Activism

Critiques not fit to print: Students and allies respond to ‘NYT’ coverage of Palestine activism on campus

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The New York Times has already been exposed as a key propagator of narratives on Israel/Palestine that whitewash or disappear the violence of the Israeli occupation. So, it was no surprise to find the Times coverage of campus activism on Palestine riddled with revealing silences and implicit endorsement of a right-wing “dialogue” effort that was cast as the laudable middle road. Following the article, the Times published a strategic compilation of letters to the editor that constructs the future of Israel/Palestine as an internal Jewish conversation largely concerned with dialogue. In response, I gathered letters by students and their allies. The critiques they voice, condensed below, represent a powerful critique of the politics of “dialogue” on Israel/Palestine. The collected full texts of the letters follow this summary.

The students together argue that the status quo of disproportionate Israeli violence towards Palestinians is protected by dialogue efforts, because these efforts substitute ineffectual efforts at personal reconciliation for needed political work to end the Israeli occupation. Irène Lucia Delaney wrote thunderously that “Students for Justice in Palestine and the BDS movement understand that there cannot be peace under occupation. Projects like Visions of Peace, failing to distinguish between individual prejudice and systemic oppression, ignore inequity and trauma in favor of superficial reconciliation.” While alternatives to dialogue were largely disappeared in the article, Delaney, among other critics of the NYT piece, insisted that she “echo the global call for BDS and peace through justice.”

How, then, do the article and the dialogue initiative it promotes manage to laud Visions of Peace over the work of solidarity organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine? First, the article constructed activism concerning Palestinian liberation as an internal Jewish conversation, subjugating Palestinian voices beneath Jewish ones and simultaneously ignoring Palestinian demands. As Noah Habeeb argued appropriately, “In an article that quoted seven Jewish Americans or Israeli Jews, Wertheimer only included two Palestinian voices. None were quoted speaking positively about BDS, though BDS is a peaceful resistance movement widely embraced by over 170 Palestinian civil society groups. Her reporting mirrors the power dynamic of the issue on campus she purports to cover: Palestinian voices don’t matter all that much.”

Plus, Jewish values, when they play a role in Israel/Palestine politics, can in fact be impetus to lift up Palestinian demands, not supplant them with Jewish feelings. As Sam Slate wrote, “To many of us, our Judaism teaches us to fight for justice, and the fight for justice includes standing in solidarity with Palestinians.”

Beyond silencing Palestinians, the article and its published feedback neglect the potentially insidious nature of dialogue events. I insisted that my primary criticism – repeated multiple times to the reporter, Linda Wertheimer, when she interviewed me on my Tufts SJP work but omitted from the piece – be heard: that “Visions of Peace uses dialogue to obscure the power dynamics at play” because “Policy change, not personal reconciliation, will end the daily violence and oppression Palestinians endure. Pretending otherwise hinders progress towards a just peace.” Katie Saviano, also of Tufts SJP, explains unequivocally that “Palestinian freedom is not up for debate. Dialogue is only viable when both parties are equal, and Israel and Palestine are not two equal sides with equal claims and equal suffering.” Henry Rosen explained succinctly that, “Trite and patronizing, the piece relies on tired, empty invocations of the need for more Muslim-Jewish dialogue, all the while dodging any substantial engagement with the realities of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” And as Delaney powerfully articulated, the violences of settlements, apartheid, and denial of the right of return “will not be stopped by dialogue and joined hands – unless those hands are joined for truth and justice.”

