March 6, 2009

A many-sided debate

Discussion of Israel–Palestine conflict should not be stifled by allegations of anti-Semitism.

On February 18, several students in Chicago Friends of Israel, Newberger Hillel Center, and Chabad Jewish Center called a forum with the administration seeking to vocalize their discomfort with the January 6 “Crisis in Gaza” event, consisting of panelists Norman Finkelstein, John Mearsheimer, and Ali Abunima. Some students complained that the panel was “anti-Semitic” and that the University should formally oppose the panel.

That these groups were able to call up last week’s forum with high-ranking campus officials shows that yet again, sweeping accusations of anti-Semitism are being used to silence criticism of the Israeli government.

Let it be clear: Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) vigorously and outspokenly opposes anti-Semitism. Many of the founding members of SJP are, in fact, Jewish students. We are opposed to anti-Semitism not because it is a politically convenient gesture and not only because Palestinians are themselves Semites, but because anti-Semitism is wrong in and of itself. SJP opposes all beliefs that posit the ethnic superiority of one group over another.

At the same time, SJP rejects the proposition that a critical discussion of Israel’s political decisions necessarily amounts to anti-Semitism. We must not be led to believe that criticizing Israel and/or Zionism equates to criticizing Judaism or the Jewish people. It is partly because of this erroneous conflation that we as a community have not adequately engaged in dialogue about the Israel-Palestine issue. That this equivalence persists is a problem: It silences dialogue and prevents critical thinking.

From our experience in organizing events on campus, we’ve met students who have admitted a reluctance to talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict because they are worried about offending their Jewish friends and about accusations of anti-Semitism in general. When SJP was fundraising on February 3 to support humanitarian relief in Gaza, a student wanted to donate money but didn’t take the pin that said “Free Palestine,” even though he sympathized with the cause. The reason? Because he said he thought he would offend some of his Jewish friends.

What does it say about the level of discourse on campus that a critique of a government is identified with a critique of a people or religion?

We are perfectly able to freely criticize the American government but when it comes to the Israeli government, the number-one recipient of American foreign aid, there is a hands-off policy. Besides the fear of being called anti-Semitic, there are other reasons why some students have not engaged in the issue. When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, some students consider it too “controversial” and too “two-sided.” And therefore, the issue becomes too inconvenient to talk about.

Why are we shying away from the apparently controversial nature of this subject? We are eager to engage in discussion about a lot of other controversial issues, yet the Israel-Palestine topic is immune to our attention. Only concrete dialogue and debate can help us demystify the controversial nature of the issue and bring about a more nuanced assessment of the claims on both sides.

Furthermore, the simplistic labeling of the conflict by the media and some students as two-sided stifles dialogue because it inaccurately presents the conflict between two equally equipped and equally matched combatants, when in reality, it is between the fourth-largest superpower in the world and the disenfranchised Palestinians suffering under daily occupation.

The perception of the conflict as two-sided—both Israel vs. Palestine and Palestine vs. Israel—neatly boxes in the situation and conveniently leaves no room for us. The labeling renders the conflict unreachable, confined solely to two parties that can’t seem to get along. We think there’s no point talking about it, and since it’s two-sided, we forget our country’s pivotal role in the conflict.

We hope that students on this campus learn about this issue, if they have not done so already, by reading independent news sources and engaging in open-minded dialogue. We hope that the unfounded, sweeping allegations of a few students, as well as the pervading assumptions about the nature of the conflict, do not discourage debate before it has even developed.

Gabriel Gaster is a fourth-year in the College majoring in mathematics. Nate Smith is an M.A. student in humanities. Afshan Mohiuddin is a first-year in the Pritzker School of Medicine.