During my first semester at college, I learned to love Columbia for the curiosity, diversity, expressiveness and eloquence of its student body. This is a community bursting with opinions, energy, advocacy and activism, and I was excited at the prospect of being surrounded by intensely articulate, rabidly passionate peers who were working to promote change they thought was important.
At the close of the semester in December, when an international controversy blew up surrounding Operation Pillar of Defense in Israel and Gaza, I was excited to see how the Columbia community would react, how my mind would be opened.
I am relatively down the middle in my beliefs about the conflict in Israel. I was raised Jewish, went to a progressive leftist summer camp, yet I also have been wary of religious and cultural colonialism and very receptive to criticisms of Israel.
Unfortunately, after seeing campus’s reaction to the conflict, I gained only a resigned acceptance of divisive human conflict, and the futility of self-indulgent activism.
Soon after the onset of contentious Israeli retaliation against Hamas, Students for Justice in Palestine assembled in a line at the feet of Low Steps, holding posters and chanting about apartheid in Israel, human rights abuses, and Palestine’s right to sovereignty. Small leaflets about the conflict littered the ground.
The chants turned into yells, and as the protestors seemed to run out of things to say, call-and-response songs with marginally related lyrics took their place. Since Students for Justice in Palestine practices a strict “non-engagement” policy, refusing to engage in dialogue with other groups, their ‘activism’ went no further.
Ron Shapiro, the president of Columbia’s pro-Israel LionPac sent out a response that exhibited insecurity towards SJP and implied that any pro-Israel response would be combative and provocative: “We are working closely with the Hillel staff to reserve space at the sundial as soon as possible so that we can show our support for Israel. Until we get approval, please do not organize yourselves on College Walk in response to SJP.”
The next day a clan of pro-Israel students, clad in blue and white, organized in a clump at the sundial directly across from the SJP protestors. They chanted, attempted to out-flyer SJP, and yelled bolstering renditions of Jewish religious and folk songs.
I was appalled that at Columbia the pro-Palestine group and pro-Israel group protested facing towards each other, animosity thickening uncomfortably. Visually, they were embodying the idea of diametrically opposed viewpoints – a thought which I have trouble swallowing. They created an uncomfortable aisle of anger that many had to walk through in order to get to class. Instead of being engaged by the protestors as I had earlier hoped, I felt walled off and accosted.
It is improbable and simplistic to think that each group wishes for the destruction of the other, that pro-Israel Columbians were steadfastly opposed to pro-Palestine ones. Sadly, even at Columbia, these two well-intentioned groups were perpetuating and maintaining the useless and false notion that one group is against the other. There were no strides taken towards instituting dialogue, no steps taken towards including the vast majority of students who likely fall in the middle of this conflict, and certainly no advantage taken over the situation to advocate for peace.
Seeing as the groups did not change their behavior at all over the course of protests, certainly each group thought they were successful and productive – however it is doubtful that the rest of campus was included, reached out to, or substantially affected by their actions.
Why couldn’t they have protested together, two groups coming from different perspectives but united for peace?
One inspiring and positive effort in response to the Gaza conflict was J Street’s peace vigil, held on Low Steps. J Street is a pro-Israel, pro-peace, and pro-Palestine organization that advocates for dialogue and interaction in hopes of permanent peace.
Their peace vigil was a candle lighting ceremony held in memory of all those killed in the recent conflict. The event drew a mixed crowd from various other organizations and seemed much more successful in creating an inclusive and productive middle ground in which those from all sides of the issue could come together.
I have no intention of advocating here for a specific answer to this huge and complicated issue. Rather, I wish to highlight how the people at our university who cared most about an issue failed to capitalize on an opportunity to accomplish and actualize their ideals.
This does not mean that all hope is lost; there are huge implications for this issue. Forget about Israel and Palestine. A new semester is starting. The next time there is such a contested controversy, I hope the college campus will be a venue not for self-indulgent activism but for constructive discussion.
Columbia can be a polarizing place – we have so many people who care deeply about so many issues. This is okay, and expected. In fact, it’s a testament to the level of interest our community has in controversial issues. I just wish that these passionate but disparate beliefs, instead of resulting in angry standoffs, could be less aggressive mentalities and channeled towards more productive activism.
Why any impassioned group on campus such as Students for Justice in Palestine would have a non-engagement policy is beyond me – no matter how fervent their opinions, such a policy subverts any fruitful progress. It is crucial to advocate for our passions in an open engagement and interaction with the rest of our community, through debate, discussion, and compromise. This is a basic ideal that should be universally shared – without it, advocacy will continue to be chiefly insular and largely ineffective.
If we allow the passion of Columbia students to shine through in a constructive and positive manner, I have faith that our community will be strengthened, anger will dissipate, and the social justice that all of us strive for will be made just a little more possible.