Listening to Silence: The State of Discourse Surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at Yale
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
Luna Millman and Ismael Jamai Ait Hmitti
In the Fall of 2019, a group of students affiliated with Yale’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) marched through Old and Cross Campus before stopping outside of the Slifka Center. They held various protest signs, including one which read “Antisemitism≠Anti-Zionism”, while leading chants such as “Where are the headlines?” and “Israel is an apartheid state.”
SJP took to the streets to protest the series of escalating attacks in Gaza, but the group’s demands were larger than the political event. The students of SJP wanted to shift how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was discussed on campus. More specifically, they wanted to be taken as a serious and necessary part of the conversation.
Former SJP President Nika Zarazvand ’20 said, “I’ll never forget the looks of shock on people’s faces when they passed by us. It really reflected just the absence of this kind of stuff on campus.”
Yet shock was not the only sentiment that students felt. Some took SJP’s presence in front of the Slifka Center as yet another example of how political grievances against the state of Israel are aggressively forced upon the entire Jewish community.
Sam Feldman ‘22, who spent a year in Israel studying the conflict, saw the protest as more antagonistic than productive“When you hear chants of ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free’[...] Compromise isn’t necessarily the first word that comes to mind,” he said.
This protest was concomitant with a larger shift in the world of Middle Eastern intelligentsia. With Netanyahu’s plans to annex the West Bank and Peter Beinart’s recent impactful article, scholars have been forced to readdress how the conflict is treated within academia. At colleges such as UC Berkeley or New York University the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a hot button topic, but Yale has been noticeably absent from the discourse. Excluding the occasional YDN article, this demonstration was one of the few instances where public attention was brought to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years on campus.
The authors of this piece believe that Yale’s lack of public debate about the conflict is a byproduct of insular discussion. Even though these conversations are being held in private, among peers and within affinity groups, they rarely occur between members with opposed perspectives. This lack of cross-communication is how tensions, such as those illustrated during the SJP protest, are escalated through public confrontation.
Through conducting first-hand interviews, we sought to break the existing silence on campus and give students an outlet to express why they feel such trepidation to publicly broach the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Fear, Dismissal, and Ignorance: Why This Conversation is Avoided
Elena Debre ‘22 addressed the silence on campus in her YDN piece Who’s Right? Whose Birthright. She wrote, “Many believe this kind of reticence to engage with the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may reflect a larger issue at Yale.”
In the article, speculation about what that “larger issue” could be, varied. Some commented on “the merging of religion and politics” in tandem with the lack of speakers and classes about the topic, while others expressed that, “there was little campus-wide interest” in the conflict at all. In this article, the following interviews highlight various fears students face when broaching the topic.
Jonas Kilga ‘23, whose father is Israeli, believes that this “larger issue” could be the fear of the so-called cancel culture on campus. “I do think there exists an inclination for people to latch onto soundbites or tidbits that can be taken out of context. [When engaging with] a topic as complicated and historical as Israel-Palestine, you’re going to be called a lot of things,” he stated.
Eric*, a student involved in the Slifka community echoed this sentiment, “There’s a huge desire to not get canceled. If you say one nuanced thing that doesn’t come out right, people may not talk to you for a while.”
Yet Kilga drew attention to the fact that, in order to be canceled, students would first have to engage in this conversation. A choice that many students decide not to pursue.
“People are so, so scared of speaking out and I hope that changes,” he stated. “I very much feel that I have a responsibility to speak about this subject on campus. My father is one of the staunchest critics of Israel both in theory and in practice that I know. I’m trying to continue that legacy and fight for what I think is right.”
Feldman believes otherwise. “Personally, I feel these conversations happen a lot— but generally happen in a much healthier and less explosive way than we see on other campuses,” he stated.
In his experience, the most contentious conversations that he has had about Israel are with other Zionists, because there is mutual respect and more of a willingness to “get into the weeds” when discussing the conflict. Conversely, he has felt that staunch anti-Zionists are less likely to engage with him in particular.
“--It’s likely that they are so incensed by Israel and it’s existence, that they’re not super open to hearing what I have to say. That’s something I’ve definitely experienced at Yale. I’d love to engage with them, but I don’t think that’s a two-way street.”
