This past Sunday night, many Yale students learned they would be required to evacuate their dorms immediately, in the interest of their own safety. “Head towards the center of the city of Gaza. This confrontation is temporary,” the flyers read, slipped under doors campuswide. The bottom of each page was emblazoned with the stamp of Tzahal, the Israel Defense Force.
One of several actions organized by Students for Justice in Palestine, the flyers (more than 700 of which were distributed, according to one student involved) were dropped to spread awareness about the recent violence in Israel and Gaza over the past few weeks. Back in April 2011, SJP printed hundreds of eviction notices and used the same tactic to draw students’ attention to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
But these double-sided paper warnings, while representative of SJP’s broader activism, speak to only one perspective in the ongoing clashes. As a creative means of sparking dialogue, the flyers illustrate the multitude of ways students on campus express their views and engage in dialogue surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Demonstrations, guest speakers, op-eds and candlelight vigils for victims of the fighting each play a part in a relatively cool exchange of ideas taking place around a heated subject.
According to more than 15 students and faculty members interviewed, each of whom follows the issue, the atmosphere on campus surrounding the conflict is generally calm and respectful, with an emphasis on communication over confrontational activism. Within academic circles at Yale, several professors said their classes typically focus on the historical and cultural aspects of the subject, rather than current political or military clashes.
A HISTORY OF DEMONSTRATIONS
In November 2002, SJP set up a “Yale Defense Force” checkpoint to screen for “student terrorists” between Old Campus and Cross Campus, the News reported. In the flyer produced to accompany the action, SJP described how checkpoints within the region delay emergency vehicles, harm the Palestinian economy and divide the Palestinian people.
A year later, in 2003, SJP set up another mock structure, this time a 6-foot-tall, 125-foot-long wall, with the message, “Warning: Anyone who approaches this wall will be shot.”
These jarring, destabilizing events illustrate one approach used with some regularity in the past to inform the Yale community about the Palestinian viewpoint.
Samer Sabri ’13, SJP’s coordinator, said the idea behind SJP’s tactics is “to find a way to really make people connect and surprise people. [The flyers] were a way to make people realize the human dimension of the conflict.”
Nafez al-Dakkak ’11, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, said in an email from Jordan, “[M]ost, but definitely not all, [Yale] students come [to college] with preconceived … notions about the conflict — creating a generally pro-Israel campus. Over the past six years, the SJP has done a good job in educating students about the conflict — sometimes in very creative ways … [O]verall, Yalies of all views have been receptive.”
Several Palestinian students from Gaza and the West Bank declined to comment for this article.
SJP member Faisal Hamid ‘13 said, “Palestinian activism on campus is certainly no cakewalk.” Though he is not Palestinian himself, he said, “I am a strong believer in self-determination, and as an American I feel that I have special responsibility to take action.”
President of Yale Friends of Israel Danielle Ellison ’15 said that YFI has actively chosen not to make use of methods like the eviction notices. “I’d say the text in the flyer was of a very simplistic and unhelpful nature, because they were important points to make, but they could be made much better,” she said.
Jonathan Silverstone ’15, the current Israel chair at Hillel, said the SJP’s methods can be counterproductive. He described the evacuation notices as reflective of “the current state of discourse in this country. It’s a talking-point culture: They say this, and we respond this way.”
Silverstone went on to say he does not see a particularly robust or productive dialogue happening between Palestinian groups and Israeli and Jewish groups on campus.
Maya Fishbach ’15, an Israeli-American student who counts herself a member of SJP, disagrees. For Fishbach, SJP plays an important role on campus by questioning what she sees as a sometimes default “pro-Israel” perspective. “I think that without SJP, there wouldn’t really be a dialogue,” Fishbach said.
Benji Preminger ’13, on the other hand, makes statements more in line with Silverstone’s view. Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Preminger spent three years with the IDF as a military journalist. He says he is especially interested in generating dialogue with those who don’t consider themselves pro-Israel.
