Mid-East debate attracts newcomers

by Megh Duwadi | 5/22/02 5:00am

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series examining the state of the Israeli-Palestinian debate at Dartmouth and college campuses nationwide.

For the non-Jewish and non-Arab Dartmouth population, Israeli-Palestinian debates are more than just history lessons -- they are opportunities for alignment in a new political arena.

Continuing chaos in the Middle East has polarized many students at colleges and universities throughout the United States who lack ties to the area and to its religious factions.

Previously an issue dominated by Arab, Muslim and Jewish students, in recent weeks activists new to the Palestine-Israel debate have taken on highly visible roles -- an occurrence attributed to increased general awareness of the situation.

"For a long time, people saw Israel as a state that can do no wrong," Arab student group Shamis co-chair Mohamad Bydon '02 said. "But slowly, people are starting to realize what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians over the past 50 years."

Bydon added that at an April 18 demonstration for Palestinian rights, he was the sole Arab Muslim participant in a diverse group of students and activists.

Elsewhere, Jewish and Muslim leaders have also remarked on the conflict's more mainstream on-campus presence. Its politicized nature, they said, has permitted even those students reluctant to identify with particular causes to easily seek out information.

Some also linked the pro-Palestinian movement's increasing strength to a trend among some liberal circles to adopt the Palestinian viewpoint.

"There's definitely the sense you get at Harvard that it's not just a cause that people who have direct ties to the Arab world support," Harvard Hillel president Benjamin Solomon-Schwartz said. "The liberal activist side has applied the conventional liberal narrative to this situation, seemingly without nuance."

Solomon-Schwartz added that pro-Palestinian ideology espousing "that whatever the oppressed does is excusable, and that whatever the oppressor does deserves the entirety of our criticism" adds to a misrepresentation of reality.

Pro-Israel students who have traditionally been politically liberal, Solomon-Schwartz argued, now face a serious dilemma.

"A lot of friends I have who have really been involved in liberal activism but also support Israel find it really hard," he said. "It's hard to communicate on the same page," Solomon-Schwartz said, as pro-Palestinian supporters on activist issues unrelated to the Middle East.

Conflict within Harvard's Jewish community regarding Hillel's support of Israel also exists, Solomon-Schwartz said, although recent nonpolitical projects the organization has undertaken have attracted support from non-Jewish students. A Hillel fundraiser for the Israeli ambulance force, which Solomon-Schwartz described as "apolitical and humanitarian," has raised $70,000 in donations since its inception.

Despite the increasing friction between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups at Harvard, Solomon-Schwartz said that relations between Hillel and the Harvard Islamic Society remain positive, and relations between Jewish and Arab students are not in danger.

Leen Al-Alami, president of the Harvard Society of Arab Students, agreed.

"I think in general, people have been able to separate their personal lives from their political views," she said.

For Al-Alami, the Arab-Israeli debate on college campuses deals more with "concepts and principles" than simply religion.

"It's about American foreign policy and America's role as a mediator," she added. "Peoples' opinions reflect what they believe about human rights standards and politics."

At Dartmouth -- where Middle East discussions have not intensified to such levels -- religious background has not stopped students from voicing their views.

"I know professors and staff members who have been interested and have started showing their interest in the past few weeks to support human rights," said Adil Ahmad '05, president of the Muslim student group Al-Nur.

Al-Nur, Ahmad said, is a religious organization with no political affiliation, although it is "against oppression everywhere."

Bydon argued that political activism, though currently lacking on this campus, will eventually characterize Dartmouth's Arab-Israeli debate now that the general student population has become involved.

"Dartmouth hasn't been known for its activism," he said, "but I think it will happen here to a pretty large extent nonetheless."

With increased student involvement, Bydon said, religion will be less of a factor in determining how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is perceived.

"It shouldn't be an issue that's localized to Arabs or Muslims or Jews," he said. "Ultimately, it's a human rights issue."

With Dartmouth's sole forum for Middle East issues -- the Dartmouth Association for Middle East Awareness -- indefinitely inactive, such an issue has proven difficult to address even apolitically.

"With the changing dynamics in the Middle East, the group dynamics also changed," member Claire Superfine '04 said. Superfine credited DAMEA's current state to the resignation of its five Muslim, pro-Palestinian executives.

"On one side, it makes me happy to see Dartmouth becoming a more political campus," Superfine said. "At the same time, though, it's disturbing to me to have people speaking out so quickly -- people need to ... do their homework first before they make statements about things."

Superfine mentioned that in spite of DAMEA's inactivation, students and faculty members of varying religious backgrounds continue to approach her for more information on the Middle East.

For others, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may currently interest the general population, but some remain convinced that only Jewish and Muslim students will be actively involved in the long term.

"I don't know if [pro-Palestinian efforts are] really bringing in new people or if the same people are bringing in a new cause," Dartmouth Israel Public Affairs Committee vice president Michael Sevi '02 said. "What you see is a lot of the liberal causes mixing."

According to Sevi, the most intense debates are situated at universities with large Jewish and Arab populations or traditionally liberal campuses, including the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan.

"The pro-Palestinian cause is really isolated to a few sections," he said. "I think that the kids who are not politically active have at best started reading the newspaper more regularly in regards to this issue. The bottom line is that the kids who really care ... are Jewish and Muslim students."