“The community isn't ready for peace.”
This was not the response I had expected to receive from my classmate, who also serves as a fellow Hillel leader. Shortly after my visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, I had told him about my experiences. With a renewed sense of urgency and unshakable images in my mind, I had recounted to him the profound injustice I had just witnessed while staying with Palestinian friends and family in the West Bank. In light of the current peace negotiations, I had expressed to him the need for students—especially our shared Jewish community at Columbia—to transcend mere dialogue and take political action. I had conveyed the need to organize students' public support for peace negotiations, reflecting both Israeli and Palestinian interests to our elected officials, when he flatly dismissed my charge.
My classmate's cynicism is only one voice within an undoubtedly pluralistic dialogue about Israel and Palestine. At least four groups under Hillel, despite our different missions, are devoted to this issue. Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine specifically advocates for the rights of Palestinians whose daily lives are impacted by Israel's military occupation. Other student groups and academic departments frequently host discussions to confront the harsh realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The political and academic culture here inspires us to be deeply invested in dialogue about this issue.
But how valuable is this abundance of dialogue if it doesn't provoke us to act on our convictions? What have years of yearning for peace and justice within our groups done to affect peace and justice beyond our groups? Of course, honest and vigorous dialogue must necessarily precede peace activism, but a stagnant dialogue can actually preclude effective activism. If my classmate's assessment is true—if our Israel-saturated community truly isn't “ready” for peace—then it is the responsibility of community leaders to actively seek peace.
Top Israeli and Palestinian leaders—and our own elected officials across the political spectrum—have repeatedly expressed support for a two-state solution. Moreover, they did so because their constituents demanded it. American citizens, largely through campaigns led by progressive American Jews, successfully organized political power to increase public support for a peaceful, just, and secure establishment of a future Palestinian state beside Israel. However, despite a majority's consensus towards a two-state solution, our community leaders have not explicitly supported the negotiations that are necessary to realize that solution.
Political statements are insufficient when action doesn't follow them, just as dialogue is futile when it fails to provoke change. Students have debated the four “final status issues” that repeatedly face Israelis and Palestinians in peace negotiations: national security, defined borders, legal status of Jerusalem, and a response to Palestinian refugees that honors international law. We know that both sides must make tough compromises on these four final status issues in order to actualize a viable two-state solution. Yet in this critical moment, amidst current peace negotiations that our own government is mediating, our community leaders have remained publicly silent. While there are profound differences of opinion among groups, all of them say they want peace, but their silence loudly proclaims that they aren't “ready” for it.
But there is a growing constituency of us who refuse to tolerate the injustice of the status quo. We long for peace, as generations of Jews longed for a home, and as the Palestinians living as refugees continue to long for theirs. Israel has been a home for many students, and yet we watch the occupation endanger Israel's future, betray our values, and divide our communities. The activism of SJP and Columbia students' connections to Palestine demand an honest, proactive response from our communities. Columbia students can seek peace not only by holding our leadership accountable for their words—or lack thereof—but by demonstrating our own commitment to it. In order to create change, we must transform this stagnant dialogue into public presence.
This is why J Street CU brought The 2 Campaign to Columbia, to facilitate and transform open conversation about the “final status issues” into action. The campaign's nationwide petition shows our support for compromises on borders, security, refugees, and Jerusalem as the American envoy leads the current negotiations. Advocating for pragmatic solutions to these issues is imperative because they are an essential part of any two-state agreement. Through practicality, we can turn our frustration into strategic activism. We can lead our community to promote a just solution to the conflict, before peace escapes us.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern history and Jewish studies. She is a co-chair of J Street CU and a member of Columbia/Barnard Hillel.
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