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Caring About Peace and Justice on Campus, and Beyond

To really work for peace and justice, we have to see both as under the stewardship of all of us, and that peace and justice are the entitlements of all.

One of the signal characteristics of the discussions that flow forth on the topic of Israel-Palestine is their intense emotional content. Unavoidable, no doubt, but any project on university or college campuses that wishes to teach Peace and Justice, and to address the issue of Israel-Palestine, needs to seriously address this question of the emotions that surround this topic. It is too easy to imagine that emotions will simply evaporate once confronted by facts. But that simply does not happen.

When I returned to campus from the American Studies Association conference in Washington DC last year, as we members began deliberations on our much publicized resolution to support the call for an academic boycott of Israel, I anticipated there might be some fall-out because of my various, pro-boycott blogs, and the quote from one of my statements that made it into the New York Times article that ran on the first page of the print edition of December 16. The quote was: “People who truly believe in academic freedom would realize protesting the blatant and systemic denial of academic freedom to Palestinians, which is coupled with material deprivation of a staggering scale, far outweighs concerns we in the West might have about our own rather privileged academic freedoms.”

I was expecting some reaction when I returned to campus, but nothing prepared me for a comment a Jewish colleague made to me when we happened to bump into each other at lunch. He put his hand on my shoulder in a not entirely amicable way and said, “I know why I am obsessed with Jews. But why are you?” After the moment it took to process that remark I replied, “I am not ‘obsessed with Jews; I am concerned about Palestinians.” Now why are my affective investments and political actions open to such radically different interpretations?

My friend’s comment seemed to reinforce the issue I had tried to get across when I suggested in the Times that our concern might be better placed upon the Palestinians, as an actual aggrieved group, and the specific harms done to them by both the occupation and the structures of domination that continue to be imposed upon them in Israel, instead of on hypothetical harms that the boycott might bring to others.

Most important is to consider just how radically divergent his description of my actions were from mine. He simply could not accept a non-Jew’s interest in the Middle East, especially if it seemed to emerge from a sensibility and political position different from his. My friend’s “obsession” with Jews seemed a natural outcome of his ethnic identity – his “obsession” raised no questions. His interest could only be interpreted as being (naturally) interested in “his people.” On the other hand, my concern about Palestinians was recoded via my friend’s worldview as an inexplicable obsession with Jews. By that I can only assume he meant that I seemed to him to be inordinately interested in criticizing the behavior of the Jewish people when it actuality I was and am involved in critiquing the policies of the state of Israel that do persistent and unjust harm to Palestinians. It is precisely that fluid slide into misinterpretation that makes working on peace and justice in Israel-Palestine tremendously hard. In fact, any work toward peace and justice must tackle the question of on whose behalf are we doing what we are doing? I’ll come back to this later in this blog, as it is a fundamental point.

Similar to the way my friend characterized what I thought was my concern with the situation of Palestinians as an “obsession” with Jews, the public and private discourse around Israel-Palestine is saturated with heated, passionate, language. For example, in the same NYT piece there is a quote from Manuel Trajtenberg, a leading Israeli scholar, with regard to the ASA vote. He said: “It’s almost like a family betrayal… it’s very grave and very saddening that this happens, particularly so in the United States.” I interpret that last phrase to reference the fact that for decades and decades not only has the US been Israel’s staunchest political ally and most financially generous supporter, it has also happened that criticism of Israel state policies has been for the longest time nearly non-existent on college campuses and in academic organizations such as the American Studies Association. Clearly, this latter situation is changing, and in Trajtenberg’s and many others’ eyes, this is “grave and saddening.”

I am not in any way denying the legitimacy of these sentiments. In fact part of me is deeply sympathetic. I cannot honestly say that I would not feel exactly the same way, had I been brought up in similar circumstances and with those cultural and historical memories deeply ingrained in my life and those of my relatives. But while we cannot and should not disregard the past, we can and should take responsibility for knowing it as fully as possible, and for not automatically discounting other narratives and other facts, even for reasons that seem indisputably right to us because we feel them deeply.

To study and to work for peace and justice requires a full set of information and knowledge about the cases one works with. The fact is that the various interpretations of events do not necessarily jibe – many times they do not. The fundamental principle of educational institutions is that people are entrusted to form their judgments based on their interpretation of facts and, critically, people are responsible for testing out those interpretations in conversation and in debate with others.

It is here that abstract words like “peace” and “justice” come alive, and are reshaped and adapted to fit the cases at hand. Until then, and this is the pragmatic position, there can be only a provisional and contingent consensus of what those words might actually mean. Most important perhaps, it is when human beings act on the basis of those words that we see what real world effects and consequences our interpretations can have.

