Earlier this week, a group called Students Supporting Israel — which has no affiliation with Brown Students for Israel or, as far as we know, with any student group on campus — tabled outside of the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center last Wednesday. We, as leaders of Brown Students for Israel, approached the tablers and urged them to leave. We took great issue with a number of this group’s tactics, which we found to be both counterproductive and embarrassing to the pro-Israel community. Our intention in this op-ed is both to clarify that we have no relationship with SSI and to explain some of the reasons why we found SSI’s actions this week problematic.
First, it is important that we establish the facts about Wednesday’s incident. Despite the similar acronyms of SSI and BSI — Students Supporting Israel and Brown Students for Israel, respectively — the two groups are in no way related. SSI acted independently, without reaching out to BSI, and arrived on campus without our knowledge. BSI members learned of their presence at the same time as the rest of the Brown community. SSI exhibited posters that distilled very complex topics in the conversation about Palestine and Israel into simplistic slogans, and they sought to incite Brown students to anger so that they could film us for their “research.” BSI leaders were among the students whom they tried to videotape. In doing so, SSI deeply upset a number of Brown students who have, as many members of BSI do, a personal connection to the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. When BSI learned of SSI’s activities, we asked the group a number of times to leave.
From our perspective, one enormous issue with SSI’s actions on our campus this week was the group’s apparent decision not to consult with members of the Brown community before visiting. As much as outside and national groups can, and regularly do, participate in the conversation about Israel and Palestine on Brown’s campus, such groups ought to do so with the permission and facilitation of Brown students or members of the faculty. These SSI representatives lacked an understanding of Brown’s student body. They did not know how to engage with intellectually curious, justice-focused students, and they were neither prepared for nor, apparently, interested in, serious, nuanced discussions about Israeli and Palestinian history, politics, policy and current events. BSI has worked hard in the past to keep away from campus those groups, no matter their opinion on Israel, that we know will not contribute constructively to the Israel-Palestine conversation at Brown. We care deeply about the needs of students affected by the conflict on this campus, and so prioritize a productive, civil campus discourse — we are dubious that this SSI delegation shared this priority.
BSI disagrees heavily with SSI on issues of tactics. We believe that conversations about Palestine and Israel, especially on a college campus, must be informed and thoughtful, and that they must start from a place of mutual respect among people with different perspectives and experiences. When we host events and engage in conversations, we do so with the aim of both educating ourselves and our fellow students, on the one hand, and promoting dialogue, justice and peace, on the other. In particular, it is very important to us to never generalize about Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs or any other national, ethnic, religious or racial group. As we see it, SSI aimed less to cultivate a nuanced discussion than to generate content for their video last Wednesday.
Finally, we are concerned that SSI’s provocative language has the potential to excuse attacks on Zionist or Jewish students more broadly. Over the years, Jewish students, including BSI members, have been bullied, harassed, silenced, slandered and subjected to anti-Semitism and even to threats of violence on College Hill. We also worry that Israel-Palestine discourse on campus tends to become uncivil. In recent years, we’ve heard anti-Zionist students express the view that incivility on their part is excusable on the grounds that there exists a power imbalance between Israel and Palestine. However, those claims do not adequately account for both the broader regional and historical context of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors and a host of other (often existential) threats and fail to recognize the very real losses that Zionist students have experienced on this campus — some of us have lost friends and relatives to the conflict, and most of us have family in the line of the fire.
For our part, BSI members commit to working hard to promote a high standard of respectful discourse. We seek a solution that accommodates the needs of both Israelis and Palestinians. When we see members of the pro-Israel community, even those who are not Brown students and with whom we are not affiliated, behaving in ways that do not meet that standard, we are, frankly, embarrassed, and we worry that it undermines our requests for civil treatment by anti-Zionists.
That is why the leaders of Brown Students for Israel would like to extend a formal invitation to any member of the Brown community interested in serious discussion about Palestine, Israel or other issues related to Southwest Asia or Zionist or Jewish peoplehood to reach out to us. If you would like to further this conversation, we invite you to contact us. The setting for nuanced and intellectually rigorous conversations is not at the intersection of Brown St. and Waterman. Whether you are interested in Zionist organizing or are grappling with the issues, whether you are curious to learn more about Israel and the conflict or would like to share your critiques of Israel and Israeli policy, we want to engage with you.
Benjamin Gladstone ’18, the former President of Brown Students for Israel, and Ethan Shire ’19 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.