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.

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