Defining the Discourse
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Analyzing Columbia’s most polarizing issue.
by Yasemin Akçagüner
For the first time this year, Israeli Apartheid Week—organized by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)—was protested not just by pro-Israel students on campus, but also by a blow-up Pinocchio doll rumored to cost around $800.
IAW, as the organizers call it, has been an annual fixture since 2005, marked by heated op-eds in Spectator, scandals as groups accuse each other of tearing down posters, and aggressive confrontations as pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups literally stand in opposition on Low Steps. Traditionally, tables supporting Israel face the mock-apartheid wall that Students for Justice in Palestine put up every year. But this year, the drama was exacerbated by two new developments. One is the formation of Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), which “calls for the University to divest its stocks, funds, and endowment from companies that profit from the State of Israel’s ongoing system of settler colonialism, military occupation, and apartheid law.” CUAD is embedded in the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The second is the formation of a Columbia chapter of Students Supporting Israel (SSI), which arrived on campus in January, just as CUAD was kicking off.
“When you have the ability, you start a BDS campaign because it’s never not an appropriate time,” says Shezza Abboushi Dallal, BC’16. SJP and JVP decided to launch a BDS campaign on campus at the start of the semester, as they felt they had the manpower to organize on a larger scale than in years past. Shezza, who is a prominent SJP member, says that SJP’s continued growth, combined with JVP’s recent formation, puts the movement in a strong position to pursue this goal.
JVP was founded in 2014 by Christopher Godshall, CC ‘15, and Eva Kalikoff, BC ‘16. Eva was shocked to observe what she calls the “militant nature of pro-Israel protesters” on campus in 2012, particularly in the form of the student group Aryeh, then known as LionPAC. Eva says that one of the reasons why she helped found the group was because she was eager to change the discourse on campus, which she thought was very two-sided. JVP started tabling at IAW in 2014 and has now grown to about 15 members from Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and secular backgrounds.
Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel, a pro-Israel, Zionist group that supports a two-state solution and vehemently opposes the BDS movement, typically tables at IAW, yet chose not to this year. The vacancy was taken up by a new group called Students Supporting Israel (SSI), which formed at the beginning of the semester. The group is perhaps best known for the so-called “Pinocchio incident,” where the group inflated a 15-feet Pinocchio balloon holding up a sign that read “Apartheid Week: Compassion Abuse” on College Walk across from SJP’s mock apartheid wall.
SSI was co-founded by Alexandra Markus, School of Professional Studies ’16, and Rudy Rochman, GS ’17. A former IDF paratrooper and “public figure” according to his Facebook profile, Rudy says SSI was formed in order to create a welcoming space for Jewish and non-Jewish students to support Israel’s right to exist.
SSI immediately adopted more aggressive tactics than Aryeh had been pursuing, including the Pinocchio. Aryeh members have characterized the movement as “loud” and have qualms about its effectiveness. Meanwhile, Aryeh has also ramped up efforts members describe as “more effective,” such as writing op-eds in the Spectator, frequently organizing community outreach events as well as putting out statements and petitions in opposition to the BDS movement on campus.
While 77 professors have signed CUAD’s petition for divestment, an anti-petition statement was released on March 20th by over 200 Columbia faculty and administrators opposing CUAD’s petition and demanding that the University maintain its ties to Israel.
In addition to the anti-CUAD petition, over 600 students, faculty and alumni have signed a “Statement of Condemnation of Terrorism: The Intifada is not civil disobedience,” condemning what they claimed to be Columbia University Apartheid Divest’s dismissal of terrorism as “civil disobedience.” The statement was in fact referencing not something CUAD had said, but to a Facebook post by CUAD ally Barnard Columbia Socialists, who shared the CUAD petition with a statement ending with the words “Long Live the Intifada!”
With the abundance of petitions and counterpetitions, statements and counter-statements in light of all concerned student groups ramping up activism efforts, campus discourse on the issue is now more intense than it ever has been.
A Multitude of Meanings
The word “Intifada,” as Dorian Bon, CC ‘15 described in a pro-CUAD op-ed in the Socialist Worker, literally means a “shivering” or “shuddering” and comes from the verb nafada meaning “shaking off.” The noun is often translated into English as an “uprising” or an “insurrection,” but has also come to refer to the Palestinian uprising of the late ’80s and early ’90s as well as the second uprising of the early 2000s.
