The visit last month by Israel’s prime minister to the United States, which included dueling speeches by President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, confirmed that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is dead and can be resurrected only with great difficulty.
While in Washington DC, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke largely with an eye to influencing domestic right of center constituencies in Israel and the United States — emphasizing Israel’s security needs and a united Jerusalem and highlighting Israel’s historic connections to the land. He offered remarkably little that was aimed to attract the Palestinians to enter negotiations. In Ramallah, at the same time, President Mahmoud Abbas similarly rejected the idea of talking with Israel (something that he’d already indicated earlier by unifying the Palestinian government with rejectionist Hamas). Instead, he said, the Palestinians will move forward with their campaign for a resolution on statehood in the United Nations.
Hence, all paths currently lead to a UN General Assembly showdown over a resolution for a Palestinian state early during the fall, for which the Palestinians are likely to achieve great support. But such a declaration by a majority of UN members for statehood will change nothing at all on the ground in the Middle East, and it may be that a non-violent Palestinian Arab spring uprising will follow shortly among Palestinians after the outcome at the UN.
This essay raises the question what then will be the impact of heightened Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East on American campuses this fall, especially following a UN General Assembly endorsement of a Palestinian state. In a sense, Israel might now be occupying a UN-affirmed proto-state and, while the Palestinians will not have made any concrete progress toward a sovereign state with boundaries and control over an actually territory or been admitted to the UN (the U.S. has promised to veto any such move in the Security Council), the immediate frame of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have shifted dramatically. What then on American campuses? What should we expect? What should we do?
As numerous observers have emphasized, a UN resolution will seriously affect the nature of the conflict. While the resolution will neither be binding or alter legal relations between Israel and the Palestinians, the Palestinians will achieve a dramatic if hollow diplomatic and public relations victory. In the process, twenty years of discussions and agreements will be jettisoned. Jerusalem and the settlements will be in legal limbo. There may be high incentive under such conditions for Israel to act unilaterally to set its borders, annexing certain parcels of land including the key settlement blocs. Yet the victory itself may in turn become a basis for additional diplomatic moves to garner more international sanctions against the Jewish state. Opponents of Israel will be emboldened. They will raise a hue and cry about Israeli intransigence and opposition to the will of the world. The number of nations recognizing a Palestinian state, already over 100, will grow.
Some of the hue and cry will focus on American campuses. The movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS), which has garnered few real successes in recent years, will be galvanized. Save for the ability to gather headlines (but not win outcomes) at isolated campuses, including Hampshire College and the University of California at Berkeley, in the past two years, the BDS movement has been ineffectual in obtaining support in the United States. It goes against the grain of principles of academic freedom, about which many university presidents have spoken forthrightly, and it runs into suspicions about fitting with historic boycotts aimed against Jews and only Jews. Nonetheless, we can anticipate a revamped and more energetic effort perhaps resembling recent initiatives underway at Concordia College in Montreal and the achievement of greater traction for charges that tag Israel as a pariah state violating Palestinians’ human rights and denying Palestinians’ right of self-determination. There will be heightened sentiment to end the occupation and support Palestinian aspirations.
How will such efforts and charges play out? The truth is that there will be considerable student sentiment on campuses sympathetic to criticism of Israel. There are identifiable currents of thought with some influence among students, especially liberal students, which will lend weight to and strengthen receptiveness to such efforts to portray Israel as the enemy of peace and the international actor that should be sanctioned or boycotted.
First, it is the case that many students consider the United Nations to be something like a global legislature, a neutral institution that expresses some vague sense of the global opinion. Israel will be seen as flouting the General Assembly and as standing against the global will. The United States, too, will become a heightened object of criticism, especially if it exercises its veto in the Security Council as an obstacle to Palestinian statehood.
Second, many students – most of them unfamiliar with the complex history of the Middle East conflict or the realities of the terrain or with recent events in Gaza and South Lebanon, where Israeli withdrawals have led not to peace but to heightened security threats — will willingly express an opinion demanding an immediate end to occupation and freedom for the Palestinians. Proponents will emphasize that the Israeli occupation is over forty years old, is nasty and demoralizing, and places all kinds of disabilities on normal life for Palestinians (although conditions have improved in the West Bank in recent years until recently); they will highlight the ongoing abuse by powerful Israelis over relatively powerless victims at checkpoints and in daily existence.