“Two years ago, I brought Students for Justice in Palestine and a couple of the Israeli students together, and we talked about how we could promote dialogue,” he said, noting that the meeting took place outside of the auspices of either organization, with students from each coming together on their own time. “Ostensibly we agreed to do it back then,” he said, but not a great deal came of the meeting afterwards.
And despite individual conversations with various members of the Arab Student Association and SJP, there has not been an event in recent memory in which one of these groups and either Slifka, YFI or Hillel have sat down to talk extensively, Preminger said. “I realize they have a lot of difficult emotions, but this is Yale. If dialogue isn’t going to happen here, it’s not going happen at the checkpoints,” he added.
IDF to YC
Dan Nahum ’16 grew up in Haifa, Israel, and served in the IDF’s Givati brigade, which penetrated deepest into Gaza City among the Israeli brigades involved in Operation Cast Lead, a three-week conflict in 2008. He doesn’t immediately warm to conversation about the topic.
At first, Nahum’s hesitance to talk seems to prove Silverstone’s and Preminger’s characterization of campus dialogue. But when the conversation progresses, and transitions from English to Hebrew, he begins to speak more openly about the reasons for his reluctant attitude: He takes issue with the questions being asked.
“The problem is that your questions are oriented the way the politics are oriented, which is kind of bipolar,” he says. “You look for answers that are very decisive and very precise. Your goal shouldn’t be to always find an answer.”
To Nahum, the desire for decisiveness is problematic. “People’s goals [are] to justify the opinions they already have, by waiting for relevant information,” he said. When the most recent conflict broke out in Gaza, he would often answer people’s questions about his opinions on it by simply saying, “I don’t know” in part out of caution. “I was seeing people much less informed than I am with much more solid opinions,” he said.
The bipolarity that Nahum described is something that Preminger has picked up on, something that frustrates him. To him, the language of the conflict reflects its political polarity. “The term ‘pro-Israel’ creates the sense of a false dichotomy, where if you’re pro Israel, you’re not supporting the rights of Palestinians,” he said in a follow-up email after his interview.
YFI President Ellison agreed: “It’s definitely true that a politically ‘pro-Israel’ movement is a more significant force [in America] than the ‘pro-Palestinian’ movement in America as a whole. [But] it’s not really fair to say that just because there are more Jews than Palestinians in a place there’s an imbalance.”
Erin McDonough ’14 is no expert at planning a vigil. “Last time I did one of these, my cup caught on fire. Three times,” she said. Avoiding the lighter by her side, McDonough sticks each white candle through a Dixie cup, her preparations nearly complete for “After the Ceasefire: A Vigil.”
At 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, the Muslim Students Association remembered the lives of those lost in Gaza and Israel. But without the description on the vigil’s Facebook event page, the reason for the event would be easy to miss. The expected words — “Israel,” “Palestine” — went unspoken in favor of more abstract terms, such as “death,” “hope” and “joy.” University Chaplain Sharon Kugler began the prayer without a speech or any mention of politics, and only one request: “Cellphones off.”
Thirty-some people gathered at the heart of Dwight Hall to form a circle, with MSA members making up about 15 of the attendants. McDonough lit the first candle. From there, the flame spread around the circle, passing from an active member of the MSA to a Jewish freshman to a student who decided to come at the request of a friend’s Facebook invitation.
As the candles melted, heads were bowed, eyes closed, sneezes held.
“Thank you all for coming, and thank you for remembering,” Kugler said, and blew out her flame. One by one the lights went out and people gathered to open Dwight’s heavy doors.
POLITICS IN THE CLASSROOM
About five years ago, students enrolled in the course “Introduction to the Middle East” marched into the office of professor Benjamin Foster ’74 GRE ’75 and declared that his lecture that day had been unfairly critical of Israel. Fifteen minutes later, another group of students entered the office and complained that Foster had “skimmed over Israel’s human rights abuses.”
“I felt I was probably on the right track if extremists on both sides were unhappy with my presentation,” Foster said.
