This Thursday’s “Narratives Dinner: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” marks the first event of this academic year claiming to promote “dialogue” about Israel and Palestine on campus. We in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) are skeptical of this event — and all those like it — for we have seen how “dialogue” is regularly used as a political tool to capture and control criticism of Israel. “Dialogue” implies two equal parties meeting voluntarily at the table to reach common ground. But that is not what events such as this dinner are, nor can they be, for the power relationship between Israel and Palestine ensures that dialogue is always, in Ghassan Kanafani’s words, a “conversation between the sword and the neck.” We write this op-ed to express our concern about the continued use of “dialogue” as a guise to control and silence those speaking the truth about the state of Israel.
It is our experience that when Emory students attempt to speak up on behalf of Palestine, we are routinely abused verbally, intimidated or threatened in attempts to shut us down. Self-identified Zionist students have heckled us, the conservative press has slandered us, the Emory Police has investigated us, and the University president has even conflated our anti-Zionist position with antisemitism. Indeed, in an email responding to the eviction notice controversy of last spring, Sterk wrote, “What happens on the Emory campus does not happen in isolation. All of us are aware that anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise on college campuses and throughout American society today.” To say that the University has remained neutral in this is laughable. This week, Dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences Michael A. Elliott is moderating a conference with an academic, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, who characterized a cofounder of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as personifying “antisemitism on the left.”
Ultimately we feel that the only place where we are encouraged — by either pro-Israel students or by the University — to speak out about the injustices taking place against Palestinians is in the highly controlled and regulated space of the “dialogue.” We are thus left feeling that “dialogue” is carefully curated to change nothing, maintaining a pro-Israel status quo, while giving those of a pro-Israel position the facade of earnest political engagement.
Meanwhile, dialogue asks vulnerable individuals, especially those who have suffered first hand at the hands of Israel, to publicly share their vulnerability. As you would not ask a mother who lost her child to gun violence to have a conversation with an NRA member, and especially not a school shooter, we suggest that it is insensitive to invite Palestinians and their allies into conversations with those who are complicit in and supportive of the violence perpetrated against them.
Even more insidiously, we find that dialogue events are often the sites of surveillance by Zionist groups who seek to identify and quell dissent. In the past, student-advocates for Palestine across the United States have had their names and personal information posted on blacklisting websites such as Canary Mission, which claim to document individuals who “promote hatred of the USA, Israel, and Jews.” In practice, these websites are tools to defame students who organize around injustice in Palestine or those who simply hold cultural events or celebrations. Websites like these put students in imminent danger just for expressing their personal beliefs and may prevent them from getting jobs in the future. In the dialogue event of last spring, pro-Israel students “promised” pro-Palestinian organizers that they would not be put on Canary Mission if they attended, effectively admitting their power to do so.
Last spring, when conflict erupted on campus during SJP’s Israel Apartheid Week, the very students organizing this Thursday’s “Narratives” event organized a private dialogue dinner between students and University President Claire E. Sterk, Dean Elliott and Professor of Pedagogy in the Religion department Bobbi Patterson. Zionist student-leaders at the dinner substantially outweighed the smaller number of pro-Palestinian student voices. In the discussion, several pro-Israel students refused to acknowledge the Palestinian state’s existence and repeatedly referred to Israel-Palestine solely as “Israel.” Meanwhile, the administrators remained predictably neutral and diplomatic, their ambivalence effectively siding them with the apartheid status quo. What did this event accomplish? Zionist student leaders got to encounter their critics on terms which they were comfortable and the administration got to look like they played the part of the benevolent peacekeeper, while pro-Palestinian students were left feeling used, as pawns, in someone else’s optical game.
As sociologist Lisa Taraki put it in 2011, dialogue “deliberately avoids acknowledgment of the basic coloniser-colonised relationship. Dialogue does not promote change, but rather reinforces the status quo, and in fact is mainly in the interest of the Israeli side of the dialogue.” To have a dialogue about Palestine is to suggest there is something ambiguous or subjective about what is happening to Palestinians, that there is room for debate and multiple sides to the story. The United Nations has already had the dialogue and made their statement. There is no discussion left to be had.
Here is where we stand our ground firmly. SJP exists to call attention to the unimaginable atrocities exercised on Palestinians by the state of Israel. We seek to support the people of Palestine and amplify their voices. We stand against all social injustices, including antisemitism. However, as Sen.Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stated, “The struggle against antisemitism is also the struggle for Palestinian freedom.” To recognize this struggle is paramount to combating oppressive structures across the world. We understand that it is the intentional program of Israel to keep Americans, and especially Jewish Americans, in ignorance or denial of the violence Israel requires for its continued existence. The fact that many Emory students are so reactive to SJP organizing is a testament to the effectiveness of the Israeli campaign. But this is precisely why we are needed: if the voice denying human rights violations remains the loudest, humanity is in trouble.
Instead of attending the Narratives Dinner this Thursday, join us, Students for Justice in Palestine, in our event Thursday to further discuss how bad faith practices of “dialogue” are in reality artfully veiled displays of power that further entrench liberal disaffection in relation to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Opinion Editor Zach Ball (21C) previously served as president of Emory Students for Justice in Palestine and was not involved in writing or editing this op-ed.
The Emory Wheel is accepting responses to this op-ed.