Letters penned by supporters of student Palestine solidarity work sought to reveal how the Times understated the gravity of repression facing those who speak up on campus for Palestinian rights. Professors Tithi Bhattacharya, Cynthia Franklin, Bill V. Mullen, and David Palumbo-Liu decried the Times’ decision to link to Canary Mission, which “promotes online bullying of students and academics who often have in some capacity criticized policies of the state of Israel.” They criticized the Times for “[giving] free publicity to a discredited organization whose sole purpose is to harass, intimidate and blacklist students and scholars with whom it disagrees.” Expanding on the theme of repression, Liz Jackson, a civil rights attorney at Palestine Legal who works to protect the right to free speech of these student activists, explained the Orwellian logic of pro-Israel organizations that promote self-serving dialogue while suppressing their opponents’ free speech. She explains, “Israel lobby organizations that claim to promote dialogue are often the same ones that pressure administrators to censor or punish students for their speech. We’ve seen a 22 percent increase in incidents of suppression since this time last year. This trend will continue as Israel invests more resources to target students and stop the shift in public opinion towards sympathy for Palestinians.”

Indeed, as another letter not fit to print mentioned, the tactics of the Israeli government’s stateside advocates mirror the repressive tactics of the Israeli state at home. Margaret Ringler quipped, “I found FOI’s [Tufts’ pro-Israel organization] latest complaint to judicial affairs about SJP disturbing because, much like Israel itself, FOI wanted to penalize their critic’s dissent.” Implicit in this criticism is cause for optimism, as calls for Palestinian rights echoing as far from Palestine as American university campuses have Israeli opponents to Palestinian liberation on edge.

Here are the letters the New York Times failed to publish:

To the Editor:

As former president of Bryn Mawr’s Voices for Palestine, I am acutely familiar with how dialogue initiatives derail progress towards greater awareness of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.

Dialogue can be productive only when predicated on equity. Here, this entails full acknowledgement that Israel has deprived Palestinians of basic freedoms for nearly 50 years. Unless we reject Israel’s discriminatory policies and advocate for exceptionless human rights, true dialogue cannot be achieved.

The state of Israel continues to encroach on Palestinian land with illegal settlements and maintains an apartheid system designed to isolate and disempower Palestinians. Millions are denied the right of return. These violences will not be stopped by dialogue and joined hands –– unless those hands are joined for truth and justice.

Students for Justice in Palestine and the BDS movement understand that there cannot be peace under occupation. Projects like Visions of Peace, failing to distinguish between individual prejudice and systemic oppression, ignore inequity and trauma in favor of superficial reconciliation.

I echo the global call for BDS and peace through justice.

Irène Lucia Delaney
Recent Alumna, Bryn Mawr College Voices for Palestine (SJP)

To the Editor:

Linda Wertheimer’s article “The Middle East Conflict on Campus,” frames a sociopolitical conflict through the lens of religion, incorrectly discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one between Muslims and Jews. In doing so, she failed to understand campus activism. Wertheimer never mentioned Tufts Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS Jewish organization. She framed BDS as a threat to Jews on campus, rather than acknowledging the many Jews on Tufts campus and beyond, including myself, who are in solidarity with Palestinians and the BDS movement. In an article that quoted seven Jewish Americans or Israeli Jews, Wertheimer only included two Palestinian voices. None were quoted speaking positively about BDS, though BDS is a peaceful resistance movement widely embraced by over 170 Palestinian civil society groups. Her reporting mirrors the power dynamic of the issue on campus she purports to cover: Palestinian voices don’t matter all that much.

Noah Habeeb
Tufts University
I am a MA student at Tufts, a member of Tufts SJP and Tufts JVP and the Open Hillel Steering Committee.

To the Editor:

As a Tufts student and a Jew who cares deeply about human rights and who sees freedom for Palestinians as an important social justice issue, I was concerned by how “The Middle East Conflict on Campus” (8/3) depicted student activism for Palestinian rights on campus. Neither the conflict on the ground in Israel-Palestine nor the conflict on campuses is about Jews versus Muslims. This is a human rights issue about Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the policies that disenfranchise and discriminate against Palestinians. On Tufts campus, there is a large (and growing) group of Jewish students who work closely with Students for Justice in Palestine in demanding that Israel comply with international law and respect Palestinian human rights. As Jews deeply invested in a just peace in the region, we reject the notion that criticizing Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, and that students speaking up in support of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement create a hostile environment for Jews on campus. To many of us, our Judaism teaches us to fight for justice, and the fight for justice includes standing in solidarity with Palestinians.

