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Why Thoughtful Campus Conversations About Israel Are Becoming Impossible
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The View From Campus

Why Thoughtful Campus Conversations About Israel Are Becoming Impossible

A fracas at Tufts University suggests activists want to fight about "process," not engage in tough dialogue about a path to peace.

An Israeli police cruiser. (JTA)
An Israeli police cruiser. (JTA)

Throughout high school I was often warned of the horrors that awaited me on college campuses. Anti-Zionism, adults said, would run rampant and I, as a valiant soldier of truth, would have to fight to maintain Israel’s good name and preserve the Jewish people. 

Now, here I am, a sophomore at Tufts University and the vice-president of Tufts Friends of Israel, more confused about the campus Israel discourse than I ever expected to be.

What the adults did not tell me before college is that speaking up for Israel would not mean actually speaking to people with whom I disagree. That would be preposterous (and far too hard to schedule). 

Instead, fighting for Israel means opposing the retroactive punishment of a member of the student union Judiciary for failing to recuse himself from a hearing on the approval of the language of a referendum calling for an apology for a one-time trip that a retired campus police officer took to Israel. 

If that all sounds very complicated, that is because it is. Let me explain.

Last semester, the Tufts student body overwhelmingly passed a referendum proposed by Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine to “end the deadly exchange” of American and Israeli police. This was the culmination of a multi-semester campaign based on a larger national effort headed by Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist organization, to “reclaim safety” by “ending the US-Israel police partnership.”

The national campaign and the referendum at Tufts focus on a series of trips to Israel for U.S. law enforcement led by the Anti-Defamation League that they claim encouraged police militarization. (The ADL and participants say they share Israeli expertise in counterterrorism, and focus on policy and systems, not active-duty training.) In the case of Tufts, the now-retired police chief went on such a trip in 2017, and SJP wanted the University to apologize and say it would not happen again. 

The referendum and the larger movement that spurred it are blatant attempts to pin America’s wrongs on Israel and to conflate a major liberal policy objective (demilitarization of the police) with the Palestinian cause.

David Wingens (Courtesy)

In the process of getting the referendum through student government, SJP had to get its language approved by the Tufts Community Union Judiciary. A Jewish and Zionist student who was also the then-president of Tufts Friends of Israel, Max Price, was on the Judiciary and raised concerns about the wording of the referendum. 

He argued that it included biased language not permitted by the TCU constitution. At the time, the Judiciary agreed that he did not have to recuse himself from these hearings for bias.

Still, Price was quite literally silenced during an important judiciary meeting before the vote. He was forced to remain muted on Zoom for the duration of a meeting that included the Judiciary and a speaker brought in by SJP.

The referendum language ended up getting approved despite Price’s protestations, and the referendum went to the student body for a vote. It won with 68% of the vote, a disheartening number for Tufts’ pro-Israel community.

I assumed, going into the spring, that the pro-Israel community would be able to put the referendum in the rear-view mirror and focus on building up our community. I soon learned, however, that the saga was not over. Price was to be put on trial for having failed to recuse himself from meetings concerning the referendum. Price got outside legal groups involved and eventually the complaint was dropped.

There are plenty of details of this story that I have omitted, because a balanced explanation of every detail is almost beside the point (and has already been done quite well). The point is that those who seek most to be involved in the debate on Israel on campus are not discussing, say, opportunities for joint Israeli-Palestinian nonviolent initiatives or current prospects for peace (both, by the way, recent Friends of Israel events). Instead, we are caught caught up in bureaucratic bickering while everyone else is left to watch confusedly from the sidelines.

The debate on campus does not really exist as something students can participate and learn from. Rather, it has turned into a series of posturings and statements from groups on either side.

The debate on campus does not really exist as something students can participate and learn from. Rather, it has turned into a series of posturings and statements from groups on either side. The student body at Tufts is exceedingly intelligent and thoughtful, but I see no place for an intelligent, thoughtful conversation about a topic that is clearly so important to so many.

It is as if the college campus has become a microcosm for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Two sides cannot see eye to eye, so they work through opaque systems and self-important government actors to point fingers and avoid actual dialogue. This was not the fight that I thought I was signing up for, but this seems to be the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict everywhere. 

To solve this seemingly intractable problem is not an easy endeavor and cannot be achieved in one fell swoop. But maybe, if we as a pro-Israel community try on an individual level to reach out and create human relationships with those whom we take to be our foes, we might come closer to creating campuses and communities with less hostility and more dialogue.

David Wingens is a sophomore at Tufts University majoring in international relations. He is the vice-president of Tufts Friends of Israel.  

Debates over Israel, mental health challenges, anti-Semitism, creating a strong Jewish life — young Jews experience a lot in college. The View From Campus is a column for them to tell The Jewish Week, and you, all about it. Want to write for us? Send a draft or pitch to Lev Gringauz at lev.jewishweek@gmail.com.

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