Ana*, a student affiliated with the Yale Muslim Students Association (MSA), echoed this statement albeit from a flipped perspective, “If you come from different places ideologically, it rarely leads to further conversation. People might assume that I’m pro-Palestine, so the conversation is avoided completely.”
Ana explained that, in her experience, these conversations were being had in MSA affinity groups. But she believed that debate could only extend so far within ideologically homogeneous groups. It was the risk of only participating in shallow or repetitive dialogue. The danger of that is self-evident: the more we speak in this manner, the more we retrench ourselves in unchallenged beliefs.
While fear of speaking out was a commonality among interviewees, the reason they were afraid to do so varied significantly. Eric* expressed that their position at Slifka often felt precarious as a non-Ashkenazi Jew—and believed that speaking up about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would just make them stick out more.
“I personally have felt a lot of fear speaking about it,” he admitted. “In the Slifka community, not a lot of people talk about their opinions about this.”
Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, the Jewish Chaplain at Yale, admits that these risks inspire fear in students on either side of the ideological spectrum.
“Students will often share with us how they are afraid to share their opinions on Israel - whether they’re on the left or the right - out of fear (not unreasonable in my eyes) that they may lose friendships with those who disagree with them,” he explained.
Following their participation in the 2019 SJP demonstration, Bryan* recalled feeling close to tears because, “People I knew saw me, and then acted as if I never existed.”
There is a risk to speaking out about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two main reasons students were afraid of broaching the topic were the threats of social and institutional ostracization. While Rabbi Jason touched upon the social ostracization that Jewish students felt surrounding the conflict, multiple students (both Jewish and non-Jewish) also admitted that their fear was compounded by the threat of being listed on professionally damning sites. The latter, a fear exclusive to students critical of Israel, reflects a larger issue at hand: the delegitimization of Anti-Zionist voices.
Early Zionist leader Theodore Herzl
Campus Anti-Zionists and Intersectional Opposition
It’s important to preface this section of the article by stating that most interviewees do not qualify as Anti-Zionist. Rather, they are radically opposed to Israel as it stands today. This distinction, although technical, is necessary to adequately encapsulate the diversity of opinions within this label. For readers who wish for a deeper understanding of Anti-Zionism and its distinction from Antisemitism, Peter Beinart wrote a 2019 article expounding the topic.
In itself, Anti-Zionism is a controversial concept. Numerous organizations and political leaders have described Anti-Zionism as both a product of and a precursor to Antisemitism, oftentimes qualifying the concept as nothing more than a rhetorical disguise for Antisemitism. We bring this up to recognize that, as a result of the widespread conflation between Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism, Anti-Zionism is often dismissed as an unnecessary perspective within the discourse. Thus, to allow for a more comprehensive and comfortable debate on campus, we felt it important to recognize a number of perspectives which could be qualified as “Anti-Zionist”.
Anti-Zionism —in its most essential definition— describes an opposition to Zionism. Zionism is a two thousand year-old movement that advocates for the return of the Jewish diaspora to the land of Israel with the goal of creating a Jewish homeland. Over the course of that time, the term has been appropriated by many different movements, ranging from religious to secular; from those whose ultimate objective was to establish a Jewish state, to others that simply sought to create independent communes on the land of Eretz Israel.
Anti-Zionists on Yale’s campus question the fundamental principles underlying the mission of the World Zionist Organization which was formed by European Intellectuals during the late 19th Century. The WZO’s objective was-- succinctly-- to create a Jewish nation-state in the land of Israel which, during that period, was under the control of a decaying Ottoman Empire.
Even working within this narrowed definition, Anti-Zionists at Yale are ideologically diverse. They have different reasons for radically opposing today’s state of Israel. This section will divide these perspectives into two broad categories, each with distinct ideological and political foundations.
The first major stance was actually among interviewees who were reluctant to even identify as Anti-Zionists. This reluctance was due to their shared belief in the Jewish peoples’ right to sovereignty and self-determination. They held this belief while simultaneously engaging with Israel as a settler-colonial project. More succinctly, they were radically critical of how modern Israel’s historical and political foundations were constructed. It is historically clear that the ambitions of the WZO aligned and shared many ideological aspects with those of European imperialists which sought to “civilize” the Holy Land or, to use the infamous expression, “make the desert bloom”.
