Clearing stereotypes

There were about a dozen of us at the table, smoking argeela and talking politics one evening in 2008. By this point in my time in Ramallah, I had settled into a pattern of complementing my daytime fieldwork researching expressions of identity in the West Bank with a rigorous schedule of nighttime fieldwork – that is “researching Palestinian identity” by frequenting Ramallah’s plethora of bars and coffeehouses. That night, I had found myself with a group of expats and bourgeois Palestinians. As was typical, conversation focused on the complexities of life in the West Bank, whether that meant handicapping wait-times at Israel Defense Force checkpoints or continuing the never ending “best falafel in Palestine” argument. At some point things got a bit more profound – an acquaintance, I think, launched into a story about the work she was doing at a nearby refugee camp. Feeling self-conscious about the self-indulgent tenor of my summer, I turned to a fellow Eph at the table and let loose that ultimate vague platitude of collegiate activism, remarking that “we should do something.”

Somehow, in the midst of writing theses, dealing with the worst job market since the Great Depression and the general vicissitudes of senior year, a few friends and I have managed to “do something,” laying the framework for a campus group that aimed to call attention to the Palestinian narrative. We call ourselves Students for Palestinian Awareness, and we represent a diverse group of people, including Muslims, Christians, Jews and nonbelievers with diverse views and backgrounds, united in the belief that a resolution of the conflict will not occur as long as the word “Palestinian” remains a signifier for a collection of vile stereotypes. Our interest in the conflict stems from a humanitarian, though academically grounded, concern for both of the peoples residing in historic Palestine.

I’d honestly love to say we’ve done a lot, but, due to the typical combination of factors, we really haven’t done much yet. We have put up some posters listing a collection of facts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have gained formal recognition as a group. Apparently, this has proven a bit too much for some members of the “Williams Community.” The majority of our posters have been torn down or defaced with reflexive epithets of disdain. At the same time, on Facebook, our generation’s town square, our group has been vilified by some of our fellow students. Upon learning that we aimed to organize as a College-sponsored group, a student commented bombastically that in expressing concern for the plight of the Palestinian people, we “might as well be for Hitler” – that by creating our group, we have associated ourselves with “terrorism and the hatred of Jews.” Another student tied our solidarity with the Palestinian people to a host of “Muslim” crimes and mocked our (Williams-provided) educational grounding in Middle Eastern studies, prior to dismissing us as “b**ches” that he had “no interest in ever interacting with.”

I have tended to believe, perhaps foolishly, that Williams was a place where honest, open dialogue could occur. Perhaps my imagination of this school differs from the reality, since it appears that this campus could be incapable of holding a dialogue on the Palestinian issue. We have done nothing inflammatory, posted nothing that could reasonably considered offensive. Our vilification stems from our expression of an alternate opinion. As the reactions to our nascent presence have demonstrated, many of the voices of opposition to our group do not simply want to critique us. They explicitly aim to silence us, erasing our voice from this campus.

I can state for certain that we will not be silenced by hate speech and slander. The assertion that the Palestinian narrative is so offensive that it cannot be discussed on this campus is axiomatically absurd and, frankly, disgusting. However, this is not just about Palestine: This is about the ethos of discourse in the Williams community. Of course, what is currently occurring in Gaza, Jerusalem and Hebron is more important than what is occurring in Williamstown; however, the questions that have been raised by the response to our group’s foundation strike to the heart of Williams’ mission. I have always believed that one of the cornerstones of the college experience was exposure to alternative viewpoints – “uncomfortable learning.” Many of our detractors aim to silence us because we express views that differ from their own. Their actions, their aims, are inherently antithetical to the philosophy of a liberal arts education. As we all know, Williams is considered one of the top schools in the nation. If a group like ours cannot exist on this campus, however, it would seem that the assertions of U.S. News and World Report are as empty as ever.

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