A Call to Silence

“Tension on Campus.” The phrase has become unfortunately common at a wide range of universities, including my own Rutgers University. From San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley; from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, universities with active, growing Palestine solidarity movements and campaigns for divestment from Israel are being tagged with a new concern about “tension on campus.”

This “tension” is described in a number of ways; “making Jewish students feel unsafe on campus”-despite the involvement of a number of Jewish students in the very movements accused of causing this tension, “creating an environment of hate,” “causing discomfort among students,” “making people afraid to be Jewish on campus,” and “poisoning the dialogue.” However it is described, it usually returns to a thinly-veiled allegation of anti-Semitism and demands that, in some way, this tension be stopped.

In any environment of strong debate, mobilization, protest and organizing, there can be, will be, and, in fact, should be, a certain amount of discomfort, tension and conflict. These conflicts exist not because of hatred or intolerance, but because there is a very real and meaningful difference between calling for liberation of the Palestinian people and ceasing U.S. aid to their oppressors in Israel, and demanding support of the Israeli government at all times. The student and community based movement for justice in Palestine is an antiracist movement at its core-it is based on a demand for full equality for all citizens of Israel (and end to Israeli apartheid) and recognition of human rights for all citizens of historic Palestine-the rights of self-determination, of freedom from foreign occupation, of liberation from colonialism, of return of refugees. These rights are denied Palestinians-citizens of Israel or residents of the Occupied Territories-because they are Palestinians, and specifically because they are not Jewish. The movement for justice in Palestine stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people inside and outside the Green Line in declaring that this form of state-sponsored racism and oppression is unacceptable and indefensible-and should not be supported with our money.

Those who, in response, defend the actions of the Israeli state, its guiding ideologies, laws and practices, who declare that “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel,” are defenders of state racism, military occupation and the denial of human rights to Palestinians. This defense of Israeli actions is in direct opposition to a movement demanding liberation for Palestine, and in direct opposition to a movement declaring that, as Americans and others, government, university and corporate money should not go to prop up the racist occupation regime. Rather, however, than addressing that direct opposition and conflict of beliefs, defenders of Israeli government policy have resorted to raising concerns about “tension on campus.”

The university is envisioned as and expected to be an environment of open debate, innovative ideas, incisive questioning and analysis. Of course, it is also supposed to be an environment of tolerance of difference. However, what we are witnessing in much of the discussion of “tension on campus” is not a concern about tolerance but rather a demand for silence and an utter lack of any toleration of viewpoints critical of Israel. We are told that open debate is negative, dangerous and harmful; that political ideas make others uncomfortable or unsafe. Criticism of a government strongly linked to the US government is rephrased as dangerous, anti-Semitic and intolerant -creating an environment where many truly are afraid to share their concerns about Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

Indeed, open debate may cause an amount of “tension.” There is a very real conflict between defense of racism and opposition to racism-but this conflict is not a negative development; rather, it is a necessary conflict in order to end racist practices. Racist beliefs should be called into question; defense of racist state practices should make people feel uncomfortable. There is no right to political belief without feeling discomfort, tension or insecurity in those beliefs; this is a tension that reflects a struggle between justice and injustice. Tense it might be, but more importantly, it is necessary, positive and has the possibility of creating lasting and meaningful change. It is the sort of tension and conflict we should seek to encourage-open debate and expression of political ideas-rather than to suppress on the ground that someone may be emotionally discomfited by its existence.

“Tension on campus” is another way of saying “active movement for justice in Palestine on campus.” This struggle is portrayed as somehow uniquely “complicated,” somehow uniquely prone to guidelines of “appropriateness” in its conduct. Unlike seemingly all other struggles for justice, it must be subject to mediation and moderation under the guise of “dialogue.” There is nothing uniquely complicated here; every national situation is complicated, intricate and bears a long history. Nevertheless, justice applies despite these complications; there is nothing specifically “complicated” about the Middle East that precludes the Palestinian people from their rights to justice and self-determination. This justice will not be obtained through any number of well-meaning dialogues about “tension on campus”; it, however, might very well be obtained by the economic pressure on the Israeli state generated by effective divestment campaigns on the university, community, corporate and government levels.

The focus on neutrality, on setting up dialogues and discussion, on condemning partisanship and passion as somehow negative, obscures the very real situation in the Middle East, as well as our own campus organizing. In the face of injustice and oppression, we should not seek to be neutral in tone or action, but rather to struggle mightily to end that injustice and oppression. The specter of “dialogues” between white racists and civil rights advocates, or between misogynists and feminists, so that those advocating for change might express their opinions in an appropriately timid and subservient manner, is both absurd and disturbing. It is absurd on its face; very few, today, would advocate that Jim Crow racism and segregation could have been overcome by creating an environment that is comfortable for racists. It is disturbing because at the time those movements were on the ascendancy there were a number of people who cautioned against such dangerous militancy as boycotts, demonstrations and uncompromising demands. Those movements overcame such demands for their silence and rightly rejected them as such. Here, however, a new method of silence is at work-labeling opposition to racism as itself intolerance, hate, and anti-Semitism, and placing anti-racist activists on the defensive to prove their own anti-racism. We need not accept this defensive position. There is no basis for allegations of anti-Semitism and hatred stemming from political expression of disapproval of the actions, ideologies and laws of the state of Israel. We need not accept “tension on campus” as a negative description. We have no desire to create an environment where racists may feel comfortable and secure in their racism; we very much want to call fundamental assumptions into question, to create an environment where it is, indeed, uncomfortable to declare oneself an unequivocal supporter of an oppressive, racist state. It should be uncomfortable; it should not feel equally welcomed and valid to defend oppression as to fight for its end.

There is nothing making Jewish students afraid to be Jewish on campus; nothing that is, except for those whose Jewish identity leads them to condemn the racist practices of the state of Israel. The Rutgers University Hillel leadership sent out an Open Letter to the Jewish Community, demanding that Jews keep their consciences and their concerns silent, except within the closed confines of their “own community.” Students who criticize racism, who dare to show the links between the oppression of Palestine and war against Iraq, who stand up for their own dignity and the dignity of their fellow human beings, are told that their words cause tension and discomfort, blamed for their great sin of bringing political conflict to the forefront, told to be silent, demure and inoffensive. Declaring that Israel is an apartheid state is not offensive; declaring that it is unacceptable to dehumanize Palestinians is not anti-Semitism; demanding that our money not go to support the Israeli state’s oppression and racism is not dangerous. These statements do cause tension-the tension between those fighting for justice, and those fighting to preserve an unjust status quo.

Across the country, students are being called to silence. Their words are too political, their demands too principled, their activism too committed. A coordinated campaign is in place to silence activists, to declare their work and their words beyond the pale. Nevertheless, students are refusing to be silent, continuing to organize. New divestment campaigns are launched on a constant and regular basis. Organizers are refusing to be intimidated by the campaign of silence masquerading about concern about “tension on campus.” There is an active campaign for justice in Palestine; that campaign might well make defenders of injustice uncomfortable and insecure. That is not a sign of intolerance and hatred; it is a call to rethink defense of injustice and racism and take a stand with those struggling for human rights. “Tension on campus” indeed is a euphemism for Palestine solidarity on campus. May the tension continue to escalate, and the movement continue to grow, until it is recognized not as tension but as an irresistible force for global justice.

CHARLOTTE KATES is a law student at Rutgers University School of Law and an activist and organizer for social justice in Newark, New Jersey. She is Education Chair of New Jersey Solidarity, a community/campus organization working for justice in Palestine, and may be reached at ckates@pegasus.rutgers.edu.