Schwartz: Defining legitimate dialogue

What are the boundaries of a productive conversation on Israel and Palestine? Wednesday’s opinion column, “An Unfounded Attack” (Oct. 20) raised the critical issue of defining the parameters of a legitimate discussion surrounding this intensely emotional conflict. Indeed, we need to do a better job of clarifying what constitutes legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies and what is an unfair attack on Israel, the region’s only liberal democracy. The author of the column saw in the Anti-Defamation League’s recent list of anti-Israel organizations a conflation of those who offer constructive criticism with those who engage in hateful delegitimization.

As Wednesday’s column rightfully demanded, we need a working definition of what an anti-Israel organization looks like. Firstly, challenging Zionism, or Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state in the Jewish people’s national and ancestral homeland is definitionally anti-Israel. Opposition to the existence of a specific democratic nation-state, while the world is filled with others, reflects an unconscionable double standard. However, arguing that this fundamental right to statehood has to be balanced and negotiated with another nation’s fundamental right to create a state in the same general area is perfectly acceptable.

Using a term like “colonialism” when describing a movement of national return that pursued its goals by buying land is a misappropriation of a charged term. Using “apartheid wall” to describe a response to a complex security situation in a country ravaged by terrorist attacks is also a deliberate misrepresentation aimed at evoking ill-will towards the Jewish state. A state in which Arab citizens have full voting rights and serve as members of parliament is not an apartheid state. Making sweeping judgments about defensive Israeli military actions in densely populated areas is irresponsible, especially when similar language is never used to describe equivalent American and European actions. Organizations that use this language and devote themselves to this ideology are quite obviously anti-Israel and are engaging in destructive discourse. On the other hand, those who argue passionately that various building projects in the West Bank raise barriers to the creation of Palestine, and that more attention should be given to the disruptions that Israeli security measures create for everyday Palestinian life are legitimate partners in the Middle East debate.

Wednesday’s column raised the question of which of these two categories Students for Justice in Palestine falls into. Here, it is important to distinguish between the Yale chapter of SJP and branches on other campuses. It is important to realize that SJP groups around the country regularly equate Israel with apartheid South Africa, and Zionism with racism. They dispute the Jewish people’s deep historical connection to the land of Israel, and excuse terror and terrorist organizations. At the University of California, Irvine, last year, Michael Oren, the current Israeli ambassador to the United States and a former Yale professor, was shouted down and prevented from speaking by local students who rose consistently to call him a Nazi apologist. These students have been defended by SJP chapters around the country. These organizations are not contributing to productive discourse; they are engaging in a campaign of hatred.

Thankfully, Wednesday’s opinion piece shows that the chapter at Yale is different. At our university, people from all points of the political spectrum can proudly hold themselves up as both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. It is only from such a position of mutual recognition that we can proceed into a productive discussion of the issues. Yale’s chapter of SJP even chose to rename itself Students for Justice and Peace in Palestine to reflect this desire. Its altered name also distinguishes the Yale chapter from its hateful sister organizations elsewhere in the country. And as long as Yale SJP reflects these values, the ADL and everyone else should of course consider its members legitimate and productive partners in the ongoing conversation.

There have been moments this year when I have worried that this vision may not win out. Earlier this year, SJP at Yale chose to invite Jared Maslin, a journalist who welcomed Palestinian terror as “productive, bottom-up pressure” and devoted his entire lecture to the vilification of Israel. More recently, they invited Dr. Norman Finkelstein, a notorious anti-Semite who minimizes the Holocaust, supports Hezbollah, equates Israelis with Nazis, and says that “the U.S. qualifies as the main terrorist government in the world today.” These speakers are profoundly and indisputably hateful, and I can only hope that they do not accurately reflect the organization that brought them here. The strident objection to being labeled anti-Israel contained in Wednesday’s column is a positive sign, as are the many individual conversations that I have had with its author and others. Hopefully, we can continue a dialogue in the spirit of mutual recognition that yesterday’s opinion piece represented and we can continue to recognize hateful, anti-Israel organizations and speakers for what they truly are.

Yishai Schwartz is a sophomore in Branford College and a vice president of the Yale Friends of Israel.


  • yale

    I applaud you on this thoughtful and considerate piece. I think it sets a very good framework for very productive and helpful dialogue on campus, and hopefully eventually beyond.

  • Summer

    I think it’s important to note that an organization that calls for an economic boycott of Israel can be nothing other than anti-Israel.

    Anti-semitic? That’s a charge for the philosophers to sort out. Anti-Israel? Obviously.

