“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring.”
The Square is a fictional work of art—I came across it in a film, incidentally also called “The Square.” In the film, The Square—which is placed on the plaza outside of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm—is a demarcated space in which people engage in mutual respect and care for one another’s well-being. The Square is a performance art piece, and the dictates of the space aren’t enforced. Rather, it’s incumbent upon the participant to play by the rules.
Watching the movie, I was reminded of a university classroom. For one, the space of the typical classroom—four walls with as many corners—resembles a square. But beyond its geometry, just like The Square, the classroom creates the possibility of a distinct in/out boundary; it provides the physical delineation for a mini-community in which people pledge to respect and trust one another.
But what happens to that mutual respect and trust inside the classroom when a deeply personal conflict enters from outside the Square? What happens—to the conflict, to the classroom itself—when personal histories and deep-rooted beliefs enter an academic environment, and cause rifts between the classroom inhabitants? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is precisely the kind of issue that causes ruptures within the Square.
The answers to these questions are not clear-cut. At Columbia, there are students on campus who are from Israel and Palestine, who have lived or have family living there, and who have even fought in the conflict. Individuals who have ties to either Israel or Palestine have unique and differing relationships to the Square and its surroundings. For some, a class addressing the Israel-Palestine conflict is a space that should ideally be devoid of emotion––a sanitized, academic space. For others, emotion is tightly weaved into the conflict, making it difficult to discuss in the Square. As a result, some students decide to enter the space, shaping it, and still others avoid it.
As most students who have lived through a spring semester at Columbia can attest to, the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine factions on campus are active and vocal. During the week known as Israeli Apartheid Week, both camps set up on opposing sides of college walk, each with an iconic library framing their tables, displays, and flags. This literal face-off is a visual confirmation of the ideologically opposed positions of both sides of the conflict. However,a key element of Israeli Apartheid Week is that it’s outside, in a space one can leave at any moment.
Alla Issa, a Columbia College sophomore and member of Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, is Palestinian. She lived through the Second Intifada and her father’s family still lives in Palestine.
One of the first things I notice about Issa is her heavily-stickered laptop. Plastered across her pink plastic case, alongside Columbia Lions and Harry Potter Deathly Hallows stickers, are stickers referencing pro-Palestine activism. In one of them, a black bird soars over the words, “Freedom isn’t free.” Issa works wall duty for Students for Justice in Palestine during Israeli Apartheid Week. Before the week begins, the group undergoes training on de-escalation because the issues highlighted by the week are emotionally-charged. “There's something about Apartheid Week in general that makes people think that they can say whatever they want to say,” she tells me. “We're outside. They can walk away if they want to.” Last year, Issa was on wall duty when a man approached her. He argued with her, she says, and claimed that Palestine didn’t exist and that they didn’t deserve human rights. After he had finished saying what he wanted to, he walked away. Issa directly contrasts these kind of experiences with the classroom space. “You can't do that in a seminar. You're stuck there for two hours. So if you say something, you better back it up.”
The classroom is not only a haven from the charged debates that take place between political activist groups, it is also a haven from arguments that play out within families and social spaces.
Dealing with emotion in an academic space has different rules to dealing with it outside of the classroom. For some like Jeff Jacobs, a doctoral student in the political science department and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, this is a positive thing. His family, whose beliefs on the conflict he describes as Zionist, has found it difficult to reconcile Jacobs’ pro-Palestine activism with their own convictions. For this reason, Jacobs appreciates the classroom as a space to engage with the issue in a less emotionally-charged way. “If I bring up a counterpoint [in academia],” Jacobs tells me, “the expectation is to engage with it.” In comparison, Jacobs finds that in a familial context, emotions can cloud debate, which creates “a very different playing field of discourse.”
Even outside his family situation, Jacobs finds that conflict is loaded and charged: Jacobs recalls an incident in which a fellow doctoral student who, at a social event—and, therefore, not constrained by the norms or dictates of a traditional classroom environment—brought up the conflict in a hostile way. She told him about her Israeli boyfriend, who had been injured in the conflict, and while doing so, used language unfettered by classroom rules.
