BOSTON – Two national student organizations’ gatherings were held on Boston university campuses this month to expose what they call the “intersectionality” of Zionism with other forms of oppression.
During both early October’s Open Hillel conference at Harvard University, and the just-concluded Students for Justice in Palestine gathering at Tufts University, Israel was condemned for imposing an “interlocking matrix of oppression” onto Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, women, children, gays, the disabled, and others.
Coined in 1989, the feminist sociological theory of intersectionality has often been applied to studies of black women, who – so goes the theory – derive their most potent sense of identity from the intersection of being female and black, as opposed to one characteristic over the other.
More recently, anti-Israel groups have adopted intersectionality to denounce Zionism’s alleged subjugation and silencing of its many critics, including Jews.
“Our very bodies disrupt Zionist narratives,” said Sa’ed Atshan, a Tufts lecturer in peace and justice studies, who also advises the campus SJP chapter.
Identifying himself to conference participants as a gay Palestinian, Atshan demanded Israel be “decolonized” for its racist policies. He also condemned Israel for creating a Palestinian society rife with honor killings and the persecution of gays – all caused by the intersection of Zionism with misogyny and homophobia, he said.
“Let us not let the Zionists shape the narratives of Palestinian imperfections,” said Atshan, who received a standing ovation from more than 300 students in a Tufts auditorium.
“We all know Israel is an apartheid state and should be boycotted,” Atshan said.
The activist professor said one-third of his SJP chapter’s students are Jewish, and he cited the “deeply racist and pervasive Birthright Israel program” as an obstacle to peace.
Atshan and other speakers used SJP’s fourth annual conference to call for “reciprocal solidarity” among oppressed groups around the world. Indeed, during the half hour before Atshan’s keynote, three black presenters scarcely mentioned the Mideast, focusing on racially charged events in Missouri and Michigan instead.
Earlier this month, the Harvard-hosted Open Hillel conference also included calls for “intersectional organizing.” Movement leaders raised $33,000 in crowdfunding to help “eliminate political redlines” at hundreds of Hillel chapters, drawing more than 200 students from all over the US to their first conference.
Framing their battle in terms of free speech, Open Hillel leaders ran breakout sessions to highlight – for instance – the alleged racism inherent in American Jewry; the validity of a boycott on Israel, and the big donors behind Hillel International’s “exclusionary guidelines.” Conference facilitators also pushed back on “the dogmatization of pro-Israelism,” wherein voices critical of Israel are reflexively labelled anti-Semitic.
Normalizing the existence of Israel both covers up Zionism’s original sins, and helps Israel ‘colonize the most intimate parts of the oppressed: their mind’
In addition to intersectionality and dogmatic pro-Israelism, leaders at both the Open Hillel and SJP conferences endorsed the strategy of “anti-normalization” in relations with Israel and its supporters. Normalizing the existence of Israel – so goes the argument – both covers up Zionism’s original sins, and helps Israel “colonize the most intimate parts of the oppressed: their mind.”
Anti-Israel activities on campuses up 50% this fall
Following the summer’s lengthy Gaza conflict, anti-Israel activities on US campuses are up by about 50% compared to the same period last year, according to Jacob Baime, executive director of the Washington-based Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC).
ICC researchers identified 318 “unique detractor events” on campuses so far this semester, compared with 203 last year. A total of 120 campuses were affected by these activities, as opposed to last fall’s 76 campuses.
At the forefront of campus Israel-bashing is SJP, which receives funding and logistical support from American Muslims for Palestine, itself an offshoot of the Hamas-supporting Islamic Association of Palestine. The Anti-Defamation League calls SJP “the leading organization providing anti-Zionist training and education to students.”
In its quest to apply the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) strategy to Israel, SJP is joined by the virulently anti-Israel National Lawyers Guild. Of SJP’s current 154 campus chapters, the ICC said 68 groups held at least ten “unique events” to defame Israel last year. Twenty-five new SJP chapters were formed over the summer, said Baime.
Though few pro-Israel student leaders favor banning political expression on campus, most claim SJP’s activities are destructive to student discourse and prospects for Mideast peace. According to the pro-Israel StandWithUs, several SJP leaders have openly supported terrorism against Israeli civilians, including SJP steering committee member Ahmad Aburas, an active supporter of Hamas on social media, and Mohammad Desai, a BDS leader known for defending protesters who shouted “shoot the Jew.”
“SJP is big on bullying,” said Elliott Hamilton, a senior at the Claremont Colleges in California and leading Israel activist.
“They have contempt for anyone who does not share their viewpoint,” said Hamilton. “When they are exposed for their bullying of Hillels and pro-Israel students in general, most of the apathetic ‘middle ground’ students understand there is a better way than what SJP is calling for,” he said.
‘Many students don’t want to research or think for themselves. It’s easier to demonize one side than ask critical questions about why there is not peace’
According to Hamilton, Claremont’s J Street U chapter is “the major obstacle I face in trying to defend Israel’s legitimacy,” he said. “Many students don’t want to research or think for themselves. It’s easier to demonize one side than ask critical questions about why there is not peace, which is how J Street U operates,” he said.
Not all Israel advocates agree that J Street U is the blameworthy, missing link between a “neutral” campus devoid of Israel-bashing, and one with ongoing anti-Israel activities.
“J Street U chapters were extremely helpful at Cornell, for instance, in beating back BDS measures,” said Baime of the ICC. “They’ve also stood up in numbers at Wesleyan and elsewhere to keep BDS from gaining ground,” he said.
According to Israel activist Rachel Wolf, a junior at American University, pro-Israel students need to work harder to connect with other groups on campus. As Israel’s detractors gain momentum with intersectionality-like strategies, supporters of the Jewish state must be less insular in their own outreach, she said.
“Fraternities and sororities are a key pool of support for Israel on my campus,” said Wolf. “The job of any Israel group on campus should be education, and working with these and other groups we can give them a horse in the race, so to speak,” she said.
Since universities will continue to provide auspices for groups like SJP, Zionist students must think outside the box, said Noam Gilboord of the Israel Action Network, an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America.
‘We have to broaden the conversation on Israel based on other people’s interests and be more creative about reaching groups that might be vulnerable to [SJP’s] messages’
“There are so many opportunities for pro-Israel students to collaborate with other groups and build relationships,” said Gilboord, who was president of the University of Toronto’s Hillel during that school’s first Israeli Apartheid Week in 2005.
“We have to broaden the conversation on Israel based on other people’s interests and be more creative about reaching groups that might be vulnerable to [SJP’s] messages,” said Gilboord, who cited black, LGBT and feminist student groups as pivotal – and often untapped – outreach partners.
“Campus Hillels have an important role in providing organized, creative outlets for Jewish and non-Jewish students to learn about Jews, Judaism and Israel,” said Gilboord. “That’s how to change the way people think about Israel,” he said.
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