inappropriate. Simulating apartheid walls on college campuses is one such practice.

In this practice, a make-shift wall is erected somewhere on campus, causing students who need to traverse the barrier to walk through detours. In some instances, “guards” are stationed who ask for identification, simulating Israeli checkpoints.

Are they really inappropriate and offensive or are they well within the rights of individuals looking to provide a different perspective on an international situation?

As sensitive of a topic as this is, the truth is the best remedy for any perceived inaccuracies.

Before we can do that we must set clear and understandable boundaries as it relates to the criticism of Israel. We must not fall victim to the notion that any and all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

The problem is, on both sides, there is an underlying feeling of hostility.
At the same time, we must not be naive enough to think these feelings no longer exist. They are well-documented.

Criticisms of the policies of Israel should be fair game, particularly in a college environment, as should criticisms of all forms of government. Ad hominem attacks on the Jewish people should be quickly denounced and reprimand may be necessary. But where is the line? Perhaps a national conversation on this topic is in order.

Thus, the college campus has become the American battleground for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the only such place where one can find such a diverse array of perspectives. Many groups on both sides are attempting to come together to host joint educational events, the first meaningful extension of an olive branch as it pertains to the conflict.

Ann understands this difficultly all too well.

“The problem is, on both sides, there is an underlying feeling of hostility. That feeling needs to disappear completely if a real conversation [is] to be had,” she said.

Fortunately for college students on both sides of the issue, our voices do matter and we can influence policy thousands of miles away with determination to foster substantive change. Now if only our friends in Congress would take heed of our example.

Photo Source: Collegian.com