Letters to the editor

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.

Joshua Grayson

Ph.D candidate, music (historical musicology)

4 replies
  1. Max Hoiland
    Max Hoiland says:

    Joshua, I am guessing you are referring to the Wall event, the construction of a wall on campus that was meant to evoke the separation wall in Palestine and Israel. That event provoked extreme emotions on both sides, which is understandable considering that there are some very personal ties to those countries and the violence that is ongoing.

    There were people from both sides of the issue involved in yelling and shouting but I also witnessed some surprisingly honest and sincere discussion between members of opposing views at times. Given your account of the event, I presume you were there during one of the more vehement moments, and it’s certainly possible that SJP members were more riled up at that particular moment. However, I saw every negative behavior you described in SJP ‘organizers’ in students on the pro-Israel side, including some of the core members of pro-Israel groups on campus.

    SJP holds events regularly meant to engage both sides of the issue. For instance, a number of weeks ago, USC hosted some One Voice speakers on campus. The group is dedicated to creating consensus on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the event included a moderator, and a college student from Israel and one from Palestine. SJP reached out to some pro-Israel groups on campus and was soundly rejected. The event became mostly SJP members respectfully debating from a strong pro-Palestine position with the generally moderate guest speakers. All of us in SJP lamented that pro-Israel students were unaware of the event or chose not to come.

    Moreover, I think it is a misstep to make to retreat into art from real life and its suffering only to pop out when things get too loud to ignore. Without entering into the debate of whether he supported or was against the Israel that came to be, Einstein is respected by many on both sides of the issue. He said: “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”

    I invite you to come to other events hosted by SJP and maybe some positive discussion will result.

  2. Jon
    Jon says:

    “Not only did he eschew pro-Israel students and their questions at the end of the event, but he preached radical statements such as “there is no peace process,” “the rockets are a cry of Gaza to the world,” and read fictitious accounts of Israeli soldiers during the conflict last year claiming they saw no terrorist resistance during the Operation Cast Lead.”

    You clearly did not attend the event. There was only one dissenter during the Q & A and Finkelstein allowed him ample time to speak, even asking him to return to the microphone for a follow up at the end of the Q & A. The student refused the invitation.

    I have the transcript of the event if you would like to review it. Perhaps I missed something?

    • Drew
      Drew says:

      Are you really going to support that he was given ample time to speak? As soon as he started asking tough questions members of SJP imposed a random time limit that they themselves, did not even follow. The only reason he had to ask more than one question was because Finkelstein was flat out avoiding the question completely and the speaker simply wouldn’t let him off so easily. Pretty coincidental for the limit on questions to come when a dissenter is the one at the microphone…

      Claiming I did not attend the event which is ridiculous, what is your response to some of the statements Finkelstein made, including “there is no peace process,” “the rockets are a cry of Gaza to the world,” etc. You seemed to leave that part out in your wrongful questioning of my attendance….

  3. Drew
    Drew says:


    I’m glad you shared your experience on Yom Hashoah with the rest of the school. There was, in fact, a pro-Israel rally after the Palestinian Wall was put up. A group of pro-Israeli supporters and students rallied next to the wall, passed out pamphlets, and spoke to every passerby that wanted to engage in honest political discourse.

    I agree with your statement that “Even in those areas in which I was in agreement with them, I was wrong. ” In trying to engage SJP through conversation, most of them did not even make an effort to hear my side either . No matter what I said, I was wrong. No matter what event had transpired, it was Israel’s fault. Not to say that either side is 100% in the right, but SJP must make more of an effort to truthfully listen before they react.

    Part of this has to do with the events they organized this year, namely bringing in Norman Finkelstein to campus using school program budget money. I attended the event as a Jew, Israeli, and USC student, because I feel it is necessary to understand the other side in order to effectively engage in dialogue.
    Not only did he eschew pro-Israel students and their questions at the end of the event, but he preached radical statements such as “there is no peace process,” “the rockets are a cry of Gaza to the world,” and read fictitious accounts of Israeli soldiers during the conflict last year claiming they saw no terrorist resistance during the Operation Cast Lead. It is no wonder he has been ostracized by the academic community, and denied tenure from Depaul. In fact, it is a shame that USG’s program board and student affairs did not do enough background research on him in the first place. I am a believer in free speech, but not by zealot Holocaust minimizers who deny history.

    Part of the problem is the internal message SJP spreads to its members and supporters by hosting speakers and anti-Israel rallies. I have yet to see a pro-palestinian event where they celebrate rather than demonstrate. The fact is that Israeli groups on campus focus on pro-Israel festivities, while SJP focuses on anti-Israel proceedings. And yet, at every pro-Israel event such as Yom Haatzmaut, there always has to be a Palestinian demonstration in the background…

    How can we even attempt to fix the Israeli-Palestinian hatred in the world, when we can’t even accomplish such peace in our USC microcosm?

    Just something to think about going into next year…

Comments are closed.