That Silent Issue, Israel

Before Students Supporting Israel hosted Alan Dershowitz on September 27th, it seemed some things never changed. The leaves turn orange. Students drop classes. And no one wants to comment on Israel.

After the end of NSOP and fall introductions, the first foray came in the Columbia Political Union. It was just supposed to be a fun roundtable, with a fun last question. But as everyone presenting agreed that countries that violate human rights shouldn’t get military aid, someone just had to ask about Israel. The room exerted an awkward, begrudging groan as the political representatives from the Columbia University Democrats, the Columbia branch of Roosevelt, and the Columbia University College Republicans, all in turn gave a response, forgiving Israel for its many sins.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine has long plagued the Morningside campus. More than a decade ago, Columbia was the face of the anti-Semitic campus. The coverage nearly cost the tenure of Professor Joseph Massad. Ever since, the Columbia administration, Bollinger and former President Spar included, have stood with Israel, as, publicly, members of the faculty stood with Palestine.

Within the student body, tensions are worse. Every year, the opinion staff at the Columbia Daily Spectator can expect op-eds about how students ignore Palestine, how progressives isolate Zionists, how the discourse between the two sides has become toxic. It’s a rhythm now, around which students try to navigate, not saying too much to isolate their friends and classmates.

But these days there are signs of a crescendo.

Last semester, pro-Palestinian students tried unsuccessfully to get Columbia College students to support a boycott of companies operating in the West Bank through a Columbia College Student Council ballot resolution. The determining session where the motion was defeated was the most packed CCSC event that semester, the most packed in recent memory, and as if Israel-Apartheid Week had been packed into a claustrophobic space, the lines had already been drawn. Pro-Israeli students deemed the proposal hurtful harassment as pro-Palestinian students denounced the final vote as marginalizing. It disrupted the typical quiet of council work and, as the meeting came to the close, the pro-Palestinian students declared that they would be back.

For a moment that September night, it felt like the rhythm would continue. Columbia beefed up security in Lerner. Pro-Palestinian students distributed flyers outside the event. SSI had prepared, at Dershowitz’s request, pro-Israel flyers for the audience. It wasn’t even Dershowitz’s first time at Columbia making the same case for Israel, as five years ago he did just that right before a Chomsky lecture critical of Israel.

But between questions, Dershowitz rhetorically turned to Columbia professors, the ones he said were pro-Israel, and called them cowards, cowards for not speaking up and defending Israel openly. He told them to come out of the closet. Stand up for their students. Support J Street if they must. And at that moment, though nothing immediately came of it, the crescendo felt like a fortissimo.

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