We must use the current crises to reshape the Israel conversation on campus - opinion

Israel’s political unrest represents a moment “pregnant” with opportunities because the vast majority of the population is “highly engaged.”

 THE TRUSTEES GATE at George Washington University: At GW, my friends often refrain from bringing up Israel in class or social circles to steer clear from generating angst, says the writer. (photo credit: Sabrina Soffer)
THE TRUSTEES GATE at George Washington University: At GW, my friends often refrain from bringing up Israel in class or social circles to steer clear from generating angst, says the writer.
(photo credit: Sabrina Soffer)

Debates about Israel across college campuses have, for several years, been framed as a form of “warfare.” As the cycles of Israeli-Palestinian violence escalate and Israel grapples with its own internal strife, tensions in this year’s discourse are on the rise.

The historic emergence of Israel’s ultra-right-leaning coalition under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, coupled with its provocative pursuit of polarizing judicial reforms, has riveted global audiences. The impassioned democratic protests throughout the country against a backdrop of a tense regional climate have led many international observers, including 58% of Israelis and their President Isaac Herzog, to warn that Israel is in a “state of emergency,” teetering on the edge of a “constitutional and social collapse.”

Israel’s avowed enemies, such as Hamas, based in the Gaza Strip, and Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, aim to exploit this period of internal discord. Concurrently, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its campus-based affiliates are already seizing this vulnerable period to amplify their disparagement of Israel on American college campuses. These efforts must not be permitted to gain traction.

In parallel to Israeli author Micah Goodman’s perspective, Israel’s political unrest represents a moment “pregnant” with opportunities because the vast majority of the population is “highly engaged.” A similar moment teeming with possibilities presents itself in higher-learning environments that can foster constructive dialogue about Israel.

Heightened focus on this controversial period in Israeli history can serve as a model for a balanced and healthy critique of Israel. It similarly normalizes the conversations about Israel and Zionism – most notably in settings such as Berkeley Law, where these are absent and often marginalized.

 PRO-ISRAEL student activists on the Claremont College campus express their desire for peace.  (credit: Hasbara Fellowships)
PRO-ISRAEL student activists on the Claremont College campus express their desire for peace. (credit: Hasbara Fellowships)

Students are seldom afforded the opportunity to engage in scholarly discussion about Israel that transcends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At George Washington University (GW), my home campus, my friends often refrain from bringing up Israel in class or social circles to steer clear of generating angst. The broad Middle East conflict is, undeniably, a critical subject of discussion.

Examining Israel from its domestic viewpoint, however, offers a fascinating insight into its governance, history, and multifaceted social fabric comprising Jews, Arabs, Christians, Druze, and many other minorities. Such nuanced conversations can then set the stage for a more contextualized and enriching dialogue of the continuing conflict – and yes, even of the elusive prospects for peace in the region.

Despite the rightward tilt of Israel’s present government, we cannot ignore the core democratic underpinnings that Israel shares with the United States. Both nations’ declarations of independence assert their respective citizens’ right to shape their destinies, free from legislative impositions and despotic abuses. Israel’s vibrant protest scenes are emblematic of these key democratic principles, such as the First Amendment freedoms contained in the US Bill of Rights, a robust commitment to ideological plurality, and an unwavering dedication to societal advancement through continuous self-critique.

Opponents often point out that Israel’s distinct incorporation of various Jewish elements into everyday life threatens the secular and liberal principles prized by much of its population. Since its establishment as a state, Israel has navigated the complexities resulting from the intertwining of religion and state, prompting concerns that this could ultimately betray the very essence of the Zionist vision. Worth noting is that Israel, not unlike Britain, also functions without a formally codified constitution. Instead, its legal framework centers on Basic Laws, various statutes, and other judicial precedents inspired by its own Declaration of Independence.

Israel’s decades-old constitutional debate, involving deeply steeped social divisions and attempts to harmonize its Jewish identity with its democratic ideals, serves as an invaluable academic tool and epitomizes the very essence of constructive critique. 

Engaging in this discussion can also address the pressing demand for a more balanced and substantive discourse about Israel on campus. Impassioned weekly protests across Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other Israeli cities are distinctly marked by a fervent brand of earnest criticism infused with patriotic undertones – a far cry from the demonization, delegitimization, and double standards often bestowed upon Israel. These infamous 3Ds of antisemitism articulated by former Israeli deputy minister, Natan Sharansky, are commonly wielded by anti-Israel elements across America’s universities.

