Moving beyond zero-sum: Campus discourse on Israel-Palestine

Over the past month there has been, under the surface, a debate over what is acceptable in our campus discourse at San Francisco State University when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This round of the debate was initiated when Arab and Muslim Ethinicities and Diasporas Initiative (AMED) along with General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), and other groups held an event commemorating the establishment of a mural on Malcolm X Plaza honoring Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said. Unfortunately most of that debate has taken place online or outside of campus, this is an attempt to bring it home.

The complaints for many in the Jewish community centered around the stencils distributed at the event stating, “my heroes have always killed colonizers,” followed by violent rhetoric directed towards Israelis by the GUPS president.

While San Francisco Hillel worked to address our concerns soberly and measuredly, the debate swirled out of control when groups outside SFSU took it upon themselves to “protect” students without asking us, the students, why we were upset or what we needed for support. Charges of anti-Semitism and stifling academic freedom were thrown around, making our campus a battleground between hardliners fighting their own agenda.

This is an attempt to bring civility, and genuineness back to this debate.

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I have been around third world liberation ideology, and indigenous movements my whole life. While I understand the need to celebrate resistance to oppression, and reclaim those labeled the “other,” I believe SFSU President Les Wong was right to condemn campus events “glorifying violence.”

At the heart of this issue, and the pain of my community is the inability, and refusal to recognize or understand the pain of the other. This is a symptom, I believe of the larger issue of the lack of empathy in the Israel/Palestine debate in general.  At the heart of this, is what scholar Herbert Kelman calls “The Interdependence of Israeli and Palestinian national identities,” one group sees the recognition of the pain of “the other” as negating their own pain, negating their narrative. Even our heroes play this role: while Leila Khaled, one of those honored at the AMED event, is seen as a terrorist by many for her role in several airline hijackings during the 1970s, today she is a Palestinian legislator. While Ariel Sharon is seen by many Jews and Israelis as a hero of independence, Israel’s own government said he had “indirect responsibility” for the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982, and though he was dismissed from his position he went on to become Prime Minister.

One solution is the beginning of recognition of the other’s narrative, I’ll start: some Jews fighting for the freedom and sovereignty of our people before, during, and after 1948 have some responsibility for Palestinian refugees fleeing their homes.

This juxtaposition was recognized by a former head of Israel’s Security Agency Yuval Diskin, who noted in the Gatekeepers film, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” adding, “To the enemy, by the way, I was also a terrorist.”

However there are many living examples of those who’ve recognized the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is not a zero-sum situation. A Palestinian man in the West Bank, where I’ve visited several times, set up a museum to commemorate the holocaust, and I know Israeli activists who recognize the Nakba without fearing that it minimizes their own pain or narrative.

Instead of following these great examples, many students run from conversations that challenge our assumptions on controversial subjects, or simply never have them because the tone is so poisonous.

University is a place we are supposed to be pushed beyond our comfort zones, how many of us chose SFSU because of its political or diverse nature? Let’s rise above the Olympics of victimhood.

We need a strong Palestinian voice at SFSU, it is incredibly important because it is so often left out of the conversation. But while some are happy to participate, the loudest voices seem to have more interest in demonization and escalation.

I for one, challenge us all to move forward by questioning our assumptions about each other and engage in a discourse where we can respectfully disagree while recognizing the power of rhetoric to cause pain and shut down conversations on the one hand, or open conversations on the other.


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