As students, university life bombards us each day with words. We listen to professors lecture, talk with our friends and read words of great scholars. Words represent concepts through which we understand the world. They are the content of the way we think, the tenets in which we believe and the activities in which we engage. Language is our most powerful tool of knowledge, and it should not be distorted. "The cheapening of words is a great moral danger," a fellow student told me yesterday. For this reason, we carry a deep and heavy burden: The burden of intellectual honesty and ethical responsibility for the words we choose.
There is an event happening on campus now which makes me question whether we value the urgency of our responsibility to use language properly. One goal of Israel Apartheid Week is clear just from its title: to associate Israel with a hateful regime of oppression, segregation and discrimination. The charged language used by its organizers conveys a message that we, as human beings committed to morality, couldn't possibly disagree with. Having a huge sign on the main green that asks, "Do You Want Your School Profiting from Apartheid?" leaves no room for objection. This presentation makes opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mutually exclusive: If you are pro-Israel, you support apartheid. If you are pro-Palestine, or perhaps anti-Israel, you support human rights and equality.
During this week, I anticipate you will hear no mention of life happening within Israel that is the opposite of apartheid. There are places in Israel, like the cities of Lod, Jaffa and Acre, where Christians, Jews, Muslims, blacks, whites, Arabs and Asians work together toward common goals like eradicating inner city violence, educating at-risk children or providing food for the hungry. In this melting pot, citizens live together and possess the same rights. Obviously, inequality exists in Israel as in any nation, including ours, but within its borders Israel is not racially divided. Instead of acknowledging both this positive reality and the unbearable reality experienced by Palestinians in the territories, this week compacts the many things that Israel is into the simple title of apartheid. It substitutes a bold and ugly concept for the challenge of understanding an exceptionally nuanced and politically complex circumstance. Imposing this historical paradigm rife with associations will take us nowhere except backward.
I am a Brown student for Palestine in the most literal sense of the phrase. I don't support the goal of the campaign, which is divestment of Brown University funds from Israeli companies. Nevertheless, I am a practiced critic of the Israeli government and army. I am grieved by Palestinian suffering caused by their decisions. I want to fight for a Palestinian state that has self-governance, equality, stability and prosperity. I believe in the right to self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. I dream of the day when the Palestinian state will be established alongside the existing Israeli state. I acknowledge this will require a reduction of Israeli lands and a relocation of Israeli settlers in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank. I only wish that those supporting the creation of the Palestinian state would express with the same fervor the enduring importance of the existence of the state of Israel instead of vilifying Israel and calling for divestment from its economy.
All students are entitled to advocate their personal beliefs, but not to the extent that they trample upon fellow students' beliefs. I feel trampled by the terminology of this campaign and think others fighting for peace may as well. To those voices that support the existence of Israel to my left and my right, I say, don't feel delegitimized. Please don't let what feels like an omnipresent voice of condemnation against Israel alienate you or your views. Contrary to the campaign's frame, you can support Palestine AND Israel. Ask around, and you will soon realize you are far from alone.
This campaign pains me because it blames one group and exonerates the other. It criminalizes one group and victimizes the other. It offers only a simplified and single-sided view of a very complex situation. My suspicion is that most students believe in both states. Don't let this week divide the Brown campus. End the polarization that Israel Apartheid Week creates. The world, the Middle East and this campus are divided by enough issues. Let's make this an issue about which Brown can unite. We as the Brown community can support both the creation of a Palestinian state and the defense of the existing Israeli country.
I lost a close friend, an Israeli veteran and the most adamant pursuer of peace and justice I have ever met, about two weeks ago. If he were here, I strongly believe he would have been writing this article instead of me. A few months ago, Avi Schaefer '13 wrote, "Only through recognition of the other side will there be peace." Let's recognize each other and use our words toward a constructive end. Brown should move forward together, not backwards apart.
Roberta Goldman '13 wrote this column in memory of Avi Schaefer '13. She can be contacted at roberta [at] brown.edu