I’d imagine that for normal high school students, being a second semester senior means ditching class and planning your yearbook quotes and trying to care about AP Calc, or something like that.
Weirdly enough, at my high school, second semester senior year meant boot camp. Israel boot camp, to be exact. Our teachers spent weeks training us on ways to engage with the Israel-centric discourse that unfolds in college communities. They warned us that our campus conversations were sure to be bitter and harshly divided. We watched Discordia, a documentary focused on the riots that occurred at Montreal’s Concordia University when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to speak to the student body.
So I arrived at Yale my freshman year prepared for the worst: Riots! Campaigns for divestment! But what I found instead was virtual silence. None of the fierce and deeply personal political debates my high school had warned of.
To be sure, Yale has small communities that actively discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and advocate for a two-state solution. There are groups that bring in relevant speakers and organize roundtable debates. But these conversations are most often held in the basement of the Slifka Center. They aren’t splayed out across Cross Campus, as they so often are at nearby universities. They don’t draw too much attention from the student body at large. In 2011, Yale’s Students for Justice and Peace in Palestine coordinated a public campaign protesting Israeli settlements, in which students distributed mock eviction notices to suites around campus. Since then, however, there have been few — if any — public activist initiatives on the issue.
You don’t have to look far to find schools that fit the stereotype my high school teachers described — campuses constantly afire with debate over Israel. Oberlin College is well known as a hotbed for both Zionist advocacy and anti-Israel activism. The University of California at Los Angeles’ student government recently passed a resolution formally calling for divestment from firms that profit from the Israeli occupation.
Yale’s campus dialogue is of a completely different nature. It’s far quieter, less public. It’s hard to imagine the Yale College Council debating the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Some would argue that’s a net positive. Were Yalies to be more deeply immersed in debate over Israel, the issue would likely divide the student body across partisan lines. We might see the sorts of rallies and even riots present at other nearby campuses. By muting public discourse, we’ve managed to quell tensions.
But I’d argue that we’ve reached a moment when radio silence on Israel is no longer acceptable, particularly for a campus so attuned to matters of social justice.
During last week’s Israeli election, Netanyahu took his long-standing racism and war hawk attitude to new heights. First, he campaigned by guaranteeing that no Palestinian state would be created on his watch. Second, he drove citizens to the polls by decrying the Arabs who were voting in “droves.”
When the leader of a major U.S.-allied nation makes blatantly racist comments, we should be talking about it. When Israel’s prime minister promises a roadblock to peace, we should get angry. Across American college campuses, students are questioning and debating and issuing renewed calls for a two-state solution. They are calling on the Obama administration to continue signaling frustration with Netanyahu’s behavior. Yet at Yale, we’ve largely ignored the topic.
If there were ever a time for Israel to take center stage on Yale’s campus, that time is now. This isn’t just an issue for Jewish and Palestinian students — it’s an issue for all students who care about human rights and Middle East dialogue. We have the capacity to contribute to national discourse on a subject pertinent to U.S. politics and Jewish identity. We’re long overdue for a serious community-wide conversation.
Emma Goldberg is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .