Editor's Note: What Makes for a Positive Campus Climate on Israel?
Updated: Feb 2, 2021
Mati Zeff, Editor-in-Chief
What does it mean to have a healthy campus culture on Israel?
Growing up in a Jewish community and attending Jewish day school, I found this question to be omnipresent but rarely addressed. We were warned in school that college would be a battleground of vicious rhetoric on Israel. We were told horror stories of antisemitic incidents on college campuses and were instructed by speaker after speaker on how to defend against the supposedly counterfactual arguments of organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine and the Boycott Divest & Sanction movement. We were shown the worst-case scenario over and over again. But no one ever stopped to discuss what the ideal campus culture regarding Israel would look like.
This past summer, I had a Zoom chat with a current senior at my high school to talk about all things Yale in the lead-up to his college application season. After we had been talking for a while, he asked me what the situation surrounding Israel was at Yale. I found myself at a loss for what to say.
I could have said, on the one hand, that Yale has a remarkable lack of conflict on Israel related issues. As I sat thinking, though, I realized that such a response did not really answer the question. Yes, Yale is rare in the diminished role that issues of Israel and Palestine play in campus politics. But our campus culture must be more than just what it lacks. What does Yale have?
In the Jewish community, Yale is often described as a model of a positive campus environment on Israel. Markers of this supposed uniquely positive environment are typically listed as the absence of active SJP and BDS chapters on campus and the lack of any heated conflict on issues of Israel and Palestine.
Clashes between pro-Israel and anti-Israel camps at other U.S. colleges indeed provide clear examples of unhealthy or unproductive debate. Nonetheless, to regard the lack of such conflict as sufficient to establish a healthy campus culture on Israel is to ignore the glaring absence of healthy dialogue that accompanies it. Not only do Yale students not clash on Israel; they barely talk about it at all.
This silence cannot possibly constitute the ideal campus environment on Israel. Yes, there are many colleges where talking about Israel quickly spirals into polarized dogmatism and polemical attacks. However, the appropriate replacement for unhealthy debate is not silence; it is healthy, respectful dialogue.
The construction of such healthy dialogue is easier said than done. However, we must realize that the silence that currently smothers these controversial topics is not an acceptable substitute for open, vigorous debate. It is vital to provide a forum in which the perspectives of members of the Yale community can encounter each other and be placed in dialogue. It is by challenging each other that we learn and build unity.
Perspectives: The Yale Journal on Israel and Palestine aims to be such a forum. The articles in the Journal demonstrate the diverse array of strong feelings and thoughtful perspectives that Yale students have to offer on issues of Israel. These perspectives are far from homogenous, and their authors come to the Journal from a multitude of backgrounds. This diversity is a focus of the Journal, and a necessary component of productive dialogue. We aim to bring together a diverse array of perspectives in an open setting to provide the opportunity to learn from each perspective and the comparisons between them.
The lack of conflict on Israel at Yale is not a victory in itself; it is an opportunity. The space that such conflict is absent from is a space waiting to be filled. Perspectives: The Yale Journal on Israel and Palestine aims to play a part in filling that void by being a catalyst for meaningful, productive, open dialogue.
Let us push our campus culture in a new direction. Let us strive to create a space in which we can engage respectfully with each other on these controversial topics without resorting to dogmatism or blanket silence. Let us invite others into that space, and learn from what they have to say.
Let us make Yale a truly healthy, positive place to engage with Israel and Palestine.
Mati Zeff is a Junior in Branford College majoring in Philosophy with a certificate in Advanced Russian Language Study. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Perspectives: The Yale Journal on Israel and Palestine and Co-President of Yale Friends of Israel.