Before discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Foster tells his students that “there’s no point in wasting their time … sending me hate mail. What they should do is invest their energy in reading up more and more about these issues.”
Lector Dina Roginsky, who teaches “State and Society in Israel,” agreed. “I do not discuss my political views with my students, and I overtly encourage my students not to reveal their political views either,” she said in an email.
Part of the difficulty with teaching courses on the modern Middle East comes from the fact that the field is relatively new, both at Yale and in the United States. According to Foster, Yale has a particularly strong Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department (NELC). The University was one of the pioneers of the field, and in the 1840s, it became the first U.S. university to teach the Arabic language. However, the department has historically been focused on the medieval and classical periods, rather than the modern age.
Professor Dimitri Gutas ’69 GRD ’74 said that the focus on the premodern period resulted from the 19th-century view that study should focus on the classical period because that era was the high point of civilization. Though this view has gone somewhat out of fashion, “its effects still linger in the modern day,” Gutas said.
While Princeton and, to some degree, the University of Chicago began teaching courses on the modern Middle East in the 1930s, Yale and many other universities lagged behind until the last few decades, Gutas said. The Council for Middle East Studies (CMES), which is part of the MacMillan Center, was created in the 1980s in order to bring together faculty members at Yale who study the Middle East; however, it only started to receive grants from the Federal Department of Education in 2003. Furthermore, the major in Modern Middle East Studies, which is jointly administered by NELC and CMES, was only created in 2007.
Gutas said that because Middle East studies have only started to flourish in the U.S. in the last 20 years or so, it is “relatively difficult to find qualified people who have the proper expertise and training,” he said. “We have not been very successful, either in getting people and keeping them, or in getting more [faculty] positions.”
Despite these difficulties, Yale courses have started to reflect a growing focus on current events. According to CMES chair Frank Griffel, at the end of the academic year, the History Department will advertise an earmarked faculty position for the history of the Middle East in the 20th century so that it can find an appropriate professor the following year.
In the meantime, he noted, Sharif Elmusa, an associate professor at the University of Cairo and a Coca-Cola World Fund faculty fellow, will be teaching “Palestine in Politics, History, and Literature” next semester. For Elmusa, who grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp near the West Bank city of Jericho, the subject hits very near to home.
“I hesitated many times before teaching [the course,] because sometimes when you are very close to an issue, you don’t really want to teach it; it’s better to just … be an advocate … A teacher is a more difficult task than advocate,” he said.
Elmusa has previously taught the course at the University of Cairo and the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar. At the start of each semester, he has told his students, “Look, this is my background, and if you feel you may not be receiving what is called an objective education, then you are free not to take it.” However, he also qualifies, “Since it is firsthand experience, it might be, I hope, a richer kind of course than [one from] just someone who read about the conflict.”
The course uses historical and political texts, and film and fiction, to illustrate the daily lives of Palestinians. The texts are drawn from a variety of sources, including both Palestinian and Israeli authors. He said he hopes that the movies and books that are part of the course curriculum will “bring to life the kind of dry politics” students must learn.
Elmusa does not deny that his background impacts his politics, and that he is an important figure outside of academic circles; he was a member of the Palestinian delegation to Washington in 1993 in the bilateral talks with Israel, and he has published poetry that draws on his life experiences.
“Here, in the 60s, they invented the slogan that the personal is the political, but for the Palestinians the political is personal,” he said.
Elmusa also notes that no claims to objectivity can be maintained. “The language we use is not neutral,” he said.
Other professors agree that they can maintain a productive academic environment, even if they have strong personal opinions. “The whole idea is to offer as objective and balanced and historical presentation of the matter as possible. Within that, of course, you can have your opinion be seen or understood, without really impinging on the ability of the person who is learning something to see the situation clearly,” Gutas said.
Nevertheless, Elmusa said, “We want a calm class. Sometimes things get lost in the noise, so I’m hoping that people will come with open minds.”