But even within the classroom, Jacobs believes that the emotional nature of the conflict can sometimes serve as a bulwark to discussion. As Jacobs put it, “If you say, ‘Foucault's hermeneutics are bad,’ they don't get hurt by it, but if you say ‘Israel is bad,’ they're like, ‘it's my family and my heart.’”
On the flip side, Issa underlines that this emotional connection can be used to undermine her own claims in the classroom: When Issa has brought up emotional issues around Palestine in the classroom, she has been asked to stop. “I brought up in the classroom last year that where I lived during the Intifada, my dad got wrongfully arrested, and this wasn't uncommon. The curfews were horrible. My family was sick, my mom was sick, my sister was sick. They couldn't go to the hospital. I didn't learn to read until I was five because schools were being bombed. The second I bring that up, [my interlocutors are] like you shouldn't say this because it's making people in the class emotional.”
The emotional nature of a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for students who have ties to the region makes me wonder why they would be interested in taking a course that could have such a upsetting impact on their well-being.
Some students seek out the courses for the challenge. Eve Halimi, a Barnard senior, who took a course on the conflict, didn’t need to take the course for a major or core requirement. “I like to be challenged in classes,” she tells me.
Halimi has lived in Israel for seven years. Although she had heard that certain pro-Israel students were wary of her professor’s courses, she thought that her intimate knowledge of Israel and the Middle East would make the class easy. “Okay, I know he’s tough,” Halimi thought to herself, “but I’m ready. It’s going to be a good challenge.”
Other students seek out Israel-Palestine courses in order to see their lives and their histories reflected in the classroom. Jacobs tells me that some of his Palestinian friends take classes on the conflict because, in the classroom, they “will be treated as a subject of history.” These students will, perhaps for the first time in their university career, “be a character in the narrative.” Issa, for instance, is looking forward to taking a class on Israel and Palestine once the requirements for her major and the Core are out of the way. As a Palestinian, she thinks of herself as a “primary source,” someone who can supplement the classroom space with lived experience.
In comparison, some students, on both sides of the conflict, choose to avoid certain classes and academic settings because they fear being punished for their political views in their grading. Dalia Zahger, a senior in the School of General Studies, avoids taking classes with professors deemed controversial or anti-Israel because she believes she could be punished academically for her political stance (though she has not experienced such retaliation firsthand). “I want to go to law school. I care a lot about GPA,” she tells me. If she had a job lined up for post-graduation, she tells me, she would take the classes and challenge the professors if she could. “But, unfortunately, I have to worry about my GPA and I can’t.” Similarly, Jacobs switched the track of his doctoral program for fear of being punished by pro-Israel professors for his Palestinian activism.
Although both Zahger’s and Jacobs’ claims are based on hypothetical situations and cannot be corroborated, their testimonials attest to the impact that the conflict can exert on students’ academic paths on both sides of the debate.
One of the democratic ideals of education is the assumption that when you engage in academic discussions, people with opposing viewpoints will make you think critically and help you construct sharper opinions based on this interplay of existing ideas. For professors and teaching assistants, the classroom is an arena in which ideas should be challenged, and perhaps even altered.
The pedagogical doctrine of deconstructing everything can, however, be sensitive when considering issues of identity. When people tie their sense of identity to a nation that is being critiqued in an academic setting, there can be personal ramifications. “[The professor] made me hate myself for supporting some of the things that Israel has done, for supporting Israel,” Halimi tells me. “I just felt like I was… I don't know, like I kind of hated myself for that.”
Matan Cohen, a graduate student in the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies department, is involved with pro-Palestine activism (and has been since he was a teenager in Israel) and serves as a foreign relations advisor to a chairman of the Joint List party, a major political alliance in Israel. He has also served as a teaching assistant for a number of courses at Columbia.
Cohen believes that a certain level of discomfort is key in academia. He says, “If no one encountered a set of opinions, a different point of view that shook them to the ground, rattled them, and made them take a step back. I wouldn’t be doing my job. That is exactly what education should be about.”
Have fun leafing through our fourth issue!