It is in colleges and universities that we are supposed to be exposed to and have access to a wide range of views and opinions. Sadly, this is not the case when it comes to one of the most important and urgent issues of the twentieth and twenty-first century. I would wager that at every college and institution of higher education in the United States, talking about the subject of Israel-Palestine is fraught. This of course opens up a huge contradiction, succinctly found in the fact that Larry Summers in the same breath condemn BDS or indeed every protest against Israel, as anti-Semitic, and also insist that college campuses should resound with energetic debate.

I am not arguing that our emotions have to be delegitimized, or neutralized, or banished, but as much as possible they should be bracketed out or at least constrained for the periods in which we seek to understand better the sources and consequences of our emotions. Educators and students both will be prevented from having a rich educational experience if we cannot move from the realm of the emotions to the realm of reason. And most urgently, emotions must not be cynically used as weapons to stifle debate and discussion.

These issues all are found in the recent attempts to use Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to wage legal battles against pro-boycott and pro-divestment protesters. Historically, the Act was used during the 1960s to desegregate public schools in the South. It prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin, but does not include religion. But in October 2010, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan re-affirmed a set of guidelines initially promulgated in September 2004 that “applies Title VI … to the protection of Jewish students from anti-Semitism on campuses… Under the Department of Education guidelines, the Civil Rights Act can be invoked if anti-Jewish behavior is considered to be based on shared ethnic characteristics.”

To be clear, it was not just Jewish students who were now to be protected under Title VI – on its face the new protocol said that a group with common religion would not be denied protection if they also shared actual or perceived ethnic characteristics or ancestral ties, and the examples given were Sikh Americans, Arab Muslims, and Jewish-Americans. However, various groups have attempted to interpret this new feature of the Act as saying that anything that might cause emotional distress to Jewish students must be curtailed and punished, and the vast majority of these cases had to do with campus protests.

After those new guidelines were put in place, several complaints were filed with the US Department of Education asserting that things like “Israel Apartheid Week” and divestment protests were anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic. Those filing the complaints argued that such events created a threatening campus climate for Jewish students, and were emotionally damaging. For example, at UC Santa Cruz Tammi Rossman-Benjamin filed a complaint, arguing that “As a result of their experiences with such university-sponsored, anti-Semitic expression, Jewish students at my university have expressed feeling emotionally and intellectually harassed and intimidated by their professors, isolated from their fellow students and unfairly treated by administrators. Some have even reported leaving the university, dropping classes, changing fields of study and hiding symbols of their Jewishness.”

Despite this and several other attempts to deploy the new guidelines, as noted in an article published in March of 2012 in The Jewish Daily Forward, “A year and a half after the federal government extended a landmark civil rights law to cover Jewish students, Jewish groups have yet to succeed in using this law against what they see as anti-Semitic anti-Israel activity on campus. A survey by the Forward has found that at least 10 anti-Semitism cases have been filed with either the Department of Education or in court under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In only one of these cases so far has the complainant been favored: a high school case in which Israel played no role.”

The determination letter written to UC Berkeley by the DOE contains the most succinct statement possible. It found that the kinds of protest events that were the basis of complaint “constitute expression on matters of public concern directed to the University community. In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience.”

I focus on this case because it, perhaps more than anything else, highlights what is unique about the efforts to find peace and justice in Israel-Palestine. Coupled with what has been up to now our government’s immense reluctance to criticize Israel, and the long tradition of accepting an historical narrative with regard to Israel-Palestine that favors and legitimizes Israel while denying even the existence of Palestine, this use of the Civil Rights Act to silence debate about Israel in the name of protecting the sensibilities of certain students is remarkable and alarming.

The title of this essay is meant be a rejoinder to that question my friend posed to me – “I know why I am obsessed with Jews, but why are you?” It is also intended to be an expansion of what I wanted to convey to him.

To really work for peace and justice, we have to see both as under the stewardship of all of us, and that peace and justice are the entitlements of all – not just Jews and Palestinians, but of all people, and certainly it’s not restricted to people we are “obsessed,” or care deeply about. We should each be given the right and indeed obligation to care about everyone. And caring about peace and justice means as well that we need to take care of peace and justice. And taking care of peace and justice decidedly does not mean to maintain a false sense of “peace” by quieting debate – that is hardly just.

The DOE’s finding was just right – one comes to university not to reinforce already existing beliefs, nor simply to gain knowledge and skills. One comes to institutions of higher education to be challenged, in all sorts of ways. The much-heralded value of diversity is not meant to be merely cosmetic, it is meant to bring diverse experiences and perspectives into the conversation. To actually understand, and use, that diversity, different views and perspectives must be given a fair and impartial hearing. One can certainly disagree, debate, and raise questions, and one should, but that cannot take place in an environment when only some people are entitled to care, or to care in only certain manners and styles.

Peace and justice should be seen as indivisible – not the right or privilege of only those we ourselves immediately care about. To really study peace and justice and to work for it requires an openness and an inquisitive energy that transcends our immediate perceptions and emotions. We should not only be able to care for others not like ourselves, we ought to.

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