What some see as a celebration of culture through food, others see as a political statement, and an offensive one at that. Just slip an Israeli flag on a toothpick.
To the Tufts chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, last fall’s Taste of Israel was appropriation, pure and simple.
“I don’t think the Palestinian students on this campus would see it as ‘cultural’ if they were to walk in and see flags of Israel all over the food their grandmother used to cook before she was evicted from her village,” said Nic Serhan, an S.J.P. member who is part Arab, part African-American.
As students sampled pomegranate seeds, hummus, falafel and pita, Mr. Serhan and fellow protesters strode into the event carrying signs reading “Taste of Israeli Occupation,” “Don’t dip into apartheid” and “Fresh from stolen Palestinian land.” Then they passed out chocolates with anti-Israel sentiments on the wrappers and asked: “Do you want the real truth about Israel?”
This was not the biggest or loudest such protest at Tufts, a private university of some 12,000 students just outside of Boston. But it was the last straw. Whenever Friends of Israel or Hillel staged a lecture or event, it seemed, S.J.P. was there. There had been die-ins (students had to step over bodies on red cloths signifying blood) and checkpoints (mock Israeli soldiers conducted security checks around campus). Friends of Israel had already requested campus security at programs, but after the food festival they filed a complaint with Tufts’s judicial affairs office.
“It’s bullying masquerading as social justice,” Anna Linton, co-president of the club, told me.
Mr. Serhan countered: “Protests are supposed to be disruptive in nature.”
When it comes to the Middle East on campus, the environment is increasingly uneasy and even hostile. Many universities are grappling with how to balance students’ right to protest with Jewish students’ fears that their culture is under attack. Some students say they are ostracized when they show support for Israel, while Palestinian activists talk of being labeled “terrorists,” and finding their photos and names posted on canarymission, a website that tracks professors and students who, it says, promote “hatred of the United States, Israel and Jews.” S.J.P. members insist they are anti-Israel, not anti-Semitic — a debatable distinction to those who cannot separate the state of Israel from their Jewish identity.
While a majority of Americans, 54 percent, say they side with Israel and its struggles against terrorism, sympathy for the Palestinians’ cause has been rising, according to a Pew Research Center study released in May. The most significant increase is among millennials, to 27 percent from 9 percent in 2006. Images of the separation barrier running through the occupied West Bank, which Israel built to thwart Palestinian suicide bombings and shootings, have helped shift sentiments. Activists see parallels with apartheid in South Africa.When it comes to the Middle East on campus, the environment is increasingly uneasy and even hostile. Many universities are grappling with how to balance students’ right to protest with Jewish students’ fears that their culture is under attack. Some students say they are ostracized when they show support for Israel, while Palestinian activists talk of being labeled “terrorists,” and finding their photos and names posted on canarymission, a website that tracks professors and students who, it says, promote “hatred of the United States, Israel and Jews.” S.J.P. members insist they are anti-Israel, not anti-Semitic — a debatable distinction to those who cannot separate the state of Israel from their Jewish identity.
S.J.P., founded in 2001 at the University of California, Berkeley, has become the leading pro-Palestinian voice on campus. (Jewish Voice for Peace is another student group critical of Israel.)
A national organization was established in 2010 to connect chapters’ work, including annual conferences and speaking tours. There are now roughly 170 chapters, about 55 more than in 2014, according to conference organizers and a report by the Anti-Defamation League. The Tufts chapter, which has a core group of 25 members, is a significant player in this movement. It hosted the 2014 conference, which drew more than 500 attendees and sparked protests from Jewish alumni who objected to the university’s allowing the conference on campus.
Jeffrey Summit, executive director of Tufts Hillel, has watched sentiment against Israel rise during his 37 years on campus. “Our country is so polarized,” the rabbi said. “We’re trying to do something different here.”
That something is not to discourage protests, said Celene Ibrahim, Tufts’s Muslim chaplain, but to encourage students to converse about the complex arguments that divide them. But first they need to become comfortable with each other. She and Rabbi Summit have been working to bring both sides together in the same room.
After the Taste of Israel brouhaha, Rabbi Summit and students in Hillel established the Visions of Peace initiative. Leaders from Hillel and the Muslim Students Association teamed to organize a day in April that would include attending each other’s religious services and a talk by a Palestinian activist and a Jewish settler in the occupied West Bank. In September, students would be able to meet families who had lost loved ones in the conflict and are united on peace efforts. Chaplain Ibrahim also is planning a Jewish-Muslim women’s retreat.
