"US campuses weigh in on Mideast"
-by Oren Yiftachel, Boston Globe Op-Ed 12/7/2002
A MAJOR SHIFT appears to be taking place in the American debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - the fading away of Palestine. US domestic agendas, right-wing campaigns, American Jewish organizations, and a post Sept. 11 anti-Arab sentiments have made the major question of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories all but disappear from the discussion on our region. This, however, works to the grave detriment of both Israelis and Palestinians.
These observations follow a recent three-week lecturing tour of major American campuses I conducted with Palestinian professor Rema Hammami of Bier Zeit University. The tour was organized by the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Here are some of the comments heard at almost every campus following our joint lecture:
''Jordan is the Palestinian state.'' ''Eretz Israel was given to the Jews and only the Jews.'' ''Is there even such a thing as a Palestinian nation?'' ''Jerusalem is not even mentioned in the Koran.''
Our tour drew large audiences. We presented a joint analysis, describing our approach as simultaneously pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. We gave a detailed account of the collapse of the Oslo process and advocated strategies for peace, including the end of the occupation, the creation of a democratic Palestinian state, a just solution to the refugee problem and to the status of Israel's Palestinian citizens, and the establishment of two capitals in Jerusalem.
We were critical of the two national leaderships, especially of their reckless use of violence and weakness vis a vis extreme groups such as Jewish settlers and Palestinian terrorists. We ended each lecture by presenting possible future scenarios, noting that the most likely development will see a continuing reign of the political right in Israel, with the effect of on-going military occupation and expanding Jewish settlement in the territories.
This will be accompanied by a system of deepening apartheid, some forced population movements, and growing levels of mutual violence. It will no-doubt further disintegrate the social, economic and moral foundations of Israeli and Palestinian societies.
The reaction of audiences was quite similar in most campuses, revealing three major trends. First, a highly polarizing discourse, most evident in the reluctance of American audiences to accept our joint Palestinian-Israeli narrative. At almost every campus there were people who rose and exclaimed angrily: ''How is it possible that you are not arguing with one another?'' ''We were cheated: they promised a dialogue and we got a monologue,'' etc.
It appears the one-dimensional media coverage that inundates the average American with violent images of our region, the spread of anti-Arab sentiment in the wake of Sept. 11, and the heated rhetoric about Iraq, have virtually eliminated the space for joint discussion about the common future of our two nations, destined to live in one small and crowded land.
Second, we discovered a more worrisome tendency - the hijacking of the agenda by parochial concern. At most of the campuses, members of the audience raised the question of anti-Semitism and attempted to tie criticism of the Israeli occupation and violence to what they see as rising anti-Semitism in the United States. This view has been echoed by major figures in academia, including the president of Harvard University. Recent racist statements by Islamic organizations in the United States have added fuel to the fire.
While any manifestation of anti-Semitism should be condemned, this subject often became the focus and overshadowed the question of Palestine. The American audiences were more interested in dwelling on swastikas on the wall of a public library than in the brutal occupation of Palestine, the on-going Israeli violation of international laws and norms, and the mass killing of innocent Palestinian and Israeli civilians.
This is no accident. A well-organized system of Jewish and right-wing Christian organizations (actively supported by right-wing Israeli elements) is working on American campuses, exerting heavy pressure on media outlets, and operating dozens of Internet sites. For example, in tactics reminiscent of the blacklisting of the McCarthy era, one website asks students to report on teachers who exhibit ''anti-Israel'' or ''anti-Semitic'' tendencies.
Third, as an Israeli, I found that many on America's campuses have lost touch with what constitutes a ''pro-Israeli'' stance. While the campaign by the rightist Jewish-Christian lobby is touted as pro-Israeli, this is an empty slogan. Their actions help secure blanket US government support for Sharon's policies of re-conquest and accelerating settlement, which are in fact anti-Israel (and of course anti-Palestinian) in the deepest sense. They are leading the two nations into an intractable bloody conflict with no means of conciliation.
Without a Palestinian state, Israel will become an increasingly racist regime and continue the downward spiral into the economic, social and moral morass. Or in other words, without an independent Palestine, there will be no Israel within a generation or two.
The struggle over Palestine on American campuses is far from over. At present, Israeli and Palestinian peace forces play a minor role. If there is a clear lesson from the tour, it is that we need to become more active in this arena. Nationalist and racist forces are wreaking havoc and outside interest groups are hijacking the agenda. This can only perpetuate the suffering and violence in our tormented land.
Oren Yiftachel teaches political geography at Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, Israel.
This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 12/7/2002.