Third, there are some students on campus influenced by post-colonial teachings and themes applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this view, pushed from identifiable intellectual sources, Israel is a colonial, apartheid, and racist state and an analogue of the former South Africa. Such conclusions are reinforced by numerous mainstream books arguing that Israel treats Palestinians like white South Africans did Africans or white American Southerners did African Americans, by Middle East courses offering one-sided binary and accusing views, and by post-national approaches discoursing on the nature of the new global reality and fixating on the retrograde character of a Jewish national state. A variant of the view also normally finds valence in selected Peace and Justice or Peace Studies programs which, while they appropriately emphasize human rights abuses in the territories, often offer accusatory NGO-based views of the conflict.
Fourth, yet another group of students is influenced by what we might call the reigning happy multiculturalist view influential on many campuses, one that values tolerance and diversity but seldom confronts difficult questions about intractable cultural and political differences. Students are encouraged in an increasingly global age to know and to value many cultures and to be able to enter into others’ stories empathetically but such students are not at the same time led to wrestle with the most difficult differences. These students too will want to know why Israelis and Arabs, Jews and Muslims, cannot just get along. In some cases, Jews are seen as part of the global diversity to know and consider, but in other cases Jews (and Israelis) are excluded, configured as some imaginary white settlers from Europe only and more recently from Brooklyn.
Fifth, some students may respond positively to BDS efforts because, as liberal Christians, they have encountered rising anti-Israel sentiment in the Christian Peace Movement or been impacted by BDS influences in divestment efforts in the Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran Churches.
Sixth, there are signs of an increased receptiveness by many students to charges that once might have been whispered or said in dark rooms but in recent years have gone surprisingly mainstream. These claim that an Israel Lobby or Jewish lobby exerts undue influence on American policy in the Middle East and manipulates it through control of the media and well-placed domestic political pressures on behalf of the Jewish state. Shoddy books like The Israel Lobby by Mearsheimer and Walt are now standard reading in Middle East politics and U.S. Foreign Policy courses not as screeds to be dissected or decried but texts to be mastered, and many students are unable on their own to see the weaknesses and evidentiary issues with such claims about Jewish power, which are amazingly simply taken for granted.
We should add to all of this a growing sentiment among some young American Jews that is critical of Israel and Israeli policies. Although his generational thesis is controversial and has been challenged, there appears to be something to the claims put forward by journalist Peter Beinart that some young American Jews are drifting from support for Israel. Many such youths feel that Israel’s continued occupation, Israel’s right wing nationalism, Israel’s increasing hard line positions on the return of land for peace, and Israel’s links with conservative American Christian evangelicals and conservative Republican politicians are at sharp odds with their American liberal tenets. Some of these have been signing on with alternative more dovish Jewish organizations like J Street or even with the more radical Jewish Voices for Peace (J Street opposes the boycott, JVP endorses it). Too much can be made of such division in the Jewish community, whether on generational or political lines; yet it is clear that on some campuses, though not all, leadership in BDS-type initiatives may actually come from young left progressive Jewish students.
Let us assume for a moment that the UN initiative will be accompanied or followed by a massive Palestinian Arab spring, an enormous peaceful non-violent civilian uprising in which, repeatedly, day after day, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians may press against the checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza and march toward Israeli settlements, while thousands sympathetic with them, both Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, may demonstrate in Israel proper. Such a strategy will be aimed in a post-peace process world at winning international sympathy by grass roots people power for an end to occupation. Such a strategy will also provoke confrontations and clashes, at times with Israeli soldiers and police and other times with Israeli settlers and citizens.
In this scenario, Israeli soldiers and police will be provoked to take actions that will be visible and broadcast on CNN and will dramatize the violation of Palestinian human rights. Protests of these kind have recently unmasked repressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt; here too they may function similarly, stirring political and extra-political support for the Palestinians in the name of human rights, democracy, and national self-determination.