Daniella Greenbaum, BC’17 and President of Aryeh, says she finds the use of the word aggressive and unacceptable. “It was insane to me that it was just accepted and no one cared. But we have, within our community, dozens of people who have lost family and friends. I personally have lost my share of people during the First and Second Intifadas.” Daniella was visiting family in Israel when the Second Intifada began in 2000 and remembers not being able to walk around by herself. “My parents were trying to explain to eight-year-old me, you know, ‘You can no longer walk down to the ice cream store, we will no longer be going,’ or ‘No, we’re not going to be taking buses this time; we’ll have to call a cab and figure it out.’”
Aryeh responded to BCS’s statement with an “Intifada = Violence” video featuring clips of stabbed Israeli citizens and Palestinians throwing stones across the wall towards what are presumably military watchtowers and Israeli settlements.
But one SJP member, speaking at a CUAD workshop entitled “Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising,” argued that the word Intifada needs to be situated in the context of the oppression that Palestinians are struggling against, and that the meaning of “peace” needs to be re-examined as well. “They talk [about the First Intifada of 1987-93], about 20 twenty years of peace, then all of a sudden the Intifada—like wow! I’d like to point out—for whom was the 20 years of peace? Who felt 20 years of peace: the people conducting a military occupation, or the people living under twenty years of military martial law? The term ‘peace’ doesn’t apply equally to one of the two situations.”
Thaer Al-Sheikh Theeb, a graduate student pursuing a PhD in Columbia’s Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies department and a member of Barnard Columbia Socialists, sees the argument over sensitivity to terms like ‘Intifada’ as reflective of a wider trend towards silencing pro-Palestinian activism. “Pro-Israeli groups are actually trying to change the conversation and not have it be about the human rights of Palestinians and the violations that the Israeli state has committed against that,” he says. Instead, he argues, “they are actually using different scare tactics to make sure that that conversation is fully shot down.”
“Dialogue is a Dirty Word”
Marissa Young, CC’16 and Aryeh executive board member, vehemently refutes the charge of “silencing,” often leveled by SJP at Aryeh and other pro-Israel groups. “Silencing who?” she says, “That is never our intention. I disagree with most of what SJP has to say out there during Apartheid Week, but I’ll defend their right to stay out there and say it until the end.” Daniella insists, however, that this support stops at the language of Intifada.
Instead, Daniella and Marissa point to SJP’s “anti-normalization” stance as a form of silencing. “I really do think that it’s an unfortunate barrier to solving any problems, and to talking about solving any problems. I feel like ‘dialogue’ has become a dirty word on this campus, and I think that’s terrible,” Daniella says.
Anti-normalization, according to JVP member Eva Kalikoff, challenges the notion that the conversation surrounding the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is one of two equal partners. It is not a conflict, she says, but a relationship of “an oppressor and an oppressed.” She also believes that dialogue with pro-Israeli groups is frequently used as a stalling tactic. “So SJP has that right to say we, as a group that supports Palestinian rights, are not going to sit down with a group that supports the Zionist project and is pro-Israeli militarism and all those things and pretend that we’re on two sets of equal footing.”
Daniella, while acknowledging Israel is much superior militarily, does not see those inequalities as existing here at Columbia, arguing, “On this campus… in our roles here, there isn’t really that same asymmetric warfare, there is no hierarchy, we’re all students at this university. We’re all privileged to be here. It’s unfortunate that we can’t overcome that situation.”
Yet the claim that military asymmetry on the ground does not translate into unequal footing for campus activists is hard to legitimize, especially in light of SJP and JVP members being profiled by the Canary Mission, an online database of activists it labels as “promoting hatred of the USA, Israel, and Jews on college campuses in North America.” The database “provides freely available material gathered from publicly available sources” that are oftentimes submitted by students or others uncomfortable with the ongoing activism in their campuses, without the consent of those being listed.
Shezza is listed on the database, as well as other members of SJP and JVP—indeed, there is a sizeable number of Columbia professors and students on the site. The profiles on the website feature quotes and screenshots of Facebook pictures and posts of the activist in question. When you google Shezza’s name, the second link that comes up after her LinkedIn profile is her profile on Canary Mission.
