Students For Justice in Palestine: An Unfortunate Obstacle to Peace In the Middle East
By Mike Flaster '14
Peace in the Middle East has been the holy grail of diplomats, prime ministers and presidents for more than five decades. Every new face on the world stage thinks he or she is going to be the one to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. And each one fails just as miserably and completely as those who have come before” — Mosab Hassan Yousef

Passionate college students are no different than diplomats when it comes to the Middle East. Students see the suffering in the world and want to help. They have a starry-eyed view of helping the world and are quick to jump to conclusions. Unfortunately, on many campuses this noble cause has been counterproductive — Amherst is no exception.

I am a freshman on campus and when I arrived I expected lively and informed debates on a range of issues. At the College, an overwhelming amount of attention is paid to the Arab-Israeli conflict, specifically the plight of the Palestinian people. Interested, I attended the much advertised “Palestine 101” presentation put forth by SJP, or Students for Justice in Palestine. I am passionate about the Arab-Israeli conflict and certainly hold my own views, but I wanted to hear both sides of the debate. I found myself as one of two “pro-Israeli” students being chastised for my views.

Let me clarify: I want a peaceful resolution to the conflict. I believe in a two state solution or any other realistic solution. I believe both peoples have a right to their own nation, and I strongly believe both sides have a right to be heard. I feel for the suffering in the West Bank and Gaza and I want speedy relief for these populations. However, I do not believe in a revisionist history of the conflict as presented in “Palestine 101”. Criticism of Israel can be legitimate, but, as we all know, this conflict is hardly one-sided. SJP called their presentation a “history of the conflict”. This “history” was completely biased and to label it as history was misleading. The presentation’s inconsistencies were numerous and resulted in a debate which escalated quickly into an unproductive screaming competition. People who attended the presentation were simply shown an imbalanced piece of propaganda; most of us want peace, but presenting a lopsided, nonfactual history is not only counterproductive but irresponsible, ineffective, isolating and ingenuous. Though SJP’s intentions may very well be noble, their method is detrimental to reasoned dialogue and a peaceful solution, and their eventual effect upon the issue could be dangerous.

The group used the usual cheap anti-Israel ploys, showing pictures of destroyed homes, bloodied children and the famed separation “wall”. Showing dramatic pictures of the wall, however moving, is useless without context. The group failed to mention why the wall exists (to prevent terrorism), the fact that there have been zero successful bombings since its construction and that it is hardly a “wall” (94 percent is a fence; the other six percent is in heavily populated areas to prevent sniper fire). Granted, the purpose of their presentation was not to be accurate but to “win” students toward one side; the wall makes for much better propaganda pictures. The mixing of skewed data, out of context quotes and graphic pictures created a sympathetic but uninformed crowd. They called it a “history” but did not invite the other side to speak, making it almost useless. SJP brushed off the violent intifadas as “political” movements and wildly claimed that Israel is not a democracy. I left with a sour taste in my mouth. At a college such as Amherst, I expected better. I hope both sides want to achieve a realistic and lasting peace. SJP did not reflect that; they created an atmosphere that is unhelpful for both sides. Condemning Israel, and only Israel, is inappropriate and, in the end, will not help the Palestinian people. Both sides must recognize their own faults (certainly both have faults), and only then can any sort of peaceful dialogue proceed. Blaming Israel, one of the main goals of SJP nationally, further isolates Israel and makes Israeli society as a whole less willing to come to the negotiating table.

If peace is what the Amherst campus really wants, groups like SJP are not the correct path. To re-write history in a way that favors any side, Palestinian or Israeli, is wrong. Furthermore, the group called for the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel. The SJP students may very well have good intentions, but, as the former president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, put it after Harvard students attempted a similar movement, “Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities … Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”

I now see that I put myself in a bad situation; I thought I could bring balance to SJP’s meeting. I was mistaken. I realize that advocating a solely pro-Israel view will not help the situation either. Instead, I have talked to a few students about forming an independent, fact-based organization, perhaps something like a “Peace in the Middle East” club. Despite my personal feelings, I will not be childish and point fingers. Blaming one side, as SJP did, is easy. Blaming one side is intolerant. Blaming one side breeds further hate. Let’s educate and advocate, not indoctrinate.

The disinformation presented was not merely disinformation; by not showing one side, a censure of information took place. This sort of censure of information and skewing of facts is exactly what a school like Amherst college exists to avoid. The College has a duty to the public; as President Marx said: “By serving our core mission of education, we serve beyond it.” If Amherst students only show one side of an extraordinarily complex issue, it helps no one. SJP, by presenting only one side, was much more interested in gaining followers than in open debate. This goal is made clear by the stated purpose of SJP: “not to help solve the conflict but to educate”. To allow only the views of one side is not education, it is propaganda.

In this case, SJP is acting in the same way that Fox News or many other one-sided media outlets do: they bring further polarity to issues, resolving nothing. This week on Facebook, I was invited to yet another SJP presentation: “Continuing Hope — Overcoming Obstacles in the West Bank”. The obvious goal in this presentation is almost laughable. They say on the Facebook page that the speaker will be a “Palestinian farmer who lives in Bethlehem in the village of Nahalin. He will be sharing his experience of living under Israeli occupation. His village is surrounded by walls and Israeli settlements, and he will be talking about the devastating effect that this has on Palestinian society.” This certainly will be a moving presentation and another cheap emotional ploy to win students over to one side. This is immature and shows that SJP is clearly not interested in a solution. A solution requires dialogue; dialogue can only begin when both sides want resolution. “Winning” students’ opinions is childish and does not reflect our school’s motto: “Terras Irradient” (“Let them enlighten the lands”).

Are you interested in getting a middle of the road group started on campus? Are you interested in discussing the conflict and finding solutions without a one-sided approach? Perhaps a meeting of like-minded, middle-of-the-road individuals who are dedicated to truth and peaceful resolution rather than biased misrepresentation would be instrumental in solving what is one of the biggest foreign policy issues of our time.

Issue 09, Submitted 2010-11-17 00:19:24