Thank you,

Sam Slate
Tufts Jewish Voice for Peace

To the Editor:

As a Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine member interviewed for the article “Middle East Conflict on Campus,” I was concerned that my central point was omitted: Visions of Peace uses dialogue to obscure the power dynamics at play. The state of Israel illegally occupies Palestinian land and routinely commits human rights abuses against the Palestinian people. SJP works to confront that injustice.

During the Visions of Peace event, a right-wing Israeli settler told us that dialogue helped him acknowledge the humanity of Palestinians. But his statement surely rings hollow to the Palestinians whose lands he and over half a million Israeli settlers still occupy. So long as the Israeli government continues to subsidize and support settlements, dialogue won’t bring freedom or justice to the Palestinian people.

The occupation is approaching its 50th year. Policy change, not personal reconciliation, will end the daily violence and oppression Palestinians endure. Pretending otherwise hinders progress towards a just peace.    

To confront injustice I, alongside millions of others, support the BDS movement, not dialogue, to achieve justice for Palestinians.

Leah Muskin-Pierret
Recent Alumna, Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine & Tufts Jewish Voice for Peace

To the Editor:

“Middle East Conflict on Campus” champions dialogue, but  ignores reality. Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine has been made out to be  uncompromising and unwilling to work with others, and the article leaves readers wondering why SJP chooses not to engage in dialogue with groups that support Israel. The answer is simple: Palestinian freedom is not up for debate. Dialogue is only viable when both parties are equal, and Israel and Palestine are not two equal sides with equal claims and equal suffering.

Israel is an apartheid state, and has inflicted years of brutal and discriminatory policies on the Palestinian people. Until there is proper acknowledgement of Palestinian suffering, dialogue is fruitless. Groups like Visions of Peace cover up oppression and offer Israeli settlers a platform to speak. In doing so, they normalize violent Israeli policies and obstruct a just peace.

Katie Saviano
Tufts Class of 2017, Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine

To the Editor:

I write to express earnest concern and dissatisfaction with the content and aim of Linda K. Wertheimer’s article “The Middle East Conflict on Campus.” Trite and patronizing, the piece relies on tired, empty invocations of the need for more Muslim-Jewish dialogue, all the while dodging any substantial engagement with the realities of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The article insists that inter-religious engagement between Muslims and Jews—conceived globally—remains an appropriate substitute for focused, rigorous, and informed political debate on college campuses. As such, the article implies that the issues at hand in Israel-Palestine ought to be understood essentially as issues of religious strife. This is a dangerous idea inasmuch as it ignores the political, economic, and historical contexts of the broader conflict.

Even more startlingly, the piece takes on a McCarthyite tone in vilifying and maligning student activists involved with Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. As a Jewish student involved in both organizations, I find the article’s suggestion that either promotes intimidation of Jewish students infuriating.  

Sincerely,

Henry Rosen
Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, NY

To the Editor:

An August 3 article, “Middle East Conflict on Campus,” cites and links to Canary Mission, an anonymous website that promotes online bullying of students and academics who often have in some capacity criticized policies of the state of Israel.   

We are among hundreds of University faculty who have publicly denounced the website for its unsubstantiated and unverifiable accusations of “terrorism” and anti-semitism against students, many of them Arab American or Muslim. Perhaps most concerning, Canary Mission actively works  to deny students access to graduate school enrollment and jobs, often “tweeting” out vilifying messages about them to school officials and potential employers.

Just this week, Hank Reichman, First Vice President of the American Association of University Professors, wrote that “Canary Mission is nothing but a blacklist, pure and simple.  It echoes the long-discredited and horrific blacklists of the McCarthy era.”

We hope in the future that the Times will not give free publicity to a discredited organization whose sole purpose is to harass, intimidate and blacklist students and scholars with whom it disagrees.

