The Western Frontier: American College Campuses as the New Battleground for the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Author: Dana Busgang, Goucher College



In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, students across American Universities organized a campaign to divest from the apartheid regime in South Africa. Divestment meant that their universities would no longer invest or trade with companies that traded or had any sort of operations in South Africa. This divestment movement swept across the nation’s college campuses, tripling in number from 1984 until 1988. Although the divestment movement on college campuses may not have been the divisive factor that ended the apartheid state in South Africa, it helped put economic pressure on the apartheid regime. The movement has been lauded for its quick organization, and its effectiveness. So then why has the divestment movement against Israel (BDS- Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) faced so much opposition? Why have groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine that advocate for the BDS movement on college campuses faced suppression and persecution from school administrations, local, and even federal authorities?

In light of the events this summer, the BDS movement is gaining more support than ever, and college campuses have become another frontier in the ongoing conflict between the State of Israel, and the Palestinians who are struggling for self-determination in the face of the Israeli occupation. Although the BDS movement shares similarities with the movement to divest from South Africa, it is important to realize the strong and complicated relationship between the US and Israel that contributes to the dominate pro-Israel narrative that is being challenged by student activists nation wide.

According to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) website, “The United States and Israel have formed a unique partnership to meet the growing strategic threats in the Middle East . . . . This cooperative effort provides significant benefits for both the United States and Israel.”[1] This strategic partnership, however, is turning out to be more harmful than beneficial, especially as Israel draws the ire of more and more of the international community. Terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and many others have used the US’ support for Israel as a rallying cry. As Israel violates international laws by continuing to build illegal settlements, and ignores UN resolutions calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state, this “strategic” relationship seems anything but. Then why does the US continue to support Israel with the largest amount of military aid given to any country ($4,603,700,000 to be exact, of which, only $23,000,000 is non-military)[2]? In their article titled “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy,” John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt detail the “moral” arguments as to why the US should continue to support the state of Israel despite its increasingly precarious reputation in the international community and record of human rights violations. They list four main arguments: “1) it is weak and surrounded by enemies; 2) it is a democracy, which is a morally preferable form of government; 3) the Jewish people have suffered from past crimes and therefore deserve special treatment; and 4) Israel’s conduct has been morally superior to its adversaries’ behavior.” However, once examining these arguments further, there are clear flaws.

Back Camera
SJP Members Demonstrating at UC-Berkeley; Credits: Mondoweiss

After understanding the strong ties between the two governments, and the prevalence of AIPAC, it is easy to understand why the pro-Israel narrative has always been the strongest on US soil. However, especially after a summer of war and the most brutal bombardment of Gaza ever, the tides are starting to change. After the brutality of this past summer, some students at Goucher College decided it was finally time to challenge the dominant pro-Israeli narrative of their quiet suburban campus and establish a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). “Students for Justice in Palestine is a student organization that works in solidarity with the Palestinian people and supports their right to self-determination. It is committed to: 1. Ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; 2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”[3] Students for Justice in Palestine is a national group that stands against sexism, anti- Semitism, or racism of any kind. When Ashley Begley, a Goucher student and part of the founding group of Goucher’s SJP told one of her professors of the plans to create the group, her professor told her she is “very brave.”[4] At Goucher’s club rush, the first public appearance of the club, she was told that she supports the bombing of Israeli citizens, and was also videotaped without her knowledge while being questioned about Hamas.

This is an example of the most tame end of the spectrum of discrimination SJP chapters have faced nationwide. Earlier this year at Temple University, a similar situation occurred while Temple’s SJP was participating in club rush.[5] According to eyewitnesses, a student approached the SJP table, made aggressive and racist comments, and then was slapped in the face by a non- SJP member. Shortly after the incident, a Zionist blog reported that the student had been called anti- Semitic slurs such as “kike” and “baby killer” by SJP members, and then was punched in the face. The SJP members had never even heard those slurs before. In Chicago, Loyola SJP members were investigated by the FBI and then subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury, despite not being charged with a crime or having a criminal record.[6] The students claim they were targeted for their political views. There are countless other examples of this discrimination that get lost in the fray, but nonetheless, students; Jewish, Muslim, Arab, American or otherwise, continue to fight against overwhelming odds and power for what they believe in.

On the flip side of this campus battle is Hillel. Hillel is the world’s largest Jewish student organization, with branches on 550 US college campuses with the mission to help Jewish students “to explore, experience, and create vibrant Jewish lives” and serves as the “foundation for Jewish life on campus.”[7] But for American Jews, being Jewish does not only entail participating in religious services, praying privately or communally, but comes with the expectation of support of the State of Israel and its policies. Therefore, the home of Jewish Life, is the also the home of pro-Israel support. Following along the Jewish tradition of open discourse, many Hillel’s have attempted to have dialogues with groups on campuses such as SJP, only to be met with stern opposition from the national Hillel chapter. The Hillel International Israel Guidelines state that Hillel “…welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner.”[8] It adds, “Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”[9] But in defining these “diverse” perspectives, Hillel rules out dialogue with any group that supports BDS, effectively ruling out SJP and Jewish Voices for Peace, two of the largest Palestinian Solidarity groups in the country.

Because of these restrictions on discourse, many Hillel’s have broken with, or been kicked out of the national Hillel chapter. Martin R. Federman, a former Executive Director of Hillel at Northeastern University (where the SJP chapter was recently suspended, and students threatened with expulsion)[10] penned a letter to the Executive Director of Hillel International, Eric Fingerhut, where he criticized the lack of freedom within Hillel’s charter. He questions, “Should those who love Israel but worry for its future and are therefore led to support, for instance, a so-called ‘one-state solution’ be excluded from participation in Hillel?” He states that Jews were “at the forefront of opposition to Apartheid in South Africa,” and finally declares that “it is unacceptable to exclude Jewish students or student groups because they believe that, for instance, the occupation of Palestine is illegal and immoral…”[11] Mr. Federman is not alone in his views, as last weekend, hundreds of students and activists gathered at Harvard University for the first Open Hillel conference.

Students at Open Hill Conference at Harvard University; Credits: Gilli Getz

Open Hillel is a student organization founded by those who “believe that inter-community dialogue and free discourse, even on difficult subjects, is essential in the context of an educational institution and a democratic society,” and also seek to extend the vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community that Hillel aims to establish on college campuses to dialogue about Israel, while noticing that “Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine.”[12]The conference featured speakers representing a spectrum of opinions (right-wing, pro-Israeli groups were invited, but denied the request to appear), and focused on the question of “if not now, when?”

The United States of America has always had a complicated history with the state of Israel and the Middle East in general. American college students have always had an active role in engaging in social justice and activism. Many young American Jews are starting to see that staying true to their faith and the religious traditions of their families does not equal unwavering support of a foreign nation. In fact, it means that they should be more critical of Israel than ever. Especially in this circumstance, following a summer that saw the death of over 2,000 Palestinians, students Jewish, or otherwise, not only have the right, but an obligation to continue to raise their voices despite opposition. The continued existence of groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as the formation of the Open Hillel movement and its inaugural conference, demonstrate that Palestinian solidarity has a firm place on college campuses, and it is not going anywhere.

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[9] Ibid

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