Israel advocates are certainly at home at Brandeis. We wish the same were true for those who feel conflicted about Israel. If you love Israel, if you care about its politics, the peace process or any other aspect, you can count on the array of Zionist clubs (Zionists for Historical Veracity, Student United for Israel, Brandeis Israel Political Action Committee, Brandeis Religious Zionist League, etc.) to frequently offer events. Every week it seems the campus hosts a lecture, a panel discussion or a social event about Israel. Last week, for example, Hillel hosted an Israel-themed Shabbat dinner. Events about Jewish-Israeli culture, medicine, politics and the education system are all important educational programs that enrich our community. But these events are generally missing voices that anyone who is concerned about Israel today must engage.
It is short-sighted to think that attending only events that reinforce what many already believe about Israel will bring peace to such a troubled land. And it is unfair to deny anyone seeking to learn more about the situation the opportunity to develop a nuanced perspective. A university, and more importantly a student body, that prides itself on pluralism should indeed embrace intellectual diversity in its many forms, not stifle it in fear.
Obviously, not all events can or should address all sides at once. Zionist groups on campus are entitled to program as they see fit. But when events are held that challenge these groups' political and ideological assumptions, their members barely turn out at all.
Chelsey Berlin '08 studied abroad last year in Egypt and spent a great deal of time in the West Bank. She has first-hand knowledge of Palestinian and Middle Eastern life in general. I, Rachel, attended her communiversity class last week, to watch a stimulating film and participate in a discussion about life for Palestinians in the territories. Only five students, including me, attended this class.
It was disappointing also last week when no more than a dozen students besides the organizers attended a panel discussion held for "Lighting Gaza Week" featuring Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC) and a Palestinian student from Harvard.
The discussion challenged popular American Zionist beliefs about Israel's role in perpetuating the conflict and explored the misery many Palestinians feel Israel continues to cause. Students with little to expansive knowledge about Israel could have benefited tremendously from hearing this alternative narrative expressing the horrors of daily life for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
While few attended this event, an upcoming event featuring Khalid Abu Toameh, a West Bank-born, Israeli-Arab journalist who is critical of free speech abuses in the Palestinian territories, has dozens of confirmed attendees on facebook. Toameh's presentation will provide analysis of Palestinian society but will likely serve only to affirm many students' notions about Palestinians. The facebook invitation hints at this by stating that he's "the most neutral perspective," yet Students United for Israel is sponsoring the event.
Part of the resistance to hearing these alternatives is apparently institutionalized. Anne Lawrence, the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies academic administrator, sent out an e-mail over the NEJS and Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies list-serves advertising "Lighting Gaza" events last week. Within the hour, Ms. Lawrence sent out an e-mail apologizing: "Indeed, our NEJS list-serve is not a political forum, and it was my mistake to distribute it under our department's name."
We were perplexed by the apology. Far from an endorsement, the e-mail simply notified students of the event's logistics. Seeking further explanation, we e-mailed Dept. chair Prof. David Wright (NEJS). He echoed Ms. Lawrence, writing, "We seek to avoid advocacy on any side of political or religious issues, and therefore we generally do not send out announcements of this sort on our list-serve." Apparently, "some faculty members observed that the message should not have been sent out."
But the department sends out announcements over the NEJS and IMES list-serves about trips to Israel sponsored by Zionist organizations and opportunities to hear Israeli representatives speak all the time. Although these events are not always explicitly political, they do tend to view Israel through one lens.
The "Lighting Gaza" panel was not explicitly political either, but rather aimed at exposing students to an experience seldomly shared at Brandeis. The department shouldn't shy away from promoting a multitude of Israeli and Palestinian political and religious events. NEJS and IMES should publicize events for open dialogue and events with varying perspectives, without fear that they are dolling out an endorsement. Academic freedom relies on the courage of an institution to embrace intellectual and political diversity.
Likewise, those students seriously concerned with Israel must know that encountering alternative and often deeply challenging perspectives brings about progress towards mutual understanding.