The Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University claims that “education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realizing other human rights”—an idea that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the U.N. ratified in 1966, and the State of Israel accepted in 1991, echoes. This week, the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine joined the Right to Education Campaign to raise awareness about Israel’s violation of West Bank Palestinians’ inherent right to education. In order to achieve the goals outlined in the Right to Education Campaign charter successfully—which we contend are legitimate—CSJP needs to construct a conversation that addresses such goals seriously. CSJP, in raising this matter on Columbia’s campus, has taken up the mantle of this cause and should therefore provide the broader Columbia community with a forum to engage in a productive discussion surrounding the nuances of this complex issue. But Wednesday’s inflammatory and hostile demonstration on Low Steps makes it seem as though CSJP is actively trying to distance itself from such a productive process.
CSJP’s campaign does not serve as a catalyst for substantive change and reform in the region, and it is in no way conducive to reflection on the goals of the campaign. By resorting to antagonistic measures, such as fake Israeli soldiers, mock arrests, and wrought iron jail cells, CSJP fails to address the serious issues it claims as its main concerns. In doing so, it is belittling its own cause. Through such hostility, it is actively negating any hope for potential discourse to move forward.
The way in which CSJP conveys its message to the Columbia community stands in stark contrast to the values we cultivate here at Columbia. It fails to tailor its message and agenda to the standards of discourse and intellectual rigor our education means to foster. Despite many attempts by the various Hillel pro-Israel groups to cultivate intergroup dialogue with CSJP, CSJP continues to assert that, due to the underlying Zionist values inherent in Hillel’s mission statement, it will not interact with any campus groups under the auspices of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel. The pro-Israel groups at Hillel have sought to engender productive conversations, and, while at times programming has appealed to individual members of CSJP (such as the Talk Israel Initiative last year), CSJP as an organization continues to refuse engagement with any Hillel group, no matter where it lies on the political spectrum. Columbia cultivates a pedagogic milieu (with the Core at its center), which enables a model of discourse and dialogue that places an emphasis on interrogating the enduring human questions and endowing the Columbia student with the ability to continue the school’s rich tradition of activism and to have a profound impact on society at large.
The fear of “normalization” (language that CSJP often uses as an explanation for its unwillingness to engage seriously in conversation and dialogue with the Hillel pro-Israel groups)—keeps CSJP from moving past the dissemination of an enclosed narrative. This fear is one of the greatest impediments to organic change and effective growth. Protests like the one held yesterday on Low must serve as a catalyst for substantive reform—a catalyst for action, not just awareness.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is paradigmatic of the stagnant and all too futile call to discourse. It is a conflict that the broader Columbia community rightly perceives as a stale, stochastic series of irrelevant events, lectures, and protests. We must all take the next step to develop our ideas and provide a constructive layer to our activism. Openness to true engagement and a cross-fertilization of ideas, opinions, and narratives are at the core of our Columbia education. Our hope is that this article will serve as a seed for further action surrounding what is indeed an important issue. Only by pushing ourselves and our community past unproductive protests and toward a conversation can we begin the process of constructing generative solutions. CSJP must embrace the true ethos of our Columbia education and engage our community to help create a new paradigm for social activism on campus.
Ariel Brickman is a List College senior majoring in modern Jewish studies and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. She is the Israel coordinator of Hillel. Hillel Lehmann is a List College sophomore majoring in neuroscience and philosophy. He is on LionPAC’s Executive Board, and is the head of Garin Lavi, an Israel think tank on campus.
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