Making Sense of the Alphabet Soup: Campus Politics and Israel/Palestine

So why does one campus have three different groups that deal with the politics of Israel/Palestine?

There is no shortage of geopolitical turmoil: a bloody civil war grinds on in Syria, protracted ethnic conflict continues in Sudan, and deadly anti-government protests rage in Ukraine and Thailand. It is a sad fact of our decade that so much of the world is engulfed in political violence, humanitarian disasters, or both. This isn’t to belittle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the oppressive Israeli occupation; Israel/Palestine continues to be the site of cruelty and violence. It is also a priority for Secretary of State John Kerry, who remains keen on resolving the conflict before the end of Obama’s presidency. But relative to its size and scope, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems overrepresented on our campus. To understand why Princeton has more groups that deal with Israel/Palestine than groups that focus on international human rights—like Amnesty International— it necessary to examine how these different organizations fit into a political struggle much larger than the occasional tensions exhibited on campus.

Tigers for Israel (TFI) claims to be “Princeton’s Israel advocacy group.” Affiliated with Princeton’s Center for Jewish life, TFI “organizes programs that aim to educate and expose the Princeton community to Israel’s politics, history, and culture.” Advocacy, however, means more than education. In the parlance of the American Jewish community, advocacy involves crafting Israel’s public image and combatting what leaders in the American Jewish community call “delegitimization” – the growing heterogeneous movement that uses the language of universal human rights to criticize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and calls for an end to Israel’s occupation. What exactly constitutes the occupation – all of the land currently occupied by Israel, or just the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – remains a source of debate within the movement.

TFI partners with a national organization called the David Project that recognizes college campuses as the primary battleground in the fight against “delegimization.” The Jewish Daily Forward reported that Charles Jacobs, one of the David Project’s founders, has said “unless you expose and humiliate and taunt and legally threaten and politically challenge the use of the podium as propaganda, and unless you fight the cultural relativist paradigm where no one is allowed to say ‘Hey, that’s a lie’…then you have a problem.” The group produced the film “Columbia Unbecoming,” which alleged that Columbia University’s Middle East Studies department was a hotbed of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. The growing strength of an alternative to the traditional Zionist narrative frightens those Jewish leaders on both the left and the right who worry that criticism of Israel and opposition to Israel’s continued and deepening occupation are mounting. They have reason to worry.

Earlier this year, the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, saying that, “The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” The ASA cited “Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; and the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights” as reasons for the boycott. Two smaller academic associations, the Asian American Studies Association and the American and Indigenous Studies Association, have adopted similar resolutions. The Modern Language Association, one of America’s largest associations for language and literature, passed a resolution strongly criticizing Israel’s limits on Palestinian academics, while stopping short of calling for a boycott. The movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel (BDS), which once hovered on the fringes of acceptable debate, has gained inroads into the most influential academic institutions. The effect has been polarizing, with Israel’s defenders adopting a shrill, nearly hysterical approach to denouncing the boycott movement as anti-Semitic and the boycott’s defenders harshly, almost venomously, denouncing Israel’s human rights violations.

In between those poles stands JStreet. Founded in 2008, JStreet claims to be the “Pro Israel, Pro-Peace,” lobby. In recent years, it has positioned itself as a challenger to AIPAC – the more established, larger, and more powerful lobby that has built and supported the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel. Whereas AIPAC unequivocally stands behind the decisions of the Israeli government, JStreet actively pushes for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often in opposition to Israel’s intransigent, right-wing government. JStreet calls for a two-state solution—a Jewish state in what is now Israel, and a Palestinian state in what is currently the occupied Palestinian territories. JStreet, which has close ties to the Obama administration, has won a series of victories against AIPAC this past year. In at least three instances, AIPAC failed to muster the political support it once could against JStreet’s new lobbying muscle: Obama successfully appointed Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, the U.S. did not intervene militarily in Syria, and a sanctions bill failed to garner enough support to challenge Obama’s Iran policy.

JStreet opposes the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement but supports continued negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The current round of negotiations, engineered by Secretary of State Kerry, are the focal point of JStreet’s current campaign. Also, JStreet only comments on Israeli policy it considers directly related to the peace process. For example, the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel (sometimes referred to as Arab-Israelis), who constitute around a quarter of Israel’s population, and the treatment of African refugees in Israel (another recent source of controversy and international censure) are outside of JStreet’s organizational purview. JStreetU is the student arm of the lobby; at Princeton, it runs educational programming intended to provide a counter-voice to the type of advocacy that TFI provides. Ostensibly more critical and expressly partisan, JStreetU is part of the organization’s larger push to raise support for Secretary Kerry’s negotiations.

