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Of extremists and moderates at Brandeis

Published: April 4, 2008
Section: Opinions


In last week’s edition of The Hoot, my senator offered a lengthy denunciation of the Union Senate’s decision to charter Students for Justice in Palestine. His logic was both stupefying and serpentine, and I do not respond eagerly for fear I’ve not quite grasped it. But of logics circuitous and faulty, I find myself something of a connoisseur. So I pays my money and I takes my chances.

One thing is clear; my senator’s argument had something to do with extremists, because he used some form of this word eight times in his article. In fact, he used it six times between the second paragraph and the fifth at an alarming rate of once every 69 words. My senator says for example that SJP “has shown . . . that it is an extreme organization” while “Israel [sic] groups are moderate in their stance.” My senator, its seems, is nothing if not daring, viz. for a political representative whose virulently racist attitudes are widely known to lecture Hoot readers about extremism takes no small amount of chutzpah.

Nevertheless, his proof for these claims is perhaps a more interesting aspect of his case. My senator, you’ll recall, is an honorable chap never content with ease or comfort; on the contrary, he constantly strives for all things difficult. He boldly forsakes the carefree path of quoting the group’s organizers, its constitution, and its mission statement; instead he takes us all the way to California and shows us an SJP chapter whom he finds particularly offensive. He provides us some quotations from their wiki and—voilà—my senator accomplishes his task. How now could anyone doubt that SJP is a haven for extremists? He still has a problem though, because he has dragged his readers all the way to California, and now they need a map back to Brandeis. They still need to know why this California chapter has anything to do with Brandeis SJP. He resolves this beautifully by channeling Captain Renault. My senator, it turns out, is shocked, shocked to find any Brandeisians willing to affiliate with such a vituperative group.

The problem with this argumentative magic show is that my senator has not honed his powers of misdirection quite well enough. Nationally, SJP has established a number of guiding principles, among them a firm belief in international law and human rights, but it lacks any sort of nationwide mechanism to ensure that all its far-flung chapters fall into line around any one perspective or solution to the conflict. It certainly has no way of guarantying that all its affiliates agree with the statements on the UC Davis chapter’s wiki. To best understand the character of Brandeis SJP, it would be well to look not at a chapter 3000 miles away, but to the politics of its organizers and to the culture of Palestinian sympathizers at Brandeis since these factors will likely guide Brandeis SJP much more than national directives or imitation of other chapters ever could.

If my senator had done this, if he had written about Lisa Hanania and Noam Shuster, the driving forces behind Brandeis SJP, he might have mentioned that they are passionate but contemplative women given over, like most supporters of Palestinian rights on campus, to mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence as opposed to violence and recrimination. In short, they make terrible extremists. Indeed, the purpose of Brandeis SJP in their words is to “provide resources . . . that express the Palestinian narrative to campus.” This mission is not only political legitimate, but also educationally beneficent. What could be better for any university than to expose its students to new perspectives on familiar issues?

The problems with my senator’s musings on extremism do not end with his oddball augmentation. While it is safe to say that his fears of SJP extremism are unfounded; the bigger issue is the unquestioned assumption on my senator’s part that if Brandeis SJP were in fact full of extremists, this alone would be an adequate basis for excluding SJP from campus discourse.

This assumption forgets how much we owe to extremists. In 18th century Europe, for example, only the most extreme radicals believed in democracy or religious toleration. If these extremists had not triumphed in the 19th and 20th centuries, there would be no Brandeis University at which to argue about Palestine. Indeed, extremism is meaningless without reference to a political community. For example, racial integration was in the mainstream of black American discourse for as long as that discourse has existed; however, among white Americans in the 1920s and 30s, this belief found little support outside of the Communist Party.

If the goal of Brandeis SJP is to expose Brandeis Students to the “Palestinian narrative” then the views on a one state solution and the tragedy of the Nakba are not extreme, since among Palestinians, in fact among many peoples all over the world, these ideas have a much support. This doesn’t mean that the founders of Brandeis SJP, or any particular Brandeis student, or any Palestinian for that matter, has to agree with these positions. It means only that having a voice on campus expressing these opinions and exposing their peers to this different way of thinking would not be illegitimate. My senator, enmeshed in the conflicts surrounding Palestine, is well exposed to these concepts, and yet he wants to deny other, less informed students the opportunity to know what he knows out of a fear that these weak willed individuals—if they shared his intimate knowledge—might not be as supportive of Israel as he.

My class and my university deserve better than this from our student government and from our student body. We desperately need more Hananias and Shusters and more groups like SJP who are willing to stand up for minority viewpoints on campus. But more importantly, we have moderates enough, maybe its time that we had some extremists as well.