Given the especially contentious circumstances surrounding the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI), those of us who organized in opposition to WIFI felt it necessary to explain why we opposed its recognition as a registered student organization.
All students who organized in opposition of WIFI fully support a Jewish home in the region, and we recognize the necessity of Jewish and Israeli voices in the process for peace. However, we could not approve of WIFI’s mission statement, which explicitly supports the currently existing Israeli state. Given that the Israeli state is engaging in ongoing violent practices and is built on stolen Palestinian land, one cannot “support” the existence of an Israeli state as an abstract concept without ignoring and indirectly endorsing the state’s violent practices.
When confronted by a broad coalition of Palestinian students and their allies, WIFI repeatedly avoided questions and concerns about Palestinian human rights and refused to outline what political stance they would take with respect to the occupation of Palestinian land. In addition, WIFI’s prospective leadership failed to give clear answers on whether or not they would refuse outside sources of funding from organizations known to associate themselves with the Israeli government. Moreover, near the end of the discussion at the second Council meeting, one member of WIFI leadership asserted the Israeli state routinely killing Palestinians in order to displace them from their land did not constitute genocide because the Palestinian population as a whole had not declined, due to a high fertility rate. This is totally inconsistent with any definition of the word “genocide”, either provided by a dictionary or defined by international law and deeply offensive to Palestinians who have suffered repeated attempts at ethnic cleansing by the Israeli government. Additionally, WIFI tried to make the argument that illegal Israeli settlements (illegal under Israeli and international law) do not constitute a textbook example of settler colonialism. If the conversations that were had in the two College Council (CC) meetings are any indication of the positions that WIFI intended to promote on campus, then we ought to celebrate their proposal being denied. Williams ought not to provide a platform to groups that, when provided with first-hand testimony from Palestinian students about the violence of the occupation, attempt to redefine terms like genocide and colonialism to suit their own ends.
The response to these concerns repeatedly brought up by WIFI’s leadership throughout both CC meetings was that WIFI would simply serve as a space for students who believed that the state of Israel had a right to exist in whatever capacity that means to each individual member of the group. In geopolitical terms, however, Israel’s “right to exist” is uncontestable: The state of Israel receives more than 3.5 billion dollars of military aid every year from the United States, and would likely receive even more financial support in the event of any military conflict threatening its borders. Furthermore, the pro-Israel lobby in the United States is both extremely well funded and politically influential. Thus, both practically and discursively, the state of Israel does not need a student group defending its “right to exist” on this campus any more than we need to “defend” the rights of wealthy, straight white men.
Instead, the intention of WIFI’s very existence is to create a space in which assertions of Israeli rights – to land, to financial support, to discursive legitimacy – could be made without any reference to the millions of Palestinians who have died and are currently suffering because of the occupation. As per the constitution, interest meeting notes and CC minutes, WIFI’s implicit and explicit purpose is to challenge the “one-sided” information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to create a space where people can feel comfortable making claims that erase Israeli campaigns for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinians. Those of us advocating against the recognition of WIFI, including CC members and guests, repeatedly affirmed both our support for a Jewish home in the region, as well as the need for justice for minoritized communities within Israel. We cannot, however, bring ourselves to support the existence of such a student group with the aforementioned intentions.
To those who contend that WIFI’s charter did not violate any specific CC bylaws, we respond with the understanding that CC is a democratically elected body and its representatives are empowered to make decisions they feel best serve the campus community; if approving student groups was simply a question of procedure, then approving and denying new groups would be handled by administration and not student government.
We in the opposition wholeheartedly welcome more discussions surrounding these issues, but we stand by our position that CC made the correct decision not to recognize a group whose only contribution to the campus discourse would have been obscurantist, misinformed and discursively supportive of human rights abuses. There are already existing platforms on campus, namely the Students for Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue, that mediate healthy debate examining both sides of the conflict.
Free speech on campus requires some level of basic respect for our interlocutors. We can disagree, argue passionately, even yell; but we cannot, in good conscience, fund student groups that refuse to acknowledge the basic humanity of those on the opposing side of the issue. We cannot support groups that, in response to Palestinian students sharing deeply personal accounts of the pain they have suffered during the occupation, trivialize the violence that this campus was supposed to provide them an escape from. We can have a healthy debate around Israel-Palestine on this campus without erasing the voices of Palestinian students, erroneously redefining colonialism or concealing acts of genocide.
Joseph Moore ’20 is a comparative literature major from Stroudsburg, Penn. Jesus Payan ’20 is an evironmental studies major from Temple City, Calif.