Williams hears echoes of Intifada

Even in the seemingly impenetrable “Purple Bubble,” some things prove unable to be ignored. The chalkings on the sidewalks and the comment board in Baxter mailroom, the student forum last Thursday night and the posters going up – and being torn down – around campus all show that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has managed to stir thought and stoke emotions among both faculty and students.

Josh Williams ’02 spent nearly a year at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in East Jerusalem. Williams, who began his junior year abroad in Israel in August 2000 and finished in June 2001, was able to observe a nation both at peace and at war, having been witness to the beginning of the Intifada two Septembers ago.

Though he knew little about Israeli politics prior to his year abroad, Williams’ personal views on the matter are now very well defined. The chalkings on the sidewalks, proclaiming, among other things, that Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories ( Gaza and the West Bank), that Palestinians need leadership and that Israelis need security, are his work. His intention was to show the existence of an Israeli viewpoint that understands the complexity of the problem, and that is not some brand of blind advocacy for one side.

Response to the chalkings has been mostly negative. Jews on campus, Williams said, seem to oppose his “Death to Sharon” slogan. He went on to say that while the overwhelming majority of campus is largely uninterested in the conflict, those who do care already have their minds made up. While Williams believes the campus is more pro-Israeli than most, pointing to such institutions as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin at Madison as “madhouses” of pro-Palestinian sentiment, he remains “incredibly disappointed with the Israeli voice” at Williams.

Williams sees the leadership of both the Israelis and the Palestinians as a significant impediment to peace. Someone, Williams said, must step in to stop the conflict. He compares the Israelis and Palestinians to two school children “raised with hatred,” fighting and “doing disgusting things” to one another on the playground. Their father – in this analogy, the U.S. or E.U. or U.N. – has to tell both children to stop. Because of the U.S.’s known pro-Israeli sentiments, he thinks that somebody else might be better-suited for the job.

Williams’ strong feelings and interest are mirrored in the faculty. James McAllister, assistant professor of political science, specializing in international relations, believes that much, but not all, of the responsibility for the failure of the peace process “is attributable to Yasser Arafat.”

McAllister sees the demand for a right of return – the demand that the Palestinians who fled or were expelled (the choice of verb depends upon your point of view) after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War be given the right to come back to Israel – as a major obstacle to negotiations. Israel cannot accept the right of return because it would mean the practical elimination of the Jewish state, while Yasser Arafat cannot drop the demands for a right of return because, domestically, he would lose all support.

What then, is the solution? As with everything in the Middle East, the answers are complicated; nevertheless, the peace process, McAllister says, is “based on getting Arafat to accept a Palestinian state strictly limited to the West Bank and Gaza,” and on getting “Israelis to accept that they have to disband virtually all settlements [established] since 1967.” A workable peace settlement, McAllister believes, must leave both sides feeling dissatisfied. If “one side is [completely] happy . . . you don’t have a settlement.”

Furthermore, McAllister believes that “what we need to convey to the Palestinian leadership is the art of the possible.” All of historic Palestine “will never be theirs.” In addition, Colin Powell must tell Arafat that while America is “more than willing to help create a Palestinian state,” he has to stop “promoting textbooks full of anti-Semitic hatred for Israel,” and publicly argue against suicide bombing.

Sharon must be told that “no amount of military power, however necessary, will solve the conflict in the long run. The only workable solution is a Palestinian state with agreed upon restrictions [on its military].” McAllister believes that Sharon must be told that settlements in the territories are unacceptable, that new ones cannot be established and existing ones cannot be allowed to grow .

McAllister is concerned with the tone of comments like Williams’ “Death to Sharon” chalking. “Williams is a great college,” McAllister said, “precisely because we don’t have a bunch of students who think it is clever or appropriate to say mindless things like ‘Death to Sharon’ or ‘Death to Arafat.’ What is going on at places like Berkeley, where acts of anti-Semitism and not simply anti-Israeli protests have occurred, is an absolute disgrace.”

Williams agrees. “He’s 100 percent right. It’s great that we don’t have extremists.” “Death to Sharon,” he said, was not an entirely serious statement.

Gary Jacobsohn, chair of political science and an expert on the Israeli Constitution, worries about the implications the conflict holds for Israeli democracy. Jacobsohn sees the occupation of the territories as a “very severe tension for Israeli democratic aspirations.” However, many people in Israel view the occupied territories as vital to their national security. Democracy, Jacobsohn says, “isn’t worth anything if one is under constant threat” of invasion or destruction.

Jacobsohn agrees with McAllister that Arafat deserves a large share of responsibility for the present uprising and violence. Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, Jacobsohn says, “was a provocation, but in no way [a] cause” of the current conflict. He went on to point out that there is overwhelming evidence that this second intifada was planned in advance and said that there is “no reason to think that [Arafat’s] lies are to be believed.”

Splits among the student body over the conflict have been paralleled by divisions within the faculty. “It’s very odd,” Jacobsohn said, that because “it’s such an emotional issue,” there is “reluctance to engage it” for fear of hurting friendships and stirring anger among colleagues. Jacobsohn pointed out that while talking heads on television often feel no inhibitions about screaming at one another over Israel and Palestine, those people don’t have to work together every day. He and those of his friends and colleagues with whom he disagrees do.

Jacobsohn finds himself largely pessimistic about a two-state solution. “I’m just so fundamentally forlorn over this, I have had to rethink much of what I assumed to be the possibilities.” Though Williams shares Jacobsohn’s pessimism and sadness, he still holds out some distant hopes. Sitting on the sunny steps of Chapin Hall on a beautiful spring afternoon, Williams said that he expected to see a peace settlement within our lifetime. But, he added this caveat: our lifetimes are long.