  • Harbinger904

    As to the argument made above, the author, a VP of Yale Friends of Israel, unilaterally declares what is and is not “legitimate” discourse on the subject of Israel-Palestine … this has to be a joke! I will treat it as such and concentrate upon the task at hand — the outright disinformation contained in the article.

    I was at both the Malsin and Finkelstein events. This op-ed is citing pure fabrications. Jared Malsin NEVER advocated Palestinian terror attacks. Mr. Schwartz’ claim isn’t an interpretation or a question of semantics, it’s outright falsehood: the author uses deceptive quotations (i.e. the two or so words he quotes are true, but the context in the sentence makes them false) in order to put outrageous words into the mouths of the speakers. Malsin called for “productive bottom-up pressure” like the nonviolent demonstrations he listed and enumerated in detail at the talk (Bil’ein, etc), certainly not in reference to Palestinian terror attacks (which he publicly deplored in front of all). The claims are sensational, but more importantly they are just simply false.

    Not only that, its information about Yale’s SJP is totally wrong, as I know several of the members personally, who expressed outrage at having such lies disseminated (the naming was because of bureaucratic reasons, since there was an SJP long prior to the current incarnation, not in order to distance itself from other organizations — quite a claim to make without having conferred with any of the members on the subject).

    In any case, you’re entitled to your argument Mr. Schwartz, and maybe you had some selective amnesia/creative hallucination in service of that argument, but you can’t expect this to go unchallenged. I have no problems with you as a person Mr. Schwartz, so I’ll offer you a piece of friendly advice. Save yourself the face, save your argument, and admit to the falsehoods in this op-ed and the liberties you took with the events and organizations in question. It is the only honest thing to do. It’s also smart — else you’re bound to come into conflict with the testimonies of a very large number of witnesses who were also there at the events in question (and many of whom staunchly Zionist themselves), easily countering your claims and making you look quite silly.

  • Yishai

    Finkelstein’s positions are a matter of public record. I made no statements about his talk here, but I did use his background to question the wisdom and taste of inviting him. The Yale Friends of Israel would never invite the various Islamophobic nutsos who (sadly) often affiliate as friends of Israel. Perhaps naively, I expect advocates on the other side of the political spectrum to operate with the same commitment to civility and productivity.

    Regarding Mr. Maslin: Firstly, his presentation of Palestinian protests, and his suggestion that the Israeli police fire tear-gas at peaceful pacifists are damaging misrepresentations. It is well-established (even by prominent critics of Israeli policy – like Nicholas Kristof, [here][1]) that the tear-gas follows stone-throwing. We can argue about when precisely a protest becomes a riot, but to conflate violence with peaceful protest is to soil memories of King and Gandhi. This, along with the other falsehoods and one-sided claims that Mr. Maslin presented, is reason enough to make groups hesitate to invite him.

    However, Mr. Maslin’s discussion of these protests was entirely separate from the moment to which I referred in the column. In that instance, Mr. Maslin was responding to a question regarding what actions would improve things going forward. He replied that he hoped for massive international pressure on Israel – diplomatic isolation, boycotts, and divestment – combined with a continuation of historic Palestinian resistance. I think history is pretty clear as to what that means. Of course, Mr. Maslin did not say: “I welcome Palestinian terror,” and I did not say that he did. But that is because “terror” is a charged term, and no one who supports what are widely considered acts of terror will ever accept that definition. We have all heard that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” but I think I am more than justified in labeling violence against innocent Israelis the former. The history of Palestinian resistance IS a history of terrorism, and to pretend otherwise is sophistry. If Mr. Maslin did not mean to express support for the acts of violence that were, and still mostly are, the routine methods of Palestinian resistance, I welcome that position. But that is certainly not what he said in his visit here.

    Re SJP: Read the paragraph again. I did not say that the Yale SJP chose to rename itself in order to distance itself from other SJPs; I simply said that this was a positive outcome of the decision. I *did* assume that adding the word “peace” reflected a desire to “proceed into a productive discussion.” Perhaps I was incorrect in that assumption, but I really hope not.

    Finally, Harbinger, lose the pseudonym. If you have something to say, say it under your name. And if you want to discuss the larger issue of what makes for legitimate Israel/Palestine debate, let me know.


  • Arafat

    Harbinger, the Muslim apologist, would tell us Islam is a Religion of Peace as if he really believed it to be true.

    Harbinger, this one is for you. It’s sort of a biography, if you know what I mean.

  • Yaman