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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Without bias: Israeli discourse could benefit

Published: February 28, 2014
Section: Opinions

There are a few key tips for surviving at Brandeis that most students pick up after a little while. For example, most students come to realize that staying on campus over February break and surviving only on the meager offerings of the dining halls is ill-advised—especially considering that Baan Thai will deliver right to your door. Most students also eventually figure out that while going out onto the Great Lawn in springtime to get a ton of reading done sounds like a lovely idea, it won’t work out that way. Another lesson that most students receive either implicitly or explicitly is to never get into an argument about Israel. Such arguments tend to accomplish very little.

I know that I have picked this idea up while at Brandeis. I am proud to say that I associate with people who have differing opinions on a number of issues. We debate, we fight, we try so hard to make one another understand our point of view, and while we do anger one another, we generally move on. Israel, however, seems to be taboo. Discussing Israel is something that I have learned over time will lead to me yelling at the people I care about and want to hang out with and vice versa.

This brings us to Israel Apartheid Week. The very name causes people to go into an uproar. Can anyone blame people for getting emotional on either side? Scanning posts on the event page it becomes clear that what sounds to one person like a legitimate attempt to rectify what they see as the subjugation of a segment of a population in a country sounds to another person like a more veiled version of the anti-Semitism of years past—insidious and shrouded in the language of human rights, but just as dangerous.

There is desire to help and protect people, mixed in with fear, anger and a compulsive inability to hear the merits of the other side—a compulsion that has been ingrained through many experiences of attempted dialogue.

Given the emotional nature of discussions regarding Israel, the organizers of Brandeis Israel Apartheid Week seem to have a very difficult tightrope upon which to walk. While members of Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace do have their own points of view—which vary within the groups themselves—one of the chief aims of the week is to facilitate dialogue. The event on March 5 is titled “What is Apartheid? A Seminar and Discussion on the Divisive Word and Its Application.” It isn’t titled “Israel is an Apartheid State: Let’s Force Our Point of View on You.” The point of the event would appear to be to talk about the word, while taking into account the debates over whether or not it can be applied to Israel. However, following this week’s influx of fierce online debate on the event page, the organizers of the week have written a notice condemning the use of “racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, sexist, homophobic, and all forms of hate speech.” Along the same lines, on the page for the Max Blumenthal event on March 3 it is clearly stated that the organizers “will IMMEDIATELY ask ANYONE who uses anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist or sexist speech to leave.”

The obvious problem with this is that when a group tries to eliminate hate speech from a debate they will invariably fall into another debate over what exactly qualifies as hate speech. Just from looking at some of the posts on the Brandeis Israel Apartheid Week event page, my hunch would be that during the events next week someone will say something that might verge on hate speech depending on one’s definition. When this happens, action will be taken to remove that person or action will not be taken, and either way it will create a more tense environment. It is an incredibly difficult balance to strike. At these events the intent is that people will not mince words but will engage in a very real discussion, and yet the discussion by its very nature is so sensitive that I am concerned that students may feel attacked even if that was not the intent.

I would suggest that more thought be taken as to exactly what will be a reason for sending someone out of a room or for blocking one from a webpage. It is easy to say that hate speech is bad, but the difficult part is to have a concrete discussion on it before an event takes place. Perhaps this is already under way and this article is merely preaching to the choir. If, however, it is a conversation that hasn’t occurred then I highly recommend that it be had.

Some will suggest that it is obvious what hate speech is and that there is no need to determine specifics. They will say that people will know what crosses the line. However, with people on the event page already debating with vigor what counts as anti-Semitism, it is clear to me that there is not that much agreement.

I sincerely hope for the success of these events. I am always in favor of more discussion and yet I am apprehensive because of the sensitive nature of the discussion and the incredibly difficult challenges associated with striking the balance between openness and respect for one another.