Debunking the Debate

By Ellen Mayer


During the weeks of February 27th and March 5th, Tufts campus colorfully reflected a heated conflict between Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Friends of Israel (FOI). Flyers advertising SJP’s Israel Apartheid Week and FOI’s Israel Peace Week adorned campus walls and bulletin boards. Members and supporters of SJP held a rally on the Tisch library patio, complete with megaphones, Palestinian flags, and a partition wall. Even sartorial choices became political as some students sported keffiyas, black and white checked scarves that often symbolize support for the Palestinian cause.

Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) is not unique to Tufts. In fact, the annual event takes place on campuses and in cities around the world. For the first IAW at Tufts University, SJP sponsored two lectures, featuring Palestinian-Canadian lawyer Diana Buttu, and American journalist Max Blumenthal. Both speakers asserted the legitimacy of the term apartheid to characterize Israeli policy and daily life for Arabs in Israel.

Though many students objected to the use of the term, freshman Dylan Saba argues that SJP never meant to frame their discourse as an attack. “We’ve introduced the term apartheid into the public discourse, a space that hasn’t really seen it very much on this campus. Of course it’s going to be met with resistance, but we view it as the reality. It’s not a shock and awe tactic.”

Like IAW, Israel Peace Week is a multi-campus event. FOI president Shira Shamir insists that at Tufts, the event was not meant to be reactionary. “I guess it can be reactionary on some campuses,” said Shamir. “It can be a vehicle to move the conversation away from apartheid, but it’s also just a great initiative because it’s a conversation that addresses peace and how these two parties can move forward.”

That being said, the first Peace Week lecture, given by Israeli journalist Ben Dror Yemini, was entitled “The Myth of Israeli Apartheid”, a clear challenge to the narrative presented by SJP. FOI also sponsored a lecture by Israeli human rights advocate David Keyes, called “The Arab Spring: Human Rights and Revolution in the Middle East.”

Despite whether or not either club meant to be antagonistic, many students emerged from the two weeks of programming feeling marginalized and battered. “At Max Blumenthal’s lecture I felt very demonized as a Zionist,” said Shamir. “I know I could dispute a lot of facts that he used, but when you asked him a question, he antagonizes you.”

Shamir is referring to sophomore Jonathon Wolff, who stood to challenge the speaker and ask a few questions.  An Israeli citizen himself, Wolff suggested that the audience would not be able to speak with or understand an Israeli after hearing the lecture. Blumenthal snapped, “I’m sure everyone in this room will appreciate your condescension towards them.” He refused to engage Wolff’s questions.

For one SJP member, a Palestinian woman who wishes to remain anonymous, the conflict on campus took a very personal toll. She felt especially demonized by Ben Dror Yemini, who equated her anti-Israel sentiment with anti-Semitism and support for Hamas. “He did what I’m used to at check points, which was to assert who he thinks I am, not allowing me to say who I am. And asserting that he is a peace advocate, and I am not.” She also attended the David Keyes lecture, where she felt the speaker talked down to her as a woman and trivialized her argument with flirtatious remarks. “The power dynamics were just so wrong,” she said.

After experiencing personally mediated aggression from the lecturers and other students, she feels disillusioned about the Tufts community. “I’ve always thought of myself as a free person on this campus, but I don’t feel that way anymore.”

Perhaps because of the increasingly visible tensions on campus, both club’s events had impressively high attendance. The most popular event, however, was not sponsored by either SJP or FOI. Though FOI wrote an Op-Ed in the Daily calling for civil dialogue, as an affiliate of Tufts Hillel, the group cannot officially co-sponsor dialogues with SJP.

In response, another group, New Initiatives for Middle Eastern Peace (NIMEP) stepped in as a third party to mediate discussion at an event open to the whole community. The room was packed with over a hundred students. Though many attendees were members of FOI or SJP, plenty more came independently to engage in discussion. Sitting quietly and thoughtfully alongside the NIMEP moderators was President Monaco. To create a space in which everyone felt they could safely voice their opinion, NIMEP asked that all comments be off the record.

The two and half hour discussion left students distraught and exhausted, but NIMEP board member Stephanos Karavas thinks it was productive. “It’s nice to bring in speakers, but that’s more of a one way relationship. The lecturer is speaking at you,” he said. “I’d like to see more activities on campus, more workshops or panels or symposia being hosted. I would like to see groups like FOI and SJP hosting a debate series and having to argue the other side.”

Karavas also expressed his gratitude for President Monaco’s interest.  “At the end of the night, he offered his time and his resources, wanting to ensure we not leave it at that, that we follow up,” he said. We’re hoping to work with him to host an educational forum.”

Other students are ready to pursue new kinds of activism. Freshman Munir Atalla feels that SJPs support base is growing. “Yes, we have gotten a lot of backlash, but we’ve gotten a lot of support as well, said Atalla. “I’ve had lots of people come up to me, faculty and friends, and tell me that they appreciate what we’re doing. With this newfound support, SJP now plans to build coalitions among student groups and faculty.

One SJP supporter, junior Justin McCallum is excited about the club’s growing influence. “In particular, I think the divestment movement that SJP is going for has received very little attention. It could really have an effect on this campus, especially considering our history with activism,” he said. “I’d like for the discussion to shift away from the language that we use and the politics to some more interesting topics, like how can we address the economic issues in the West Bank?”

Among members of FOI and SJP, tensions still run high, and NIMEP’s first dialogue did little to resolve the conflicts on campus. Despite the divide on campus, FOI Political Chair Elissa Miller hopes that the events have at least motivated Tufts Students to educate themselves about current events in the Middle East. “I was so naïve last year,” she said. “I was a freshman, and I was really involved in FOI, but I hadn’t had a chance to expand my horizons.”

This year, as an Arabic major, she spends much of her class-time surrounded by members of SJP. “There are so many things that I learn as an Arabic major,” she said. “It has helped me so much to broaden my views and horizons. I was ignorant before, only having one view, and I hope that other people will at least try to learn something more.”

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