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No peace at Columbia

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With all the hubbub in the Jewish world these days surrounding Israel’s 60th anniversary, it was perhaps inevitable that Israel’s critics would want their own commemoration. As JTA reported yesterday, this week has been branded “Nakba Week” at Columbia University, with a whole host of events planned around what Palestinians see as the “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation.

Several campus groups are participating. Two that are not – surprise! – are Hillel and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Hillel subgroup. Apparently, Hillel and PJA declined to co-sponsor an April 14 event that had the word “Nakba” in its description. According to Columbia senior David Judd, who assailed both groups in a piece in the Columbia student newspaper, the Spectator, Hillel cannot acknowledge the Nakba because of its stated commitment to a Jewish democratic Israel.

He writes:

In the case of the April 14 event, I’m told this policy was cited against any Hillel association with the claim that Palestinians suffered a historical wrong in 1948. Whatever happened that year, it cannot be labeled a “catastrophe.” Harm done to Palestinians cannot, apparently, be acknowledged in this framework as an ethical offense. Where it cannot plausibly be denied nor justified, absolute silence on the subject must suffice.

This implication may seem a stretch from the formal wording of Hillel policy—and indeed, it is unlikely that, should Hillel or PJA have cosponsored, either would have suffered any direct sanction. But deriving an imperative from the Hillel formula for the exclusion of Palestinians from ethical consideration does not require too strained a reading.

A stretch indeed.

Judd continues:

A fundamental illiberality to Zionism’s traditional understanding of the essential nature of Israel is made clear by its inability to encompass al-Nakba. We do not normally grant anyone the right to run a nation-state under the control and in the exclusive interest of one race, ethnicity, or religion—a basic principle not of some utopian internationalism but of liberal democracy. This privilege is incompatible with the egalitarian recognition of an intrinsic human dignity.

But isn’t it precisely that concern, that Israel remain a democratic state of all its citizens, precisely what has led a plurality of its citizens to support a two-state solution, an objective Hillel expressly supports? Isn’t it exactly the desire to NOT treat Palestinians as second-class citizens what has led the Israeli government to pursue, as a matter of official policy, the creation of an independent Palestinian state?

Hillel President Emily Steinberger defended her group in another Spectator piece. Her point: branding events with the Nakba label precludes dialogue.

However, events labeled with “Al Nakba” are not models that will successfully engage in dialogue if a discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict has to be based on the premise that Israel’s creation was a catastrophe. Labeling the week-long initiative with the term makes it very difficult for any supporter of the state of Israel, regardless of his or her opinions of Israeli policies, to engage in this dialogue, since it is predicated on delegitimizing their opinions.

Well, if that’s true, Israel is probably going to have a difficult time ever engaging in dialogue with Palestinians, who more or less have internalized the notion of Nakba is an integral part of their national consciousness.

But what’s really likely to inflame the critics, is Steinberger final line:

“The five-letter word Nakba, like some other inflammatory four-and-five-letter words, is not the beginning of dialogue.”

Besides having some trouble counting, branding a Nakba as a cuss isn’t likely to open much dialogue either. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that making peace between Israelis and Palestinians is probably easier than making peace between academics.

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