No space for discussion
Ordinarily, I am not an overly political person. In fact, as a Ph.D student in music history, much of my life is devoted to a retreat from the messy politics of this world into an idealized world of art. However, after a recent experience attending an anti-Israel demonstration conducted by Students for Justice in Palestine, I decided it was important to put electronic pen to paper.
First off, I should say that I fully supported the demonstration. As Voltaire once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Regardless of whether or not I agreed with statements made by the demonstration, it would be wrong to attempt to silence them.
I should also say that I am a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights. It is my firm belief that Palestinians form a nation, just as much as Jews do, and as such deserve a homeland. It is but an unfortunate accident of history that our two lands happen to coincide — neither side ever asked to be located where it happened to find itself. Moreover, I believe that some of Israel’s recent actions have been wrong and reprehensible.
In my experience, most official representatives of Judaism — rabbis, teachers, administrators — have emphasized the right and obligation to exercise critical, individual thinking about the issues, allowing and encouraging all to come to their own conclusions. However, there is a disconcerting amount of pressure from within the community itself, emphasizing Jewish obligation to support any and every action of the government of Israel.
All this being said, I was extremely dismayed by the anti-Israel rally. Never mind that it was held on Yom Hashoah, the day of Holocaust remembrance. (Though the group claimed this was a coincidence, shouldn’t it have known the significance of the day?) What upset me more than anything, however, was the fact that there was no pro-Israel presence to counter it. No Israeli presence was there to answer allegations, pose alternative interpretations or offer basic facts in its own defense. Immediately after noticing this fact, I went into the office of USC Hillel. When I spoke to the director of student programming, I learned he was only notified of this anti-Israel rally at approximately 7 p.m. the evening before.
I could write an article about the signs and visuals the SJP posted, but since most people walking by presumably already saw them, I decided to write instead about a heated conversation I had with the organizers. As a pro-Israeli Jew, in spite of all the rhetoric throughout my own experiences watching, reading and talking about the Arab-Israeli confict I always hoped and believed the other side was like me — open-minded and at least willing to listen. During the course of my “discussion” with the organizers, it became very clear that absolutely nothing I could say was right. Even in those areas in which I was in agreement with them, I was wrong. When you can’t even say one thing right, you have to wonder whether it’s a personal attack — if you’re wrong not because of what you are saying but because of who you are and what you represent.
This feeling of personal attack only intensified as the argument escalated. I was asked what I would do if my own home were being bulldozed. I responded that I honestly didn’t know what I would do, but as I respect human life and limb as well as my own personal safety, I wouldn’t throw stones at soldiers. Another organizer, who had been listening but not participating, chimed in with “he probably would run away and hide.” Another comment came slightly later: “Whenever I deal with these kinds of people, they always have their facts distorted.” As argument and counterargument swirled around one another, the SJP’s arguments became increasingly irrational.
I was dismayed and disheartened by all this. I would have thought they would have been happy that I, a Jew and a Zionist, had come to their display and listened to their message. However, they took the opportunity not to spread their beliefs, engage in rational debate or convince anyone, but to ridicule me. I wanted to engage in debate and ask serious questions. I realized this was not the place for intelligent discussion of issues at hand.
The most serious, fundamental problem in all of this was a particular backhanded comment by one of the organizers. When pressed about Jewish settlements in the West Bank, she said, “Personally, my belief is that all of Israel is one big settlement. Why don’t the Jews just go back to the countries they came from?” This attitude — that one of the two parties involved should simply disappear — is a particularly dangerous one. This is not an attitude of peace, of reconciliation, of dialogue, of solutions. It is not an attitude of justice. It is an attitude of conquest.
As long as one side remains firmly committed to the absolute destruction of the other, there can be neither peace nor justice. Israelis and Palestinians alike will continue to suffer and pay with their lives for the mistakes, pride and egos of those in power. My biggest hope is that Middle Eastern leaders in the thick of things are and will remain more committed to peace and justice than their American supporters.
Ph.D candidate, music (historical musicology)