Global activism, local tolerance

A few weeks ago, I got a frantic e-mail from a friend of mine. She sent it out to all of us, her former students at the American University in Cairo (AUC), that she knew were currently in school here in the U.S. She said that her family’s home in Nablus, West Bank, in the occupied territories of Palestine, was about to be bulldozed to the ground because it was more than two stories tall and the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) was trying to eradicate any possible hideouts for snipers. They had already taken out the mobile phone network that had been put in place for the Palestinians by Kuwait, and with her family out on the street, she had no way of contacting them to find out where they were or even if they were alive. “Please, please do something, anything, to get your government and your people to put an end to this madness,” she pleaded.

So I called up a few of my friends that I knew felt the same way I did about the matter, and our movement was born. We began putting up posters all over campus with messages about the human rights violations and ongoing humanitarian crisis happening inside the Territories. They were pulled down – each and every night we posted them. We put up a board in Baxter that asked the question: “Can there be peace in Israel/Palestine?” to allow students to express their views in what we hoped would be a non-confrontational way. It was vandalized and kicked down – twice – and while some students wrote thoughtful messages, most wrote something like: “go Red Sox,” or “let Disney have the whole lot.” Oh yeah, and after two days, someone stole the pens that we had left there for students to use.

We held a forum with College Council, the Minority Coalition and members of the Jewish Association that had a fairly good turnout, but for the most part attracted only the people who had already been discussing this issue, not people who hadn’t spoken out about it before. Then, members of the Jewish Association held a peace rally on Israeli Independence Day and only a handful of people showed up. We put a peace banner up on Sawyer, and it was taken down within two days. Finally, last weekend, I led a trip to the protests in Washington, D.C., and two people went with me while others on various listserves questioned our motives or even made fun of us for going.I am not trying to guilt-trip anyone because they don’t happen to care as much as I do about the issue, nor would I like to whine (much) about the general apathy of our campus.

However, I would like to call your attention to the fact that this is a very present and very serious issue that touches all of us. What is happening in Israel and the occupied territories has and will continue to have real significant consequences for us here in the Purple Bubble. Our government gives billions in aid to Israel every year, plus a significant amount to Egypt, as was granted to Anwar al-Sadat in the Camp David agreements. In fact, these two countries receive our highest and second highest, respectively, levels of monetary assistance – that’s YOUR tax dollars. We supply Israel with the money for many of its weapons and with the F-16s that it uses to bombard residential neighborhoods – those are provided to them by YOUR congressmen. You cannot sit quiet on this issue if these things bother you in the slightest, nor should you remain quiet if you support them.

What our community needs is a sustained and meaningful discourse about issues like the crisis in Israel/Palestine and one that is characterized by tolerance and respect. I have been more than pleased by most of those on this campus who disagree with me strongly and are able to say so; they have never made me feel disrespected for my views, and we have been able to avoid the mutual calls of “racism” that have come up on other campuses. Most impressive of all, they have had the interest and the courage to speak their minds openly. Yet the people who have taken down our posters, the people who sent angry, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab e-mails that were unfortunately spread about campus and the people who put up some of the chalkings around campus (notably: “death to Sharon”), need to realize that having this discourse means respecting other people’s opinions, feelings and, most importantly, their right to free speech – even if you disagree with them.

It is not right to tear down or erase someone else’s propaganda, in effect silencing them, nor is it right to say things that make students feel threatened here on campus. Tolerance means that we are all able to express our views, if we so choose, without these kinds of tactics from those who disagree with us. It is not mere political correctness to say that I should respect someone who believes that Israel is perfectly correct in its current actions, or that he or she should respect me; it is the very heart of what this country (and I hope this campus) is supposed to stand for. This stands for all issues that students try to raise on this campus, from the recent censorship of Bisexual Gay Lesbian Transgender Union chalkings to the actions of Students for Social Justice.

Again, I am not trying to berate anyone for not caring – that is a personal choice. But I am trying to make a point about what people’s reaction to activism here on campus is and what it ideally should be. The rally in Washington sent a strong message to Congress this weekend that supporters of Palestine may disagree on many issues (groups represented ranged from Orthodox Jews to militant Islamists and former PLO members), but they are united in their condemnation of the current crisis.

We on campus were simply trying to prick the Purple Bubble, if only for a little while, and make the students here – the future leaders of our country – take notice and start talking about this issue. Even if you disagree, or find the idea of activism distasteful, pay attention, because in the so-called “real world,” especially in the government, you’re going to have to.

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