Early in the summer of 2014, Hamas members abducted and murdered three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Israeli terrorists in Jerusalem retaliated by killing a Palestinian boy. Palestinian terrorist groups, notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad, started shooting rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip.
The Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Protective Edge to locate and kill the terrorists who were firing these rockets and to destroy a massive network of terror tunnels that ran under the border with Israel.
While all this was happening, Columbia students, awaiting the beginning of their freshman year, posted about various current events on the Columbia Class of 2018 Facebook page.
One post, a cartoon of an Israeli hand over a wall pointing to a single rocket, was particularly memorable. The cartoon read, “You see! We’re just defending ourselves,” and depicted dozens of rockets emblazoned with the blue and white Star of David flying towards a massive fire that seemed to represent Gaza. The student who posted it invited other students to debate about the cartoon’s message: “Just food for thought,” the student wrote. “I would really like to see what everyone thinks about this!”
For the most part, the responses were varied and nuanced. Through this online debate—before any of us had met each other—students respectfully challenged one another’s views, showing their humanity and critical thinking.
Many students agreed the disparity between the number of Israeli and Palestinian casualties is tragic. However, some argued that these numbers are misleading because Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza—and an internationally recognized terrorist organization—often uses its own civilians as human shields and stores weaponry in the basements of schools and hospitals. By contrast, Israel’s first priority is its citizens; the Israeli government protects cities with the Iron Dome rocket defense system and provides shelters for its population.
Despite this encouraging conversation on Facebook, I soon saw extreme polarization on Columbia’s campus.
In the fall of 2015, Aryeh hosted an event about an Israeli NGO called IsraAID, which provides emergency assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan and southern Europe. Aryeh reached out to multiple student organizations to cosponsor the event, including Students Organize for Syria and Turath: the Arab Students Organization at Columbia. Both groups declined to cosponsor the event because of their anti-Israel stance.
Unfortunately, over the course of the past year, the gulf between students with views on each side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has grown even larger. Last semester, when Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) launched an official Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign at Columbia, I again looked at the Facebook post from 2014.
I realized then that our two years in college had made us less willing to engage with each other’s ideas. SJP does not engage with pro-Israel student groups because it is part of a national organization that has an “anti-normalization” policy, which means the group officially will not cosponsor events or engage in formal discussion with pro-Israel groups.
The BDS movement alienates moderates in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, strengthens extremists on both sides, and exacerbates a march away from peace.
Policies that forbid honest and intellectually challenging conversations are at odds with a search for mutual understanding—a goal that makes sense for a college campus. Unfortunately, BDS condemns the open conversation and debate Columbians in my year were unafraid of in 2014.
“Millions of Israelis spent last night in bomb shelters, as far north [as] the Tel Aviv area. Is that what you call harmless?” one student commented. Another wrote that he was in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and had spent the previous two nights in a bomb shelter. “You do have a valid point though with regards to the terrible living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. All I'm trying to say I guess is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is really complicated.”
The student who initially posted the graphic accused Israel of being an “apartheid” state; when another student pointed out that Arab citizens of Israel have full voting rights, and that there is even an Arab judge on the Israeli Supreme Court, the first student admitted, “I didn't mean literal apartheid.”
The BDS movement and SJP’s anti-normalization policy work to silence the Palestinians and Israelis who seek to understand one another and work towards a negotiated peace.
What does it say about our campus that the most productive and nuanced conversation we’ve had about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took place before any of us had met?
Aaron Fisher is a Columbia College junior studying history and religion. He is co-director of engagement for Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel. He is also a former deputy news editor for Spectator.