Sincerely,

Tithi Bhattacharya, Professor of History, Director of Global Studies, Purdue University
Cynthia Franklin,  Professor of English, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Bill V. Mullen,  Professor of American Studies, Purdue University
David Palumbo-Liu,  Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature, Stanford University
Dana Cloud, Professor of Communications, Syracuse University
Malini Schueller, Professor of English, University of Florida

To the Editor:

RE: The Middle East Conflict on Campus (Education Life, August 3, 2016)

As a UC Berkeley student, I was shocked to witness Israel advocacy organizations suppress debate by arguing in court that support for Palestinian equality makes Jewish students uncomfortable.

I’m Jewish, and I too am uncomfortable confronting the brutality of Israeli policies. It’s devastating. But college is where we go to have our ideas challenged.

I became a civil rights attorney at Palestine Legal to protect the free speech of students who face censorship, sanctions, and discrimination for their views favorable to Palestinians.

Israel lobby organizations that claim to promote dialogue are often the same ones that pressure administrators to censor or punish students for their speech.

We’ve seen a 22 percent increase in incidents of suppression since this time last year. This trend will continue as Israel invests more resources to target students and stop the shift in public opinion towards sympathy for Palestinians.

Heavy-handed suppression tactics inflict long-term consequences on students. Our constitutional tradition cannot tolerate an exception to the First Amendment simply because Palestinian human rights advocacy makes powerful listeners uncomfortable.

Liz Jackson
Staff Attorney, Palestine Legal
Cooperating Counsel, Center for Constitutional Rights

Dear Editor,

I am unsettled by your portrayal in the article “The Middle East Conflict on Campus” of Tufts’ pro-Israel student groups as victims of Students for Justice in Palestine. I graduated Tufts in May 2016. SJP was a much-needed voice of dissent around campus and they were not a bully.  

In particular your paragraph about SJP’s Taste of Israel protest as ‘the last straw’ is misleading. You neatly line up SJP’s actions as if they were a terrorizing crescendo, topping the list with SJP’s mock IDF checkpoints. The latest checkpoint demonstration occurred two years ago in a single spot on campus with a handful of student actors. I found the event informative, making me question IDF’s militarized surveillance and draw parallels to the USA’s prison system. I walked away informed, not intimidated.

And I found FOI’s latest complaint to judicial affairs about SJP disturbing because, much like Israel itself, FOI wanted to penalize their critic’s dissent.

Sincerely,

Margaret Ringler
Tufts Class of 2016

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Behavior that makes others feel uncomfortable is rude and inconsiderate. It should be made illegal if it isn’t already.

Unfortunately, this sort of behavior is not new. We can find numerous examples of it in American history, even at the highest levels. The United States owes its existence to such behavior, as the war for independence made people loyal to the British crown very uncomfortable, forcing many of them to take refuge in Canada.

The principle that behavior that makes others uncomfortable is unacceptable has the consequence that the system of criminal justice must be abolished, because for most people it is very uncomfortable to be charged with and tried for a crime. It is particularly uncomfortable to be accused of behavior that makes others uncomfortable, therefore such accusations should never be made. That solves the problem.

University of Chicago leader came out with a statement that all views should be heard even if it makes some students uncomfortable, and that the university would not have any mandatory “triggers” cutting off any view due to potential discomfort of some students, nor any “safe spaces” where the free flow of ideas could be suspended so students can always be comfortable, etc.

Discussion of the Occupation makes Jewish — or at any rate Zionist Jewish — students uncomfortable??? I should bloody well hope so.

Neither students nor anyone else have the “right” not to be exposed to views they find unpleasant. That sort of restriction on speech might well obtain in Israel but it doesn’t fly in the United States. If you disagree with a view, you do have the right to refute that view, if you can, or to STFU if you can’t. That spirit, with a touch of vulgarity for emphasis, is the essence of America. There… Read more »