The chaplain is careful to note that the division on campus isn’t necessarily a Muslim-Jewish one: Jews, Christians and Hindus as well as Muslims are members of S.J.P. chapters. Tufts is roughly a quarter Jewish, but there are only a few hundred Muslim students. Most come from South Asia and may not have a stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, the Muslim Students Association has taken no stance on the conflict or S.J.P. And some members of Friends of Israel actively lobby against Israel’s policies toward the West Bank and Gaza.
“This is one of the stereotypes I’m trying to undo,” Chaplain Ibrahim said. “What does it mean to be pro-Israel? There’s a lot of nuance around it.”
Mr. Serhan, a rising senior, has participated in numerous S.J.P. actions and marched in a Black Lives Matter protest on campus. He does not identify with a particular religion. His parents are Christian. His mother, from New Orleans, is black; his father was born in Kuwait. Mr. Serhan began advocating for Palestinians while taking a freshman course on peace and justice, when he heard an S.J.P. member speak about what Palestinians lost when Israel became a state in 1948. He said he is passionate about protesting any event or lecture celebrating Israel.
He reached into his backpack to pull out his kaffiyeh, draping the scarf around his neck as he headed out of a cafe for a panel discussion on cultures affected by colonization, part of national Israeli Apartheid Week. As we walked across campus, he described how a Tufts student called him and two other activists “terrorists” because they were wearing kaffiyehs, the iconic symbol of Yasir Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader.
What exactly does S.J.P. want? During its first national conference, in 2011 at Columbia, S.J.P. created a mission statement that called for the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel and its products (causes the B.D.S. movement is named for); for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank; and for dismantling the separation barrier. In answer to charges that S.J.P. fosters anti-Semitism, members point to this mission directive: Chapters must be vigilant against “homophobia, sexism, racism, bigotry, classism, colonialism, and discrimination of any form.” It condemns terrorism.
“Criticism of Israel is a criticism of a state,” said Amahl Bishara, a Palestinian-American professor of anthropology at Tufts. “I don’t see any blurred lines there.”
To leaders of Jewish organizations, those lines are frequently blurred. They equate supporting the B.D.S. movement to supporting Hamas and the destruction of their homeland. They point to S.J.P.-sponsored speakers who have compared Israelis to Nazis yet defend those who have committed random attacks of violence against Israelis.
Leonard Saxe, director of the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, led a survey of 3,199 Jewish students and recent graduates from some 100 universities. A quarter said they had been blamed for actions of Israel. Nearly three-fourths had been exposed to at least one anti-Semitic statement in the previous year.
Last year at the University of California, Davis, vandals spray-painted swastikas on a Jewish fraternity house, and in March, protesters marched to the front of a classroom and loudly chanted, “Israel is an apartheid state.” The guest speaker was an Israeli diplomat whose topic was the art of diplomacy.
Concerned about a swell in incidents, the Zionist Organization of America in 2014 coordinated a letter to 2,500 college and university presidents asking them to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism, specifically from what it called S.J.P.’s “harassment and intimidation tactics.” And in December, Mark G. Yudof, former president of the University of California system, helped create the Academic Engagement Network. The group has some 275 members, mostly faculty, on about 110 campuses working in opposition to the B.D.S. movement. “I don’t want to see B.D.S. become stronger because, 20 years from now, these students will be judges, heads of Congress,” Mr. Yudof told me. “We have to respond now to maintain the historical relationship with Israel.”
In March, the University of California adopted a statement condemning anti-Semitism and “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.” Stanford’s student government later approved a similar resolution. Opponents object to such resolutions as anti-Arab and attempts to curtail free speech.
“It is not the place of the president, the chancellor or the former chancellor to tsk-tsk the students because they don’t like the style of debate,” said Liz Jackson, a lawyer with Palestine Legal, which formed in 2012 to work with activists.
Lawyers who advise S.J.P. members facing disciplinary charges say that First Amendment rights are routinely ignored when Israel is the subject, and that universities are trying to intimidate members into silence.
Northeastern University’s chapter was suspended for the remainder of the school year after its members slipped 600 strongly worded mock eviction notices under dorm room doors to mirror the eviction of Palestinians. The notices reminded some of the expulsion of Jews during the Holocaust. And after various incidents at the City University of New York, including the disruption of a faculty meeting at Brooklyn College, several state lawmakers began an effort to get S.J.P. chapters expelled, even though a broad coalition of activists had caused the disruption. They did not succeed. But in February, the Zionist Organization of America sent a letter to CUNY asking for a public condemnation of S.J.P. for promoting anti-Semitism and creating a “hostile campus environment” for Jewish students on at least four CUNY campuses.
Friends of Israel, in its complaint to Tufts administrators, said that the Taste of Israel protest had victimized students and violated university policy, including one called Working With One Another. They wanted to meet with S.J.P. leaders and a mediator.
