On the fifth floor of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel this past Tuesday night, two students hosted a memorial for Ezra Schwartz, an 18-year-old American citizen who was murdered last year by a Palestinian terrorist. Most Columbia students—aside from members of the Hillel community—were unaware of this event, and sadly, have probably never heard of Ezra Schwartz or the circumstances of his tragic and untimely death. Campus conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tend to center on the sensational, and in contemplating political problems and hoping for political solutions, we often give the human side of this issue far less attention than it is due. This unfortunate reality is sadly exacerbated by the failure of campus pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists to actually talk to, and not past, each other.
Consider a controversy that took place last semester, when activists calling for divestment posted “long live the intifada” on Facebook. The literal translation of intifada is “shuddering” or “shaking off,” but colloquially, the term refers to two Palestinian uprisings. The more recent uprising, which took place in the early 2000s, was characterized by suicide bombings aimed at Israeli civilians. These attacks terrorized the nation, leaving both physical and emotional scars. On a campus where so many care so deeply about the psychological well-being of their peers, and where trigger warnings prevail to help ensure that collective well-being, it’s unfathomable that the call to intifada was met with anything but condemnation. And yet such is the natural conclusion of divorcing the human reality from abstract political ideas.
On Tuesday, while Ezra’s memorial was taking place, others on campus were preoccupied with a less meaningful, but more eyebrow-raising, Israel-related event. Hosted by Students Supporting Israel, the event, titled “Indigenous People Unite”, garnered some controversy and inspired a deeply disturbing response from Columbia University Apartheid Divest.
Language—while often a powerful instrument for good—can be manipulated to serve any political agenda. But when the Students for Justice in Palestine speak of Israelis as “settler-colonialists,” the language they choose mitigates the implications of their call to intifada, namely the idea that they support the violent targeting of innocent civilians like Ezra. And though I am a Jewish voice for peace and a student supporting Israel, neither Jewish Voice for Peace nor SSI speak for me.
SSI came to campus during my tenure as Aryeh’s president, and I grappled with the reality that students who are generally uninvolved in the Israel-Palestine dialectic on campus might mistakenly confuse Aryeh, J Street, and SSI. Much like Palestinian society, the pro-Israel community is in no way monolithic, and no single organization represents the entire group. But in its Tuesday morning statement, CUAD quickly leaps from commentary on SSI’s event to a willfully deceptive—libelous, even— characterization of Zionism and the Jewish state.
Pro-Palestinian activists speak of justice, pro-Israel activists of peace; neither will be achieved without compromises from both peoples. Thus to attain both goals, there must be a basic point of agreement, a starting line from which we can both proceed. The nature of compromise is that neither side gets everything it wants. But while CUAD was quick to take issue with SSI’s event due to what they labeled an “erasure” of Palestinian identity and a failure to recognize Palestinian claims to the land, they never recognized Jewish claims to the land, engaging in an erasure of their own.
When we launched Invest in Peace last year, I proudly reiterated Aryeh’s commitment to a two-state solution based on our fundamental recognition of two competing claims to the same land. SJP has not done the same, and their silence betrays their true agenda. At bottom, the “justice” they seek is not about military occupation, security fences, or expanding settlements, but about the very existence of the Jewish state. The position that Jews have no claim to the land is as erroneous and offensive as it is untenable.
Compromise may necessarily result in bitter pills for both sides to swallow, but a continued refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Jewish claims to Israel functions as an existential threat, and all rational actors know Israel will not sign its own death warrant. Thus any meaningful and lasting resolution to this conflict will involve each side acknowledging the basic rights and claims of the other.
And in the spirit of acknowledging the other, I was pleasantly surprised to see CUAD issue a statement condemning the anti-Semite who stands outside Columbia’s gates. Over the years, his signs have invited people to “Google it: Jews control [insert anti-semitic trope of your choice].” On Tuesday, he held a sign which read “Google it: Israeli firm to build Trump’s wall// Boycott Israel.” Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not synonymous, but anti-Israel activists on campus are wrong to argue that they are entirely unrelated. Both with the call to divest from Israel, and through their use of the slur “zio”—a term favored by David Duke—CUAD unfortunately garners some deplorable bedfellows. Their statement was a good first step towards acknowledging and correcting that reality.
That said, I was baffled by their claim that CUAD “work[s] to recognize and distinguish the nation-state of Israel from any religious identity.” Israel cannot be separated from Judaism. One connotes a people and a religion, the other a state. They are different entities, but they are inextricably linked. There’s little room for nuance in advocacy, but that doesn’t mean we should engage in conversation that is sophomorically simplistic or decidedly deceptive. And if CUAD seeks to demonstrate the ways in which their work differs from anti-Semitism, their case will be infinitely strengthened if they root their evidence in something more compelling than the cretinous notion that Israel is divorced from any religious identity.
My seventh and final semester on this campus is coming to a close, and we seem hopelessly stuck in the same conversations that predominated during my first year here. We can do better, and if we truly aim to be the generation that finally resolves this conflict, we must do better. As I listened to the speakers at Tuesday’s event in memory of Ezra Schwartz, girls who grew up with him, who graduated from high school with him, I was once again reminded of the overwhelming pain that this conflict causes real people every single day.
I don’t need to be a member of SJP to acknowledge that there are tragic stories of real human suffering on the Palestinian side as well. I’m proud of the work that pro-Israel students have done throughout my Aryeh tenure, but students collectively engaged on both sides of this issue have fallen short.
My time at Columbia is over, but my hope for the future is that after years of talking into our own echo chambers, Aryeh and CUAD will one day sit down together to listen to each other. We won’t reach an agreement, but there’s much to be gained. At the very least, we can develop an understanding and appreciation of what motivates the people with whom we disagree. This conflict will be solved through politics—but it is ultimately about people.
Daniella Greenbaum is a Barnard College senior majoring in English literature. She is a former president of Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel. She tweets @dgreenbaum and will miss Columbia terribly. Roar. Agree To Disagree runs alternate Mondays.