“It’s no joke. There are serious consequences, a lot of professional consequences, social alienation… There’s a real McCarthyist campaign going on regarding anyone involved in Palestine solidarity work,” Shezza says.
One of the reasons why Shezza has been among the prominent faces of the BDS campaign on Columbia’s campus is because of what she calls “visibility issues.” “For a lot of people, the consequences are a lot larger than they would be for me as an American citizen, as somebody who comes from a background that accepts my political orientation in this situation,” she says.
Alexandra, a former SSI member, while denying that she has ever contributed an entry, knows people on campus who have, and added that she had been in contact with the organization.
“The Canary Mission is a very misunderstood organization,” she says. “They are purposely clandestine for protection reasons—they don’t want to get targeted. What they do is, they don’t post like every single anti-Israel activist that exists. They target the people who are really, on-record saying infamous, blatantly anti-Semitic things.
Ariella GH, a GS student who requested we redact her last name, particularly due to the further professional and social repercussions she fears as a result of her involvement with Palestine solidarity work, is an example of an activist who faced estrangement from her immediate community when she became a member of SJP. Ariella, a former co-chair of J Street CU, became disillusioned with the liberal-Zionist discourse throughout her first two years at Columbia, and moved to Bethlehem in the summer after her sophomore year. Experiences there transformed her political views on the issue.
She witnessed the deaths of five people she knew due to escalating violence in the summer of 2014, and says that when she started vocalizing her experience publicly and writing about it, she was estranged from the Jewish community. “It was a really hard situation to be in, because I couldn’t mourn the death of a child because his name was Abdurrahman and it wasn’t Shlomo. To me that was really telling that I did not belong in that community anymore.”
When she returned to campus at the beginning of this semester, Ariella was greeted by a group of students from the Jewish Theological Seminary who had reached out to the administration saying they didn’t feel safe with her presence in Goldsmith Hall, where many students in the GS/JTS program live. While she was in Palestine, Ariella had met with a member of the Hamas party in the Palestinian legislative. The backlash came after she wrote a blog post entitled “The Day I Met Hamas” in which she argues that the people’s resistance to occupation “is not only normal, but human” and questions whether resistance is terrorism. “Or is it more terrifying to sit and wait while your whole people disappears in a matter of decades?”
“Truth is a Hazy Concept”
An editorial published on March 21st in the Wall Street Journal by Kate Bachelder remarks on the CUAD petition’s signatories, taking issue with the departments that professors who signed the CUAD petition come from. “Most signers teach anthropology or comparative literature, where truth is a hazy concept. This may explain why they ignore the depredations of Hamas, which fires rockets at civilians from the cover of schools and hospitals,” she writes.
Max Fineman, JVP member and a philosophy major, disagrees. He believes that the academics who signed the CUAD petition are even more able to recognize patterns of oppression owing to the work they have done in their academic fields.
He adds, “Specific truths and facts are only going to have meaning given the kind of perspective and larger awareness someone has… So it’s not a question of who is more committed to the facts, it’s a question of commitment to particular political movements.”
Bachelder lauds the academics who signed the anti-divestment statement on their “show of sanity.” Referring to pro-CUAD activists, she writes, “Most days there’s no difference between campus activists and the tenured professors who tutor them in grievance politics…”
Remarking on the so-called ‘tenured professors who tutor in grievance politics’ and the disparity in the number of signatories to both of the petitions, Max says, “All of the professors that signed the [CUAD] petition are tenured, if not most of them, whereas that’s not true of the other petition. And I think the reason is that no one risks anything by signing a pro-Israel petition. There’s a huge amount of risk associated in academia with supporting Palestine.”
For pro-Palestine activists, their political views come not only from their personal experiences but also from the critical theoretical framework they acquire from their disciplines at Columbia and with which they view the issue of Israel and Palestine. However, this way of thinking about the discourse is counter-intuitive to pro-Israel activists and academics, many of whom come from scientific and professionally oriented disciplines.
Nothing is Apolitical
Daniella says that since CUAD launched, the idea of an apolitical conversation has been made impossible. Daniella and Marissa point to the fact that two years ago, Aryeh and Turath, the Arab Students Association, hosted a debate on U.S. foreign policy between the College Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians.