“They can push back on our belief and opinions of Israel, but they actually have to hear us out first,” Itamar Ben-Aharon, president of the club, said after a meeting in which members discussed current events, competed in a trivia quiz on Israel and boned up on how to counter criticism during Israeli Apartheid Week.
S.J.P. declined mediation after a string of unproductive exchanges, saying they had not intimidated students and saw no need for university involvement, and besides, debate is encouraged at its events. Friends of Israel, fearing an escalation in hostility, dropped its complaint this past spring. The university would not comment on the incident. But Mary Pat McMahon, a dean of student affairs, posited this challenge: “How do we foster learning and students working together even when it’s unlikely common ground will come any time soon?”
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, in a knitted kipa and gray beard that reached his chest, spoke first at the Visions of Peace day in April, strolling back and forth with a microphone before some 40 attendees in the Interfaith Center; a map of Israel was projected on a screen.
“How could it be for 33 years I lived in an area where there were nine Palestinians for every Israeli and I never met a Palestinian?” Rabbi Schlesinger asked, almost shouting the question, as if admonishing his younger self. Some 40 years ago, he had left New York to live in a Jewish settlement on the occupied West Bank. Settlers and Palestinians spoke different languages, practiced different religions and lived under different laws. “Under these circumstances,” he said, “there will be ignorance, stereotypes, and if you add in the violence, of course there’s going to be fear and anger toward the other for killing us.”
His fear faded after attending a dinner of Palestinians and Jewish settlers organized by Roots, an effort based in the West Bank to achieve peace with nonviolence. He grew to realize that “our triumph was their tragedy,” and went on to lead Roots with Ali Abu Awwad, who co-founded the initiative in 2014.
Mr. Awwad took his turn on the stage. He told the audience in a soft, impassioned voice that his father became a refugee when his village was depopulated in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. His mother was a P.L.O. leader and beaten in front of him in their home. “I don’t think you need to teach someone how to hate in that situation,” he said.
He was arrested twice during uprisings and would spend four years in prison. In 2000, he was wounded in the knee in a drive-by shooting by an Israeli settler. A few months later, his older brother was killed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. “How many Israelis have to die to bring justice?” he asked. “The only justice I can think of is to have him back, and that won’t happen.”
Then, bereaved Jewish families came to offer solace to his family. “For the first time, I saw an Israeli crying. You don’t see Jewish tears at checkpoints. I couldn’t even imagine that Jewish people had tears.”
Scanning the students in the room, Mr. Awwad criticized S.J.P. and divestment supporters for refusing to enter into dialogue with Jewish groups because they felt it legitimized Israel. Both sides lay claim to the land. Both sides have been victimized. He implored the students not to focus on which side was right. “I spent nights of my life hoping Israel will disappear and explode,” he said. Now he was in a different place, working for peace.
After the talk, Rabbi Schlesinger said he was disappointed at how few Muslims were in the room. All told, some 250 students showed up for at least one of the day’s events; only about two dozen were Muslim, but half of them took Hillel up on the invitation to attend the Jewish prayer service. Some were entering Hillel’s center for the first time, “and that’s the crossing of a threshold,” said Chaplain Ibrahim.
Most S.J.P. members saw Visions of Peace as an attempt to mollify their group and vowed to skip it. Leah Muskin-Pierret, who is Jewish, was the sole S.J.P. attendee at the talk. Her voice rising and quickening, she told me she found much of it infuriating. She was embarrassed by an American Jewish settler wanting dialogue about Israel. She wished the focus had been on the daily hardships faced by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Mr. Ben-Aharon appreciated the frank talk but had doubts. Roots was idealistic. Opposing sides would not suddenly work together. And every time the campus experiences an uptick in tension, the answer is the same: Start a new initiative.
Before the dinner, as part of interfaith storytelling in one of Hillel’s prayer spaces, Nazifa Sarawat told a circle of fellow students and clergy members how she had arrived in New York City as a toddler from Bangladesh. She and her family had had little exposure to other religions, so she saw non-Muslims as the “other.”
One of the day’s organizers, she wanted more collaboration, and with Hillel the key player, she worried about a power imbalance. Maybe students at the grass-roots level should be in charge, she said. Maybe a Mideast culture group should form and partner with Israeli clubs.
From the clerics’ perspective, the day was a beginning. “Here, people are listening to one another,” Rabbi Summit said. “On so many college campuses, opposing sides are just shouting.”
At the dinner that closed the program, after students led the group in blessings over the challah, Chaplain Ibrahim, wearing a hijab that shimmered in the light, stood up and described the sensation she had during the Sabbath service. She felt as if she were experiencing her own faith of Islam because so much of the liturgy sounded familiar.
“It pains me,” she said softly, “to see events in the world dividing communities that are meant to be together.”
This article was published by the NY Times and may be found here.