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April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Weinstein: The Ice Sculpture Contest and the Limits of Brave Spaces

Vandalism aside, the Al-Nur ice sculpture presented at Winter Carnival invokes serious questions about the College’s role in monitoring dangerous rhetoric.

You would be hard-pressed to find a single Dartmouth student incognizant of Feb. 10’s vandalism incident. Al-Nur’s “River2Sea” ice sculpture was destroyed and thereafter adorned with Israeli flags, a development universally condemned by the Muslim and Jewish communities on campus. There is no shred of doubt, neither among students nor faculty, that it is in our shared interest the responsible parties be held accountable. With that said, I draw dubious stares when I argue the College created, with woeful negligence, an atmosphere where such an incident was not only liable but bound to occur.

For those unfamiliar with the contest process, a College-hired carver receives design submissions from each team and makes large-scale cuts to their respective blocks. The Al-Nur team submitted a prayer mat design, taking the basic shape of an upright diamond, and the carver made their incisions accordingly. Al-Nur’s design evolved with the process, resulting in a sculpture titled “River2Sea.” The sculpture depicted a united map of Israel and Palestine, labeled with “Palestine” and covered in a Palestinian flag.

I will first clarify that Al-Nur did not break any rules — a team’s product is not restricted to its initial design — nor do I believe anything they did was fundamentally unethical. They operated within the bounds of the contest, with no intent to offend other students. The College, however, was wrong to allow the sculpture as part of a sponsored event. 

The phrase “river to the sea” was popularized in the late twentieth century by organizations advocating for the supersession or elimination of Israel. It is found in several forms in the charters and declarations of groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. The Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and X — formerly Twitter — recognize the phrase as “hateful” or “hate speech,” and it is criminalized or banned in several European states for its reminders of Nazi rule — which I believe is more than enough consensus for the College to do the same. Of course, there’s nothing inherently hateful to the phrase itself — for Al-Nur, it simply means basic freedoms for all Palestinians. Nonetheless, considering the relevant history, as well as the design of the sculpture — one which claimed the entire region under the label “Palestine” and enveloped it in the Palestinian flag — I argue that it appears “river to the sea” bears the more sinister message of Israeli elimination.

With all this in mind, one of two things is true. It is entirely plausible that the College had no issue including the sculpture in its sponsored contest after being completed in its final form — an obvious issue for the reasons stated above. The Winter Carnival Council has stated it “does not approve or deny ice sculpture designs or sculpture titles.” It is also possible that the College disapproved of the sculpture but allowed it once unveiled because they felt censorship would have held back or impugned upon their commitment to Dartmouth Dialogues. The latter possibility, I argue, is a more concerning predicament. 

The College must be consistent in its implementation of “brave spaces.” Last term, despite massive public pressure, the administration remained steadfast in its campus policies throughout the arrest and arraignment of Sunrise Movement protesters for trespassing and threatening “physical action.” These students have seen a proper hearing — just as I hope the students responsible for destroying the ice sculpture will — and as should every student who escalates the political to the physical in violation of school policy or the law. Yet here, it appears the pressure building against this act of vandalism has prevented the College from making a necessary stand against antisemitism. At this critical juncture, it must make clear exactly its policies on the extent of brave spaces. President Sian Beilock has seen its limits. Rhetoric that serves to make people uncomfortable is healthy; rhetoric that makes people fear for their faith, or that invokes violent extremism, is most certainly not. I couldn’t fathom a Dartmouth-sponsored ice sculpture calling for the elimination of Gaza, so why is this any different?

I recently met with Ramsey Alsheikh ’26 — Palestine Solidarity Coalition president  — to discuss interfaith tensions and means of enhancing campus dialogue. We spoke at length about the sculpture and what constitutes hate speech, as well as who gets to decide. He raised some interesting points — that the question of who defines what constitutes hate, and to what extent we may tolerate disagreement on that question, is essential to consider. We know Al-Nur didn’t use the term with hateful intention, so is everyone really obliged to consider “River2Sea” hate speech just because Jewish students consider it so? What is to stop Al-Nur from giving the Israeli flag the same treatment? What is the middle ground between a world where we carelessly permit every form of incitement and one where we imperiously reject every controversial opinion as a hateful message to some niche political group? I have made clear previously why, historically and institutionally, I believe “river to the sea” constitutes hate speech and an Israeli flag does not, but I am also perfectly cognizant of the reasons others may have to disagree.

We’ve heard tireless debates on Israel and Palestine, but little conversation on the debate stage itself. I have many friends who believe President Beilock has fallen short of her “brave space” promise, and more than a few others who believe these spaces, in some contexts, have extended too far. As it exists now, the brave space is arbitrary. Simply put, no one knows what it means. Because of the imprecision and inconsistency of the administration, it exists simultaneously as an unfulfilled doctrine for boundless dialogue and an incidental vehicle for hate speech. So, let’s establish the ground rules. Rather than vandalizing and trespassing, let’s work within the policy to make it a good one; let’s sit together at meals, in our classrooms and at our respective teach-ins to instill empathy in one another, not just to convey a side of the argument but to establish the boundaries of the conversation. Doing so is the only way to refine our dialogue from the needlessly abusive to productive and insightful, with the ultimate objective of preventing future escalations.

Jackson Weinstein ’27 is a board member of Hillel. Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.

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