ONE COUNCIL, MANY VIEWPOINTS
The teachers who make up the Council on Middle East Studies are from many different places: Yemen, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and others. It naturally follows that they do not always see eye to eye. However, unlike at other departments across the country, professors say the members of Yale’s faculty do not experience any tension in their interactions.
“We place very high value on civility and being good colleagues with one another, and recognizing that our fundamental mission is teaching and research, and is not political activism,” Foster said. “There simply isn’t room for debilitating conflict.”
In the past, the perceived conflict between politics and academics has led to strong voices of opposition at other universities. In 2007, assistant professor Norman G. Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University after the validity of his work (which dealt in part with Holocaust exploitation and the oppression of Palestinians) came under fire, according to The New York Times.
Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who is known for his strong support of Israel, lobbied DePaul professors, alumni and administrators to end Finkelstein’s tenure bid, though the university disputes that outside forces played any part in its final decision. At Barnard College that same year, then-assistant professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, who is of Palestinian origin, was nearly denied tenure after the content of her book on archaeological practices in Israeli society raised a great deal of controversy over her scholarship, The New York Times reported.
Yale ran into its own difficulties related to politics and academics in 2011, when the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism was shut down after controversy broke out over a three-day anti-Semitism conference that was criticized for focusing too heavily on the Arab world. At the time, the U.S. representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization stated that Yale had enabled the spread of “racist propaganda.” Three weeks after the initiative was shut down, the University started the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, which has focused on producing more scholarship on anti-Semitism, both historically and in a modern context.
Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard, argues that the discussion of student groups in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “frivolous,” and secondary to the deeper problem at hand: an incomplete academic picture, as painted by Middle Eastern studies departments across the country. In avoiding issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the Arab world, departments have warped the dialogue surrounding the conflict, Wisse said. In her words, “It’s almost like studying the Soviet Union without studying communism.”
Though Wisse criticizes the Harvard administration as “very much at fault,” she considers the exclusion of anti-Semitism to be a crisis “at every major institution,” including Yale.
“Why in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard, at Yale, at every major institution — why is Arab anti-Semitism, why is that not a chief academic concern of [these] programs?” Wisse asks.
While American universities may widely conform to an academic avoidance of these sensitive issues, the role of each college administration varies. David Bromwich, Yale Sterling Professor of English and frequent political commentator, contrasts the administrative approaches of Harvard and Yale.
“I don’t think Yale is coercive about opinions in either direction,” Bromwich said. Speaking of campus culture more generally, he said, “We are at a very unpolitical moment in university life. 2008 was an exception. But students, like the rest of the public, have mostly fallen back on the pursuit of their careers and livelihoods.”
According to Foster, NELC tends to sponsor talks by academics, rather than political speakers, so that it is not perceived as having a political slant. Furthermore, the faculty do not discuss their opinions on current events at faculty meetings, only in social settings.
When they must make departmental decisions, such as choosing new faculty members, they try to do so on “purely on academic qualifications,” Gutas said. “No human organization is perfect, obviously, but we do understand that if we allow these kinds of considerations to break in, that certainly would mean the end of the department.”
Professors who are part of the Council on Middle East Studies say they get along very well outside the classroom, despite their differences of opinion.
But for some faculty members, some things are best left unsaid. Roginsky said that she has not discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the U.N.’s recognition of Palestine as a nonmember observer state with her colleagues, so she does not “know their personal political attitudes or feelings about the matter.”
Foster, on the contrary, said he is “aware of the opinions of various faculty at Yale,” but after a long professional career involved in these issues, he’d “rather talk about something else.”
Gutas takes an even livelier approach; he says that his Turkish upbringing has prevented him from seeing politics and religion as “taboo,” as many Americans do, and finds discussions about such topics to be very interesting — even fun. “By now, of course, I know what my colleagues think about these subjects, so we don’t have to start from scratch. We simply continue from where we left off in our last discussion.”
Yuval Ben-David and Maya Averbuch contributed reporting. Ben-David translated from Hebrew.