“More difficult days await us,” Ehud Barak admitted recently, after the May Nakba Day protests that took place at the Syrian border. “The danger is that more mass processions like these will appear, not necessarily near the border, but also other places. We’re only at the outset. We could see more complex things and more complex challenges in this area.” Such demonstrations have been and are now still constrained by Palestinian (Fatah) cooperation with Israeli security; but following a UN General Assembly vote, it is easy to anticipate that there will be a green light to demonstrators to raise higher the level of grass roots turmoil.
At the same time, the international BDS movement has already called upon the BDS in the United States to step up its activities. The Palestinian Boycott National Committee has called “… upon people of conscience and international solidarity groups to proceed with building a mass BDS movement in the US and elsewhere in the world’s most powerful countries before and after September.” What is envisioned is building a mass social movement to counter the pro-Zionist lobby in the United States and to serve as a galvanizing effort to increase support for Palestinian rights.
In light of these coming actions, what might be done? First, as faculty who teach students and believe in education as distinct from advocacy, who think it is important that students be encouraged to comprehend and analyze reality independently, we should be concerned with modeling civilized modes of discourse and argument and critical thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus. If students encounter activists dressed in faculty clothing, retailing answers and conclusions, or teaching a line in their classes, they should also encounter serious scholars and thoughtful people who are engaged with and knowledgeable about the issues, able to put them forward intelligibly, and eager to model such engaged and critical thinking. We who teach and perhaps work in or collaborate with Jewish Studies programs have special responsibility to help moderate the polarization.
As a best practice example, the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) has for several years been sponsoring a tour by David Makovsky, Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Ghaith al-Omari, Advocacy Director for the American Task Force on Palestine, to American campuses to model constructive dialogue on the conflict. We can set such dialogues up on campus and model engaged discourse. As another best practice example, ICC also sponsors an ICC Traveling Israeli Scholars Program subsidizing visits to campuses by Visiting Schusterman Fellows who are spending a year at universities in the United States but can travel to other universities for a few days for a nominal fee. We can bring knowledgeable people to speak to these issues.
Second, we also have a responsibility to help educate students, especially those who are sympathetic to Israel, about some of the complexities of the situation and to equip them with resources to help them think about how to assess the BDS movement and to engage critically with it. Here, the Israel on Campus Coalition has brought together numerous cooperating organizations to produce anti-boycott materials, which are available on the internet at http://www.israelcc.org/resources/Countering_BDS.htm. A BDS Cookbook available at http://stopbds.com instructs students how to deal with false analogies and polemical claims made by those who call Israel a colonial, apartheid, and racist state, and gives useful advice what to do before and when BDS comes to campus and what to say in response to typical BDS claims.
A particularly good place to start is the Resolution on Campaign to Delegitimize Israel through Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement adopted by the 2010 Plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which is available here:
http://www.israelcc.org/NR/rdonlyres/19BB06CE-6726-41BF-A8DC-F0BFF81C35EB/0/Plenum_Resolution_JCPA.pdf . The resolution indicates the troubling double standard by which Israel alone is targeted and argues that BDS is an effort not at making peace but at rewarding intransigence and refusal to negotiate for peace. Students should be helped to learn that academic and cultural boycotts are antithetical to principles of academic freedom and free expression, may constitute discrimination on the basis of national origin and perhaps racism, and are counterproductive to the dynamics of reconciliation which are important for peace.
Finally, third, we who really care about Israel though who may be standoffish about its current leadership have also to make clear how counterproductive it is to believe that Israel can sustain the ongoing occupation without doing damage to its standing in the world or risking its future as a Jewish and democratic state. We must continue to find ways to criticize the failure by Israeli leaders to offer reasonable hopes to the Palestinians that there are good prospects in a negotiated two-state solution to achieve national independence, meaning a sovereign state of their own, clarified boundaries, shared dominion in Jerusalem, and justice in some mutually agreed form for Palestinian refugees. As Middle East expert Robert O. Freedman wrote recently, “without major Israeli territorial withdrawals on the West Bank, concomitant with Israeli security needs, and [without] a negotiated agreement on Jerusalem, it is difficult to imagine any possible Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. At a time of rapid change in the Arab world … this would be a self-defeating strategy for Israel.”
Kenneth Waltzer is Director of-Jewish Studies at Michigan State University.