Eric* touched on this when reflecting on their personal relationship to modern political Zionism. “Zionism is defined as a right for Jewish autonomy, [which] I completely agree with,” they said. “[but] how can I [...] speak out against racial violence in the US, and then accept that same strand of violence being enacted towards Ethiopian Jews and Arab populations. Is this a Jewish state or is it an Ashkenazi state? To say that this is a land for all Jews is a lie.”
This quote represents a subgroup of criticisms that recognize the existing systemic inequities that are exacerbated in the state today. These include the state’s historical resistance to recognizing the practices of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community as a valid expression of Judaism, racial discrimination against non-Ashkenazi Jews, and politically inflammatory rhetoric about Arab populations.
The second group rejects Zionism in its most abstract form. It does not believe that political sovereignty should reside in the members of a “nation,” whether that nation is defined by a shared history and culture or by ethnicity. Inspired by authors of the far left tradition such as Hannah Arendt or Benedict Anderson, this group believes that the nation-state model alienates all of those that are not part of the self-defined nation.
Concurrent with this belief, they also made it clear that they did not advocate for the creation of a Palestinian or an Arab nation-state in the land of Israel. This group believes that the Israeli government’s rhetoric of viewing non-Jews as a “demographic threat” runs fundamentally contrary to the tenets of democracy.
It would be false to claim that Anti-Zionists at Yale believe that Palestinian nationalism is more “valid” than the Jewish right to a sovereign state in Israel. It is not a matter of competing nationalisms. For the most part, Anti-Zionists at Yale advocate for a more inclusive state that does not have to be wary of the ethnic constitution of its populace to maintain its democracy. They advocate for the creation of a more inclusive state drawn by civic standards rather than national ones.
Yet, despite the specificity of their ideological positions, students were still afraid to speak to those with different opinions. With these fearful student testimonies, we need to ask ourselves the unsettling question: Is this fear legitimate?
American political scientist Norman Finklestein
The Institutions of Yale on Social Discourse
In order to answer the question, it’s necessary to reflect on the ways in which our institution has stifled critical perspectives on the conflict.
The most notorious example is the Finkelstein incident of 2004. Norman Finkelstein is an American political scientist whose primary fields of research are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the politics of the Holocaust. He broke into academic stardom by writing a doctoral thesis that criticized Joan Peters’ acclaimed book From Time Immemorial. Peters’ book claimed that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people and that the Arabs in the region started arriving in Eretz Israel only with the establishment of European Jewish settlements in the 19th Century. This argument would then be used to confirm the belief that Israel was a “land without people for a people without a land”.
Finklestein, among other scholars like Yehoshua Porath and Edward Said, denounced Peters’ misrepresentation and selective use of sources to support a political agenda. Furthermore, he exposed the book for using faulty sources and inventing historical facts outright. It’s important to note that, prior to Finkelstein’s response, Peters’ book was an international success that had been lauded by scholars such as Barbara Tuchman who said that, “This book is a historical event in itself, a discovery that has lain in the dark all along until its revelation by Joan Peters’s unrelenting research. It could well change the course of events in the Middle East.”
As part of his book promotion tour, Finkelstein presented at Yale. After a two hour long exposition on the history of the conflict and — what he considered — its faulty coverage, one of the attendees asked Finkelstein unpromptedly whether or not he “observed Yahrtzeit” for his parents who were Holocaust survivors. After answering that both he and his parents were staunch atheists, he then admonished Yale students for their questions’ lack of depth. It seemed to him that, despite the intellectual reputation of the University, the talkback had reflected how shallow students’ academic engagement had been with the conflict.
One may say that this was an isolated incident that is not reflective of discourse as a whole. However, the very fact that a student considered it acceptable to publicly ask a leading scholar of the Holocaust how Jewish he truly was offers us a look into what the larger attitude towards Anti-Zionists are— on campus and off.
This is not the only time in which a speaker critical of Israel has been subjected to slanted criticism at Yale. Juan Cole, another leading scholar in Middle Eastern studies, was speculated to have been denied tenure for posting Anti-Zionist pieces on his blog Informed Comment. The decision to deny tenure was taken neither by the History nor the Sociology departments but rather by the Senior Appointments Committee. A history professor — who decided to remain anonymous due to death threats they had previously received for speaking out on the issue — told the YDN that some professors “tried to portray this guy Juan Cole as an [sic] anti-Semite and an anti-American.”
