By Jennifer Medina and Tamar Lewin
The New York Times
May 09. 2015 6:05PM
Views on Israel drive a wedge in campus life
Students celebrate Israel's Independence Day at UCLA last month in Los Angeles. File Photo/The New York Times
LOS ANGELES - The debates can stretch from dusk to dawn, punctuated by tearful speeches and forceful shouting matches, with accusations of racism, colonialism and anti-Semitism. At dozens of college campuses across the country, student government councils are embracing resolutions calling on their administrations to divest from companies that enable what they see as Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians.And while no university boards or administrators are heeding the students’ demands, the effort to pressure Israel appears to be gaining traction at campuses across the country and driving a wedge between many Jewish and minority students.
The movement is part of the broader Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, or BDS, which has spread in recent years both in Europe and the United States. The issue has received intense attention on campus particularly since the conflict in Gaza last summer, which killed hundreds of Palestinians. The movement’s goal is to isolate and punish Israel for its policies toward Palestinians and its occupation of the West Bank.
There are now Israel-related divestment groups at hundreds of major colleges, including the University of Michigan, Princeton, Cornell and most of the University of California campuses. Their proposals are having mixed success: So far this year, students have passed them on seven campuses and rejected them on eight.
College activists favoring divestment have cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a powerful force’s oppression of a displaced group, and have formed alliances with black, Latino, Asian, Native American, feminist and gay rights organizations on campus. The coalitions - which explicitly link the Palestinian cause to issues like police brutality, immigration and gay rights - have caught many longtime Jewish leaders off guard, particularly because they belonged to such progressive coalitions less than a generation ago.
At Northwestern University this year, for example, the student government debated a divestment resolution for more than five hours, as students with clashing views sat on opposite sides of the room. Some of the talk was openly hostile, with charges of racism and colonialism.
“Discomfort is felt by every person of color on this campus,” said an Egyptian-American senior, Hagar Gomaa. “To those who say this divestment bill makes you uncomfortable, I say: Check your privilege.”
A speaker who identified herself only as a Chicana student said she was there to support Palestinians on campus.
“We have seen the racism of people who get mad that so many empowered minorities are recognizing how their struggles are tied to the Palestinian struggle,” she said. “Students have accused us of conflating many cases of oppression. To these students, I have a couple of words for you: What you call conflation, we call solidarity.”
A student who said she had family in Israel was among those who shot back for the other side. Voting for divestiture, she said, is “pointing fingers, it’s aggressive, it’s misinformed, it’s unjust, and - most important for this campus - it’s totally one-sided.”
When the vote was finally taken by secret ballot, the tally was close, with 24 in favor of asking Northwestern’s administration to divest - which it did not do - and 22 against.
As the debates spill from undergraduate council to dorm room, students and college officials are grappling with where to draw the line between opposition to Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza - a position shared by many Jews - and hostility toward Jews. Opponents of divestment sometimes allude to the Holocaust.
“What bothers me is the shocking amnesia of people who look at the situation of American Jews right now and say, 'You’re privileged, you don’t have a right to complain about discrimination,'” said Rachel Roberts, a freshman at Stanford who is on the board of the Jewish Student Association there. “To turn a blind eye to the sensitivities of someone’s cultural identity is to pretend that history didn’t happen.”
Everywhere, the discussions are long and tense: At Michigan, where the student government narrowly defeated a divestment resolution this year for the second time, university staff members were on hand to talk to students and help if they needed a break from the debate. At several schools where divestment proposals have been considered, swastikas have been painted on the doors of Jewish fraternities.
“There’s more poison in the rhetoric than we’ve ever felt before,” said Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the executive director of Hillel at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has worked on college campuses for more than four decades. “There are so many students who now see Israel as part of the establishment they’re against. What’s alarming is this gets deeply embedded and there’s no longer room for real discussion.”
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