The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an intractable problem, and one that is close to a fair number of American University students.
As a very Jewish campus, as well as a politically active one involved in democracy and human rights, this campus is uniquely suited to have meaningful discussion and even action on a peaceful resolution to the situation that has ruined lives on both sides of the Green Line for decades.
I am writing this as the founder and president of the J Street U chapter at American University, a pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-Palestinian student group on campus, and we are looking forward to creating a real dialogue about a two-state solution here at AU.
However, last week was a reminder that the way American universities currently approach Israel is only with either polarization or apathy.
Last week was Israel Apartheid Week. Apartheid Week is a week of events by Students for Justice in Palestine devoted entirely to painting an entire country with comparisons to a history of racist, unjust and permanent discrimination in South Africa. Israel Apartheid Week was started in 2005 to bring a harsh light to the very real problems that Palestinians face from the Israeli occupation.
The AU version this year was relatively tame, with speakers and movie screenings about the hardships faced under occupation. But on other campuses around the country, and even in the past here at AU, it has invoked highly visible confrontations with students setting up “Israeli checkpoints,” pretending to gun down blindfolded “Palestinian prisoners” who fall to the ground in the middle of quads for effect, and other extreme actions designed for maximum political impact.
Therein lies the problem. Israel Apartheid Week is not about conversation on the issue, and it isn’t about finding a peaceful solution.
I find it sad that a group of people so devoted to equal rights for all people has resorted to demonizing one group for a political purpose.
While the word “apartheid” may be good for publicity, it isn’t good on the facts. Israel is not an “apartheid” state. Inside the dividing line between Israel and the occupied territories, the Green Line, Israel is a democracy. It’s flawed of course, as all democracies are, but it is a democracy in which legal protection and political representation are afforded to all those who live there. Any state where Palestinians serve in every major branch of government cannot possibly be called “apartheid.”
In the West Bank, while Israelis enjoy the rights and protections of the state, Palestinians live under military occupation. Their conditions are brutal and damaging, both to the Palestinians that live under them and to the Israelis that enforce them.
The ongoing occupation should offend anyone that believes in the principles of democracy and equality.
The occupation, however, is the result of an ongoing conflict over land, not a system of racial oppression intended to maintain racial supremacy of one group over another. A comparison to that terrible South African system is not only corrosive to both sides of the conflict, but it also belittles what occurred against blacks for decades.
The “pro-Israel” side of the conflict reacts to Israel Apartheid Week in different ways at different schools.
Some pro-Israel campus groups simply ignore it. Others attempt to stage a valiant defense, using the standard “Israel is a democracy” talking points that the usual “pro-Israel” groups give out every year, designed to talk past those with concerns and problems with the occupation. Still others attempt to label the entire political movement supporting human rights as anti-Semitic and racist in and of itself.
But there is no conversation; there is no middle ground. It polarizes universities, and it doesn’t promote solutions. Polarization is what happens when, in order to be for one side, you must be against the other.
J Street’s mission is to be a middle ground, the true version of pro-Israel that doesn’t have to be anti-Palestinian, a group that supports human rights without promoting blind opposition to all things Israel.
We want AU to be a place where students can stand up for both a Jewish state and democratic values and where real conversation, not talking past one another, can occur. Come help us out.
Bradley Harmon, SIS Class of 2015
Founder and President, J Street U at American University