Negotiations, however, have often served as a fig leaf for the expansion of Jewish settlement in the Occupied Palestinian territories in violation of international law. Throughout prior series of negotiations, Israel continued building in the Occupied Territories. In the past couple of years, the number of housing units being built in the West Bank has increased in comparison to previous years. Even now, as negotiations are underway, Israel continues to build houses and apartments in what, if negotiations succeed, will be the future Palestinian state. Israel’s continued construction of settlements casts doubt on its willingness to arrive at a peace accord with the Palestinian Authority and its readiness to withdraw from the Occupied Territories. Palestinian activists, international human rights organizations, and left-wing Jewish organizations are critical of the negotiation process and do not view the United States as an honest mediator between the two parties. For them, a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an end to the occupation can come only through political activism and international economic pressure.

The Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) presents a third voice that challenges the ideologies touted by both TFI and JStreetU. While not directly associated with the national Palestinian solidary group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), PCP “works to end the occupation in Palestine, defend Palestinian human rights, and raise awareness in the Princeton community about the Palestinian narrative.” SJP and PCP are part of a much larger wave of activism that has gained strength in recent years. As criticism of Israeli policies became more acceptable, groups like SJP spread across the country. The BDS movement has also received space in mainstream press with leaders of the movement, like Mustafa Barghouthi, writing Op-Eds published in the New York Times. The Palestinian solidarity movement has transformed from a marginal cause to the central cause for contemporary left-wing activists. The newfound strength of the movement has lead to victories such as the ASA boycott and the growing pressure on Israel to change its policies. In fact, last week, a major Israel newspaper ran a headline that claiming that Israeli business leaders were worried about an impending international boycott.

Front page of the Israeli daily newspaper, Yedioth Aharonot, which reads "100 Economic Leaders Warn of Boycott Against Israel"

Front page of the Israeli daily newspaper, Yedioth Aharonot, which reads “100 Economic Leaders Warn of Boycott Against Israel”

Israeli business and political elites are not the only ones frightened by the growth of BDS and the Palestinian solidarity movement. In light of the movement’s recent successes, American politicians, fearful of electoral backlash in their home constituencies, have attempted to retaliate. The New York State Senate passed a bill that “prohibits the use of state aid by colleges and universities to fund or provide membership in academic institutions that are boycotting a country or higher educations institutions of a country.” Coming just days after the announcement of the ASA boycott, the New York bill demonstrates the willingness of the established Jewish organizations (like AIPAC) and their allies (often Christian Zionists), to take extreme measures to combat the mounting criticism of Israel’s policies. The bill, if ratified, would defund a number of New York’s public institutions of higher learning simply because they held membership to those academic associations that approved an academic boycott of Israel. The Center for Constitutional Rights published a statement saying that, “boycotts to bring about political and social change, which would be targeted by this bill, are unquestionably protected speech under the first amendment…[t]he anti-boycott bill targets core political speech and raises serious constitutional red flags.” However, this opposition has not stopped Israel’s defenders in American legislatures from pursing similar bills. The Maryland State Senate introduced a bill last week that “declares the policy of the state to be that colleges and universities not use funds to directly or indirectly support academic boycotts of countries that have ratified declarations of cooperation with the state or institutions of higher education in those countries.” Regardless of the bills’ blatant unconstitutionality, American lawmakers seem determined to show their continued commitment to Israel in the face of increasing international and domestic condemnation.

At Princeton, the proliferation of these different groups reflects the larger battle between powerful organizations and lobbies with rival views of what Israel ought to look like and how to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict. AIPAC, once the largest and most established of the “Israel lobbies”, continues to face challenges from its liberal young-sibling JStreet. Both AIPAC and JStreet, whichoppose the BDS movement, struggle to respond to the growing acceptance of BDS as a legitimate form of resistance to Israeli policies and Israel’s American backers. Princeton’s alphabet soup of TFI, JStreetU, and PCP is the result of a dynamic political fight that does not appear likely to end anytime soon.

Josh Leifer is a sophomore studying economic history. He is particularly interested in issues of class, labor, and economic justice. Before enrolling in Princeton, he lived, learned, and taught for a year in Israel, where he was a member of All That’s Left, an anti-occupation collective. He continues to be involved in peace activism and recently ran a coexistence and dialogue program for Israeli Jewish and Arab youths. In his free time, Josh enjoys playing the bass.

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