Political decisions on the faculty level reflect a certain bias in the courses Yale chooses to offer, forcing students to remain critical and at times choose not to engage in classes due to the institution’s perceived Zionist bias. Yousof Omeish ‘22 expressed that, “I think that a lot of the same frameworks used in classes to justify the Iraq war are used today to talk about the case of Palestine. This is especially true in fields such as security studies which see the benefit of a powerful US-backed Israeli state so that legitimizes that is going on as part of that.”
So often, in conversations surrounding geopolitical issues, to debate necessitates taking up the guise of amorality. If you are emotional about the topic of discussion, you are dismissed for being biased. Yet, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the only geopolitical issues in which religious morality is a core feature of its discourse.
Perhaps then, the reason that Yale students do not readily participate in conversations surrounding the Israel-Palestinian conflict is that they have not been trained to do so. They have been trained to see diplomacy as impartiality, to see any emotional connections to issues bigger than themselves as dangerous. It is in these fears that we must realize that apoliticism has not been extended to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To speak about human rights and the state of Israel is to automatically assert yourself as either “pro” or “anti.”
“There are certain irreconcilable differences that, by nature of critiquing someone’s stance, you are critiquing their identity,” stated Ana*. “This is an extension of politicizing human rights issues. You’re using demographics ad hominem to dismiss any critiques.”
This further confirms a point brought up by multiple interviewees: when Anti-Zionist Jews join the discussion, their Jewish identity gets undermined (i.e. the insult of “self-hating Jew”). This is problematic as it distances Jews from Jewish institutions on campus, leading them to feel ostracized from their own communities. It is the expectation that Jewish students must conflate their ethnic identities and their political beliefs. Naturally, this false dilemma creates reticence for Jewish Anti-Zionist voices to engage in the conversation, or conversely as Rabbi Jason mentioned, Zionist students who are afraid of social pushback.
Multiple interviewees made reference to social media when asked about political engagement on campus. They observed peers (most of whom identified as being far-left) who had previously never engaged in conversations about the conflict, suddenly reposting infographics about annexation. It was surprising, and consequently met with mixed feelings.
“To really understand the complexity of this issue you need a lot of context and, more than that, you need a lot of interaction with people who are actually living through it,” explained Feldman. “It’s tough to understand the ins and outs of an incredibly complex religious, ethnic, and national dispute from reading a Twitter feed.”
Another interviewee expressed cautious optimism about seeing people post about the threat of annexation, but felt that political engagement on social media was too fleeting to deserve very much credit. This incident, in conjunction with the student body’s response to Finkelstein’s presentation, is integral to the crux of this article’s argument. The “larger issue” may not only be a reticence to engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also an inability to engage with political issues past shallow discourse.
Religious Centers’ Role in Facilitating Conversation: Who Gets a Seat at the Table?
When speaking about the lack of social and institutional debate, a logical question that arises is: Well then, where can we talk about this? An obvious starting place is the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.
While Slifka is in itself an apolitical organization, some Jewish students felt that the environment de-incentivizes political discussion. One interviewee referenced how Zionism, a belief that could be somewhat unfamiliar to those without a formal Jewish education, was an unquestioned feature of Yale’s Jewish community. Its presence signaled the importance of Israel as a core part of the Jewish diaspora. Yet it could also create a sense of discomfort for students whose Judaism had previously been divorced from Israel prior to coming to Yale. That discomfort would only intensify for students whose political orientation also opposed the inherent support of modern political Zionism.
Josie Ingall ‘24 is chief among this demographic. While she didn’t often broach the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus, she felt that the culture at Slifka wasn’t conducive to either her political beliefs or her personal relationship to Judaism.
“At Yale, I have not found a Jewish space that is both culturally and politically welcoming to me,” she stated. “Social justice is a core part of my congregation back home [in New York City] and, by extension, my own Jewish identity. It was very clear to me that this wasn’t the case at Slifka.”
When asked if Yale’s campus lent itself to establishing a hierarchy of voices in discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Caleb Cohen ‘21 commented on how Slifka’s unique position as both a religious and cultural center could have an effect on who leads conversations surrounding the conflict.
“Slifka exists in another realm [from other cultural houses]. It’s not technically a cultural center, it’s a religious center in the same way that The Musalla in Bingham is a religious center for Muslim students. But it’s not a perfect comparison because Slifka is a multi-story building with a full-service dining hall, whereas the Muslim religious center is confined to the Bingham basement. It’s less visible on campus, and has fewer resources.”