Two Jews: Three opinions

Activist campus organizations like the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) often contend that Zionists inhibit open criticism of Israel by branding it as antisemitic. To this claim, Zionist students should contribute to a more nuanced understanding of antisemitism and anti-Zionism by demonstrating that harsh, yet constructive dialogue of Israel is not inherently antisemitic. The common adage “two Jews, three opinions” highlights a Jewish cultural tendency that nurtures independent thought and resonates with the Judaic ideal of tikkun olam (“to mend the world”).

My conversation earlier this summer with Israeli intellectual, author, and former Knesset member, Einat Wilf, honed upon the four criteria she views as bona fide and constructive criticism of Israel. She emphasized the need to sidestep antisemitic tropes, targeting specific governmental policies, maintaining an awareness of context and risks, and considering alternative solutions. These principles, she suggests, should supplant Sharansky’s 3Ds – and the troubling calls for violence characterizing much of today’s discourse on campus.

As an example, the accusation declaring that “GW is a Zionist propaganda machine” resonates with the antisemitic canards in the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, evoking the narrative of the “Zionist controlled media.” Similarly, the well-circulated slogan “Free Palestine from the river to the sea” conveys the veiled message calling for the eradication of Israel and its Jewry “by any means necessary.”

Such rhetoric falls far short of genuine criticism, especially when circulated in liberal academic settings. It neither addresses specific policies nor contemplates the risks, context, or viable alternatives for Israel and its populace.In her essay, “Anti-Zionism and Anti-Feminism,” Wilf argues that individuals are “prone to confusing cause and effect – thinking that the... obsession with Israel is about what Israel does, rather than about what Israel is.” 

Put simply, the preoccupation with Israel concerns its very identity, regardless of any meaningful peace efforts or significant concessions afforded to the Palestinians. No matter what, BDS and its campus propagandists will continue peddling the too familiar tropes of Israeli “apartheid,” “settler-colonialism,” and “ethnic cleansing.”

The discussion involving Israel in academic spheres must be conducted with the same measure of scrutiny applied to any other nation. While arguments about the delegitimization of Israel as part of anti-establishment or anarchist ideologies are academically legitimate, singling out Israel as a nation unworthy of existence crosses well within the bounds of antisemitism. 

Such instances are not uncommon on college campuses, including GW, where, last year, assistant psychology professor Dr. Lara Sheehi told her Israeli-Jewish students that it was “not [their] fault [they] were born in Israel.” Later that year, her featured guest speaker, Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, claimed that Israel used “tikkun olam, [the ethic of world repair] to camouflage [Israel’s] oppressive power.”

Last semester, I took part in a new GW course led by Prof. Ned Lazarus, that delved into Israel’s judicial reform and the massive protest movement. The course, entitled “Identity, Politics, and Society in Israel,” instigated vibrant classroom dialogue that frequently linked to seminal events in Israeli history.

Enriching discussions ensued among my Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish peers on a variety of Israel topics, ranging from its government structure to Palestinian current affairs, and contemporary antisemitism. And while our perspectives diverged at times, the candor and depth of our exchange helped us better understand each other and grow intellectually. I would highly encourage every university department imparting education surrounding Israel to adopt this very effective and multifaceted approach, weaving a balanced and comprehensive discussion into the broader comparative politics discourse.

As a fresh academic term gets underway, I urge students with an interest in Middle East affairs as opposed to succumbing to propaganda, dogma, and hate rhetoric: Team up with political clubs or academic departments to learn more about the complexities surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the current political climate, and the debate on Israel’s judicial reforms. Make it a point to participate in nuanced, open-minded, and purposeful discourse.

The foundation of a liberal education is to stimulate critical thought and meaningful discourse. Never before has Israel seen such fervent political debate, presenting an unparalleled opportunity to establish avenues of understanding. Now is the time to join the conversation.

The writer is commissioner of the Task Force to Combat Antisemitism at George Washington University, and author of My Mother’s Mirror: A Generational Journey of Resilience & Self-Discovery.