“That was a really big accomplishment in terms of having people with very very different views of the conflict who were coming together to organize an event about Middle Eastern foreign policy. That was a great experience for me,” says Marissa, who was disappointed that this year, Turath refused to cosponsor an Aryeh event entitled “The Syrian Refugee Crisis and IsraAID Humanitarian Relief.”
Daniella says that Turath refused to co-sponsor because they perceived of the event as “political and politicized,” while Turath identifies as a cultural group. She added, “But then to endorse CUAD is, you know, political.” Turath is one of ten student groups on campus endorsing CUAD’s call for divestment, alongside groups like Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, Columbia Muslim Students Association, Columbia Queer Alliance, Columbia University Black Students’ Organization, and others.
Daniella says that, from their perspective, the event was an apolitical one, and that they felt Turath politicized the issue. “We were told that, behind the scenes, in the room when they decided not to cosponsor, the conversation was like, ‘Well, anything that doesn’t officially condemn Zionism is obviously off limits to us.’”
However in an email comment to The Blue and White, Mennaallah Uosri Elsayed, President of Turath, writes, “Our decision not to co-sponsor Aryeh’s IsraAID event this year was based on ethical reasons…Many of our board and general body members and their families grew up in regions directly impacted by the Israel Defense Force’s military violence against Arabs. As a group, we agreed that IsraAID’s humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees cannot be described as apolitical.” IsraAID has ties to the IDF and has coordinated with IDF personnel in relief and rescue missions such as those in Haiti and Nepal.
“Know Your Enemy”
Daniella says she thinks that it’s important to “know your enemy,” adding, “The things that are written sometimes on Facebook that people send me screenshots of are insane. ‘I can’t wait for those Zio tears to pour!’–I’m a human, I’m a student!”
She insists the problem is that “this is a human conflict and I don’t find that we’re humanized to each other. I don’t think that we’re human in their eyes. We’re big bad Zionists with an evil agenda.” Daniella, whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors, would like to learn more about the backgrounds of the members of SJP. She says. “I recently learned that one of the members of SJP has refugee status. That’s so fascinating—that tells me how she got involved, why she got involved–that informs me [that] that informs her activism.”
“I would like them to know why I’m involved, why this means so much to me,” she says. “Get to know the people that you’re speaking to when you write your Facebook posts or you write your op-eds, have a conversation!”
Aryeh’s choice to not table this year across from SJP’s wall during Israeli Apartheid Week to avoid reducing the issue to two opposing parties is an attempt at depolarizing the campus political atmosphere. Yet they still use language that perpetuates the idea of two inherently confrontational sides, making this harder to accomplish.
Meanwhile, all SJP and JVP members that I spoke to have refrained from using a vocabulary of “two sides” on the issue. Shezza has explicitly expressed in our interview that she doesn’t like using the term. Yet SJP and JVP’s sentiment that it is immoral not to view Israel-Palestine through the settler-colony paradigm feels like a personal affront to many pro-Israel activists who strongly connect their personal backgrounds with their activism.
Shezza does see the issue as one people need to respond to above the issue of identity. “It’s a moral issue.” she says, “We shouldn’t just stand behind a movement with which we can personally identify. We should be able to locate injustices and act accordingly even if we don’t have one drop of blood that associates even remotely to the region, to the people et cetera. There’s no morality if you understand it in the terms of your own identity.”
More than disagreeing on a particular solution to the issue of Israel/Palestine or having different personal histories and identities, there is a fundamental difference in the ways through which pro-Palestine and pro-Israel activists understand and think about the issue. The paradigms through which these groups understand the issue on the ground—namely the settler-colony paradigm CUAD subscribes to versus the national conflict paradigm that groups like Aryeh and J Street uphold, have echoes in the ways through which these groups understand campus discourse as well.
Aryeh sees the debate over the uses of certain words, such as the word “Intifada,” as a negotiation on the boundaries of discourse that takes place between equals. For CUAD however, many members—perhaps owing to their academic backgrounds—have internalized the argument that the power to define the terms of the discourse is in itself an act of power and resistance, as it is an attempt at resisting to operate within the vocabulary and the episteme of their oppressors. Acceding to negotiating the terms of this discourse then would mean giving up this resistance.