The new WIFI: Changing the campus dialogue around Israel-Palestine

Alec Bachman

For years, the campus dialogue surrounding Israel-Palestine has been exclusionary for some and controversial for many. Many students, including those from the pro-Israel community, have found themselves being silenced and made to feel excluded from the campus discourse. We’re here to change that. The new, revived Williams Initiative For Israel (WIFI) aims to provide a safe environment for students to talk about Israel-Palestine and all the difficulties that come with it. We believe that everybody, regardless of their views on the conflict or the Jewish homeland, should have the opportunity to share their voices and engage in nuanced dialogue. WIFI is here to make a space for that to happen.

The previous iteration of WIFI first applied for recognition as a registered student organization (RSO) in the spring of 2019. The subsequent anonymous 13-8 vote against WIFI being granted RSO status by the former College Council resulted in a wave of vitriol and division among members of the campus community, among both those in support of and against the group. President Maud S. Mandel later wrote in a statement that College Council went against its own bylaws and process for reviewing student groups, as “[its] decision was made on political grounds.” Its decision created frustration and widespread controversy, making national headlines and even warranting a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.

Given the especially contentious past of WIFI and the dialogue surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus, it’s necessary to explain and address why we are reviving WIFI and how it’s different this time around. While the name WIFI still evokes mixed emotions on campus, it has also come to take a special significance for many students, alumni, and other members of the pro-Israel community. Pro-Israel, in this case, does not necessarily indicate support for the current Israeli government, but rather for the Jewish homeland’s existence. We’re not here to create division or repeat the events of 2019; we’re here to bring campus together to challenge how we talk about Israel.

It’s been three years since the previous iteration of WIFI was created. We’re a different group of people with different ideas, and we want to be heard. The members of WIFI are not a monolith when it comes to our views on Israel. WIFI is composed of students from a wide range of backgrounds who hold a wide array of views and perspectives about Israel and the Israeli government. Many members support the Jewish people’s right to self-determination while not supporting the actions of the Israeli government, and others only want to join the conversation and get a better understanding of the conflict. We believe that there is no one right way to navigate the dialogue surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather there are many wrong ways to approach it that have created division on campus in the past. It’s important, therefore, that we as a campus do not make those same mistakes.

First and foremost, there needs to be a sense of basic understanding. Both Jews and Palestinians alike are indigenous to the land of Israel-Palestine and should have a right to the land. Zionism, for members of WIFI, is defined as the movement for self-determination and Jewish statehood in Jews’ native land: Israel. It does not define how the land is to be divided or how the Israeli government ought to act, and it certainly does not preclude support for Palestinian statehood. We must understand and be conscious of our use of vocabulary surrounding Israel- Palestine. The term and concept of Zionism, while at times used to justify the actions of the Israeli government, is increasingly being coopted by individuals to unfairly criticize Israel and to refute its fundamental right to exist.

This is not to say that it’s antisemitic to criticize the Israeli government. There is no government whose policies are beyond reproach, and criticism of Israel, similar to that of any other democratic country, is by no means antisemitic. The line between antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israel is crossed, however, when the criticism extends beyond the government and to the Israeli people and their right to self-determination.

In recent years, Zionism has become increasingly used as an antisemitic dog whistle to attack Jewish values and the Jewish people as a whole — under the guise of social justice and valid criticism of Israel. This has recently caused issues for Jewish students throughout the country as they face an antisemitic litmus test where they’re unable to voice support for Israel or Zionism without facing unfair social exclusion or being canceled. There is no place for this antisemitic litmus test anywhere in modern academia, and there is certainly no excuse for it here on campus.

Returning to the conflict at hand, it’s important that we differentiate the people from the governments of both Israel and Palestine. In conflating the two, we hold each group responsible for their government’s actions. It’s not fair to hold Palestinians responsible for the actions of Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas — recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States — in the Gaza Strip, and it’s certainly not okay to hold Jews globally responsible for the actions of the Israeli government either.

There is no excuse for delegitimizing anyone’s identity, nor is there an excuse for downplaying the trauma they may have faced. Whether someone is Israeli or Palestinian, we need to acknowledge and understand the pain and suffering that people on both sides have faced because of the violence. The conflict affects everyone who lives on the land, Israeli and Palestinian alike. The only way for any form of resolution to come about within a two-sided conflict, whether it be between the two governments or even within the campus dialogue, is for both sides to come together. WIFI’s goal is to unite, not to cause conflict. We want to create a space for pro-Israel students to complement the clubs that already exist and move the dialogue forward.

To those who still contend that WIFI — or any other pro-Israel group or individuals — have no place on campus, we respond with this question: How is there to be any form of meaningful dialogue when space is made for only one group or perspective? For those who already identify as Zionists, as well as those who remain in opposition to or are unsure of Zionism and their support for the Jewish homeland, we invite you to join us and hear what we have to say.

We should all feel valued and welcome to share our views and beliefs without having to fear being canceled or socially excluded. Everybody should have a voice on campus, and pro- Israel students are tired of being silenced and told that our views don’t matter or shouldn’t be shared. WIFI is here to change that. We can only make a meaningful change when we come together as a community, and we hope that you join us in doing this important work.

Alec Bachman ’25 is from West Stockbridge, Mass.

Co-signed by Jonah Garnick ’23, Theo Cohen ’23, and Matthew Seltzer ’24.