Opinion | Op-eds

Let’s put people before politics

6,000 miles away from Columbia, volunteers pull a boat of Syrian refugees onto shore off the coast of the Greek island Lesbos. They immediately set to work treating the wounded and distributing food and blankets. The organization behind this humanitarian effort: IsraAID, a nonprofit, nongovernmental humanitarian agency based in Israel that provides invaluable relief in emergency crises around the world. IsraAID succeeds in bringing together people from all across the political and religious spectrums to work for a common cause. Unfortunately, I have found that some Columbia students are not capable of doing the same.

In their Nov. 4 op-ed, Yazan Nagi, CC ’17, and Nadine Fattaleh, CC ’17, encouraged Columbia students to “help form a united front that can take active steps to alleviate the humanitarian suffering” of Syrian refugees. Indeed, the relief of Syrian refugees is a worthy cause around which all Columbia students should rally. Everyday, more and more refugees seek to escape the violence that has befallen their homeland. Thousands have perished, attempting to make the dangerous crossing by sea, and hundreds of thousands more are in dire need of basic provisions upon reaching Europe’s shores.

Tonight, on Nov. 16, Aryeh, the Columbia Students Association for Israel, in conjunction with Columbia International Relations Council and Association, Columbia Global Brigades, and CU American Medical Student Association’s Global Health Action Committee will be hosting a representative from IsraAID. This event will “raise awareness about the situation in Syria” as Yazan and Nadine demanded. It will also provide Columbia students with the rare opportunity to  get directly involved in relief efforts, as IsraAID is seeking volunteers—especially those fluent in or learning Arabic—to join its mission on the shores of southern Europe.

As a Syrian Jew that supports Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and the Palestinian right to self-determination, I have always sought to find points at which my identities intersect. Upon my arrival to campus, I sought to involve myself in student groups that captured my many identities; as a result, I joined Aryeh, Turath, and Students Organize for Syria.

IsraAID’s work is particularly inspirational to me because the organization is comprised of a diverse group of volunteers with different religious and political backgrounds. For example, IsraAID’s Syrian refugee mission is run by a woman who is both Palestinian and Christian. The organization and the relief it provides are shining examples of how humanity can overcome personal and political differences to form the sort of “united front” that Yazan and Nadine so justifiably demanded.

To that end, I excitedly notified my colleagues at Turath and Students Organize for Syria of the upcoming event and asked if they would consider co-sponsoring it, thereby increasing the event’s visibility, attendance, and overall efficacy. Both organizations, to their credit, have been active in raising awareness and funds for Syrian refugees, and have devoted much hard work and energy to the cause. However, to my dismay, members of both groups rejected the opportunity. Some cited Aryeh’s political stance, while others may have felt uncomfortable co-sponsoring the event because of IsraAID’s location in Israel. The text on the Aryeh website, under the tab “Political Stance” reads: “Aryeh supports Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and the Palestinian right to self-determination.”

Turath, a non-partisan student group, actively promotes and co-sponsors events pertaining to the Syrian refugee crisis. Despite this, and despite the specific need for Arabic speakers as volunteers on IsraAID missions, you will find that Turath is not listed as a co-sponsor for this event.

Even more jarring than Turath’s rejection was that of Students Organize for Syria, whose raison d’etre aligns perfectly with this event: to stand in solidarity with the Syrian people and to raise awareness of and help alleviate the humanitarian crisis taking place in Syria.

When one considers the diverse group of people that comprises IsraAID, these rejections seem even more self-contradictory. If IsraAID volunteers can come together to help Syrian refugees, what is preventing a handful of university student groups, who are removed from the region and less affected by its politics, from doing the same? If the members of IsraAID took the same stance as Turath and SOS—refusing to overcome divisions and come together in the face of a profound human tragedy—how many more refugees would be left to suffer?

These rejections are emblematic of at least two other problems. Firstly, these rejections reflect our fragmented campus discourse. This fragmentation is due to, at least in part, what Adil Mughal called “political moralism,” or the “ideological trend pervasive in part of today’s social justice movement that is characterized by quick judgments and a lack of patience for alternative views.” This mode of thinking stunts and stifles intellectual debate and much-needed action. It is disheartening to see that this mindset has been taken even further, to the point where student groups are acting contrary to their stated missions of spreading “educational awareness about issues pertaining to the Arab world” and raising “ awareness of ... the humanitarian crisis currently taking place in Syria” by rejecting opportunities to do just that.

Secondly, these rejections are reminiscent of the larger issues involved in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis. Too often politics get in the way of helping people receive the assistance that they need. As nations prevaricate, equivocate, and shirk responsibility, the misery only piles on Syria’s refugees.

As Columbia students, we should take advantage of the platform with which the University’s influence, initiatives, and global presence provide us, seize the chance to build a “united front,” and rise above the politics that divide us.

The author is a Columbia College first-year with an interest in mathematics and political science. He is involved in Turath, Aryeh, and Students Organize for Syria. The views expressed here are his own.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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Isaac Sultan posted on

An amazing assessment by a truly brilliant scholar. Albert is to be congratulated on his first piece for the Columbia Spectator. I look forward to more from him. Best wishes for continued success.