Slifka hosts several programs in which students can engage with Israel in various capacities, but most of them are centered around cultural and religious engagement, rather than the political. This includes the promotion of the politically polarizing free trip to Israel, Taglit-Birthright.
One of the few political organizations that are part of Slifka’s Israel programming is Yale J-Street, a progressive Zionist advocacy group working towards resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via a two-state solution. Spearheaded by Sophie Huttner ‘23 and Gabriel Klapholz ‘22, Yale J-Street hopes to open up more space to speak about the conflict on campus.
“Our goal is to make American Jewry a progressive force for a progressive Israel [...] we’re excited about dialogue. This doesn’t have to be a toxic conversation or one that alienates a large portion of students,” said Huttner. “It can be a conversation that allows us to grow closer as both a school and an intellectual community.”
Tensions can arise when local chapters of groups such as J-Street and AIPAC, a Pro-Israel lobbying group which has become increasingly partisan over the past several years, constitute the only Israel advocacy based political presences at the religious center. While J-Street advocates for progressive policies between the US and Israel, grassroots organizations such as SJP and Jewish Voices for Peace operate far outside the modern neo-liberal imagining of Israeli-US relations. The latter perspectives are often relegated to “far-left” circles, as opposed to being accepted within the Hillel community as a mainstream political stance.
Slifka has expressed an interest to evolve its Israel curriculum, with internal help from students and community members, but as of now the current programming can be taken as emblematic of how the organization’s culture normalizes Israel’s presence as a core feature of campus Judaism, yet leaves little room to address the political and historical origins of doing so.
Conclusion: What Now?
In its broadest form, this article dissects how Yale’s political temperance reflects upon broader discussions of religion, diaspora, and anti-colonial struggle on liberal college campuses. After conducting interviews with students, from various sides of the ideological spectrum, who are participating in this conversation, we have concluded that we must reimagine the campus climate which currently informs Yale's discourse.
The first takeaway is that, at Yale, there is a painful lack of knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In order to engage in meaningful discourse, we must first establish a common factual framework along with recognizing the variations in historical narratives of the region. This common framework is necessary for intelligent debate. Yet, as it now exists, this framework is negligible.
Notwithstanding diaspora oriented cultural events, little has been done to further Yalies’ understanding of Israel and its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s history. This feeds into the broader lack of Palestinian representation, both demographically and academically. As well as the overall lack of classes offered about the conflict. As students at one of the country's best universities, the irony of these statements is scathing. Through offering classes and hosting events, Yale has the capability, and we argue, the responsibility to do its part in supplementing this gap.
Many students expressed that their political beliefs informed their religious ones. This included critically engaging with Israel as not only a religious symbol, but a political entity. Consequently, if a Jewish student’s background does not align with the moderate, they will more than likely choose to disassociate from the community. The Israel programming at Slifka has an opportunity to facilitate larger conversations about social justice and politics within the Jewish community, but as of now, the culture does not lend itself to doing so.
Within this programming, there’s a responsibility to have Anti-Zionist voices represented. These voices are needed to further the debate on the issue. Especially in conjunction with Zionists who are actively talking about the conflict within their own spheres. This could be facilitated through panels or intergroup discussions. Furthermore, there needs to be explicit condemnation of websites that have targeted Yale students critical of Israel in the past. The threat of public excoriation has incited fear in students and prevented safe and productive debate for all participants involved.
If we can’t talk about the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a college campus, the most insulated place to participate in discourse, then how is the next generation of American politicians supposed to enact policies which help solve the conflict? If we can’t bear to have conversations filled with contention, then how are students going to be able to make hard decisions later in life? We live in a world made up of complex truths. We cannot shield ourselves from thinking deeply about things we don’t have an answer to. If we shy away from conversations that require nuance, intelligence, and empathy then we are only cheating ourselves.
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of interviewees
Luna Millman is a rising junior in Silliman College. She is also a freelance contributor at the feminist magazine “Hey Alma”, where she writes about Jewish issues from a Gen Z perspective.
Ismael Jamai Ait Hmitti is a rising junior in Saybrook College majoring in History and Middle Eastern Studies. He is taking a year off to do research in France. His passions include 19th Century Ottoman History and singing in his a cappella group Shades of Yale.