As I was glancing through Monday’s headlines, I thought for certain that Tara Golshan’s front page article, which chronicled a Friday rally organized by Students for Justice in Palestine to protest the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the subsequent counter-rally in support of Israel attended by members of the Madison-Israel Public Affairs Committee, would be a feel good piece. In my dreamy state, I envisioned a commentary about how University of Wisconsin students of all stars and stripes came together to talk about the conflict, the region and the cultures of two peoples that have become inextricably intertwined by the tides of history. How naïve of me.
I’m sorry to say the article left me disappointed and dyspeptic. Why? This impromptu meeting seemed an ideal time for a clash of ideas and perspectives, but that form of engagement was explicitly rejected by both sides. Instead, they focused on the more passive mission of “raising awareness” on campus.
The group on the pro-Israel side of the line, MadPac, describes itself on its website as “a bipartisan, pro-Israel, pro-peace, political student organization.” Sounds righteous to me — those are values I could get behind.
Why then, did board members present at the demonstration avow that they had “no interest in engaging or debating anyone?” That’s not bipartisan, a word that evokes sentiments like cooperation and compromise. It’s not pro-peace, an ethic that calls for placing reasoned discussion above raucous demonstration. It’s not even pro-Israel because those who want to see Israel retain both its Jewish and its democratic nature know that the biggest threat to these characteristics is Israel’s seemingly willful ignorance of its shifting demographics.
I have some questions for both of these groups.
For Madison-Israel Public Affairs Committee: One of your members claimed that your group “did not come in opposition [to the SJP rally], but rather simply in support of Israeli belief.” What ‘Israeli belief’ is that exactly, and why should Americans support any belief that endorses military operations that continue to injure innocent civilians?
For the Students for Justice in Palestine: How do rocket attacks on Israeli citizens from the Gaza Strip not justify some form of retaliation from the Israeli state? And how does the government of Hamas plan on gaining international support if they continue to endorse tactics of terrorism?
Here’s my real question: What is the good in “raising awareness” on an issue if you are unwilling to participate in the larger project of mutual understanding and goodwill that absolutely must be the endpoint of that awareness?
The images portrayed in the Herald, as well as the tone of the article, implied a strong element of standoffishness in these proceedings; seeing that on a campus as liberal as Madison’s is troubling. At best, these groups have given passersby a jaded understanding of the status quo on the ground in Israel. At worst, they are a picture perfect representation of the actual state of affairs: One line, two sides, zero dialogue.
Look, I’m happy — nay thrilled — that these groups exist. But their projects of fostering awareness, understanding and peace must become interwoven with each other if either wants to make a positive difference. I love activism like I love Israel — conditionally. Every once in a while it’s worthwhile to step back from the things you adore and criticize them like they deserve to be criticized. And if you’re lucky, they’ll still love you when you’re done.
Nathaniel Olson (email@example.com) is a senior majoring in political science, history and psychology.