Every year, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine holds a series of events as part of Israeli Apartheid Week. This year, that included hanging an administration-approved banner from Barnard Hall. It read, “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine,” and included the logo of our group—a silhouette of pre-1948 Palestine.
As soon as this banner was hung, Seffi Kogen GS/JTS ’14, the former President of Columbia/Barnard Hillel called for pro-Israel students and their networks to tell the Barnard administration about their discomfort. By the next morning, Barnard had yielded to those who were upset and removed the banner, without warning or consulting SJP, citing the “controversy” it caused as the reason for removal.
This controversy was generated by the misinterpretation of a map of historic Palestine drawn without “internal borders.” These are borders by which the State of Israel itself does not abide. Currently, Israel’s borders are expanding in several places that are ambiguously defined. This can be seen in the continued building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the ongoing construction of the West Bank barrier (otherwise known as the Apartheid Wall) in a manner that deviates from the Green Line determined by the United Nations, incorporating land from the Occupied Territories.
Kogen and others accuse SJP of attempting to “erase Israel off of the map.” It is important to remember that real “erasure” requires bulldozers, tanks, white phosphorus, reserve armies, and concrete walls that divide communities. We attend a university that is invested in a myriad of companies, from G4S (a private security company), to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Caterpillar, that provide Israel with these tools of erasure. It is extremely troubling to see how a rhetorical twist can make it seem as if a cloth banner created by a student group is somehow threatening, while our institutions profit from violent removals of people from their land. These charges regarding erasure from the map leveled at our banner trivialize the experience of actual violence that we may be complicit in, from the suffering of the people of Palestine to global indigenous dispossession and the oppression of communities of color.
Through this misinterpretation of the map we drew, our banner was labeled as anti-Semitic. As a group that is opposed to all forms of racism, we perceive the equating of any criticism of the State of Israel with anti-Semitism as a mischaracterization of what being Jewish means. Doing so silences Jewish people who define themselves as anti-Zionist. Israel does not represent all Jewish people everywhere, and speaking against the policies of the state is not equal to criticizing Israelis, let alone all Jewish people. Indeed, SJP chapters across the country include anti-Zionist Jews, who are often not welcome in Hillel because it abides by national guidelines to normalize a necessary link between Jewish life and support for Israel.
Regardless of their intent, by removing our banner, Barnard administrators gave the appearance of an agreement with these claims that our message is anti-Semitic. We can only assume that the Barnard administration condones the labeling of a call to stand for justice in Palestine as anti-Semitic, a stance that denies our community the possibility of any actual discussion around what constitutes anti-Semitic and racist language.
What Barnard’s actions signal is that pro-Israel views take precedence—some feelings are valued over others. This fosters an environment that normalizes hateful speech toward our group and other SJPs. Barnard’s response to the discomfort of some at the cost of rendering others vulnerable is inconsistent with its claim that Barnard cannot be seen to endorse a political position. A similar inconsistency lies in the fact that Barnard President Debora Spar—who is responsible for this decision—has been on an all expenses paid trip to Israel as part of Project Interchange, which is run by a vehemently pro-Israel organization, the American Jewish Committee.
With the College’s president going on this kind of trip in order to build “bilateral academic cooperation,” it is difficult for us to have confidence in institutional “neutrality,” even though this was Barnard’s stated goal when curtailing our previously acceptable and free expression. This kind of non-endorsement policy for banners outside Barnard Hall cannot achieve neutrality because it is fundamentally based on a response—a removal that benefits one position.
If our banner is indeed perceived by some as controversial, is Barnard then unfit for controversy? Can the campus community not handle disagreement, however profound? We are heirs to a rich campus history of student mobilization on crucial political issues, including the anti-apartheid movement that pressured Columbia to divest from South Africa. As students, we are taught to be proud of this history. Political work is made through and deeply connected to difference. If we could express only the same opinions or political positions, any kind of change would be impossible. Thus, banning political banners in this space will affect many student groups engaged in vibrant work on sensitive topics.
All students have the right to speak their minds, and to do so in University sanctioned spaces. The fact that Barnard has silenced SJP in this unprecedented way in response to “discomfort” does not bode well for the future of critical thought on this campus.
Shezza Abboushi Dallal is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in history. Feride Eralp is a Columbia College senior majoring in anthropology. They are both members of Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine. This op-ed was written on behalf of SJP.
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