By Lily Spiro, Essay Editor
The year 2017 marks the 50th year of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and yet the world’s “most intractable conflict” remains largely overlooked on Ithaca College’s campus. Eager to initiate the conversation, Student Alliance for Israel (SAFI) teamed up with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and J Street U to debate the issue in a setting free of rhetoric and partisan bias on the evening of Feb. 23 in a Textor Hall classroom.
All three organizations center around the issue of Israel or the Israeli-Palestine conflict: SAFI was founded to celebrate the “diversity of Israeli culture” at Ithaca College; SJP, which opened a branch at Ithaca College in the Fall 2016 semester, advocates for “justice for the suffering of Palestinian people,”; and J Street U supports a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine.
Some students argued for a state in which Israelis and Palestinians would co-habitate in one nation that includes Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In this argument, Israel would still be defined as a Jewish state and both Israelis and Palestinians would compromise their independent national identities for equality under a shared government. Conversely, J Street U supported a two-state solution, in which Israelis and Palestinians would establish two autonomous nations. The demographics of Israel would remain majorly Jewish, while the nation of Palestine would remain majorly Arab. Some students argued for the right for Palestinians to return to their homes in Israel.
The event was not widely announced by the three organizations to ensure that the discussion would remain free of public scrutiny. Topics of discussion were created in advance of the debate to preclude random or distracting questions. The purpose of the event was not to raise awareness of the conflict on Ithaca College’s campus, but to facilitate a thought-provoking discussion between dedicated members of the three organizations.
“It is a very emotional issue,” Nalani Haueter, Emerson Fellow and the debate’s moderator, said. “We’re talking about people’s homelands. We need to be respectful that people have different perspectives about who has a right to be in these places.”
Haueter called the debate a success for creating a rational discourse between groups who are often violently divided over differing beliefs.
Sam Rubin, the president of J Street U, believes these differing beliefs over the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank split sharply between the conservatives and liberals. In both the United States and in Israel, conservative factions push for Israel to “live by the sword,” while liberal movements urge the Israeli government to scale back settlements and to cease occupation.
Throughout much of the discussion, the underlying question behind criticism of Israel was: Is the objection to the practices of the Israeli government and Israeli Nationalism anti-semitic?
“If you’re de-legitimizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, you’re crossing the line into anti-semitism,” Haueter said. “I don’t agree with everything that the United States chooses to do, however I don’t hate the United States or de-legitimize the United States’ right to exist.”
Haueter stated, however, that criticism was essential to create positive change in the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
Rubin agreed, noting that in American discourse, conservative doctrine labels criticism of Israel as inherently anti-semitic. This perspective ultimately ignores Jewish organizations like J Street U, who are critical of Israel without undermining their own culture.
As one of the founders of the Ithaca College branch of J Street U, Rubin took interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after completing his birthright trip to Israel. The trip took him through Israeli checkpoints to the West Bank, yet even with the harsh reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in their view, Rubin’s fellow travelers were hesitant to discuss the issue.
“We drove for three hours. No one said the word ‘settlement’,” Rubin said. “I thought that was a gross injustice and academically dishonest.”
The concept of land, and the question of who in Israel and Palestine has the stronger claim to it, was a central theme of the debate. Rachel Steinmetz, a member of SAFI, was surprised at the opinions of participants who fundamentally opposed her own perspective on the concept, yet she was gratified that even with their contrasting viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestine conflict, they could find common ground as Ithaca College students.
“This was a huge step in the right direction,” Steinmetz said. “Combining all these groups was really great to show how we are all intertwined together. Outside of our beliefs on the state of Israel, we could all get along so well.”
Steinmetz, Haueter and Rubin agreed that the Israeli-Palestine conflict is too often simplified into a purely religious, Jewish-against-Muslim conflict in the eyes of the international community.
“I think both within Israel-Palestine, within the international community, that it’s drastically simplified to be a religious war, when in actuality it’s political, sociological,” Rubin said.
The debate fostered a sense of progress in a conflict that can often appear unsolvable. “Home,” a unifying factor in a fight for land and international recognition, was written on the board at the start of the discussion and was a central theme of the debate. Haueter asked members of each group to describe what they most closely associated with the word. To Haueter, establishing a “home” for both Israelis and Palestinians would be essential to ensuring a lasting resolution to the conflict.
“It is incredibly important that both groups feel like everyone there has a right to be there, and they both feel safe and comfortable,” Haueter said.
To Rubin, two distinct states are the most viable solution.
He hopes for “two states, for two distinct people that live next to each other without violence, that form economic relations, and that acknowledge their deeply shared cultural relations.”
And while the influence of the debate is limited to Ithaca College’s campus, the event has filled a void in the college’s academic and political discourse.
“It has never been a topic of conversation,” Haueter said. “The goal of this conversation was to make it something we talked about.”