I am a Palestinian in J Street U, a pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace organization that advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this week was particularly trying for me.
This past week, Georgetown Students for Justice in Palestine took part in the annual International Israeli Apartheid Week, and I realized very quickly that the on-campus partisan groups working on this issue — SJP and the Georgetown Israel Alliance — were both committed to taking polarizing stances.
SJP erected a mock wall in the Intercultural Center meant to depict the barrier separating Israel proper from the Palestinian territories. The wall was soon vandalized by both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine communities.
One person wrote: “Palestinians are trained to hate Israelis from birth. They are adept at playing the victim ‘narrative.’” A response was soon added: “And Israeli teenagers are trained to kill Palestinian children; go to Gaza!”
Seeing all this, I found myself falling apart in classes, awkwardly in between communities. I felt unable to truly talk to either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine friends. Everywhere I turned, someone wanted to talk about this conflict, trying to pull me in one direction or another, and it felt like I just had to take it.
When I spoke with a pro-Palestine friend, I had to swallow back the urge to try to enlighten him about the pro-Israel narrative — to ask him how it would feel if your entire group of people was nearly eliminated a few decades earlier. With pro-Israel friends, who feel that a country about which they care deeply was being unfairly bullied, I had to bite my tongue to keep from telling them that I dealt with that every election cycle, when U.S. political candidates describe Palestinians as terrorists.
The intergroup bickering between GIA and SJP was not more cordial. SJP’s anti-normalization policy bars engaging with pro-Israel groups, which always struck me as a luxury. It is easy, when you are removed from the conflict, to think refusing to work with Israel supporters constitutes the moral high ground. However, as a Palestinian-American who has sat at checkpoints for five hours and had my water supply arbitrarily cut off by Israeli authorities, refusing to talk with the other side helps no one.
SJP put on a whole week of events aiming to educate the campus on Palestinian life under military occupation, yet I wondered what it had really accomplished by only talking to those who already agreed with it. It was highly frustrating to see it talk about my people’s situation, yet offer no concrete path forward. SJP members have told me that expanding education about the conflict will force American politicians to withdraw support for Israel, particularly once constituents become aware of the occupation and the U.S. government’s quiet complicity in it. To me, this just seems like a passive way of avoiding any real action on this conflict.
SJP continues to tout its usual rhetoric, blaming Israel for the entirety of the problem and mischaracterizing the Israel-Palestine situation. Its approach not only unfairly accuses Israel as the sole instigator, but also fails to address grievances that Palestinians have with their own civil society. SJP’s negative emphasis on Israel polarizes the conversation and fails to acknowledge Israel’s legitimate security concerns. SJP’s demonization of Israel neither helps the Palestinians nor takes into account that Israelis deserve as much respect for their narrative as Palestinians do.
On the other side, the actions of GIA proved just as challenging and frustrating. I was baffled when I saw its official statement on Apartheid Week, part of which states: “While we respect SJP’s intentions in bringing important issues to light, there are few parallels between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and that of blacks in apartheid South Africa. Apartheid requires the de jure institutionalization of racism, but Palestinians in Israel have full Israeli citizenship and Palestinians in the West Bank in Gaza have full citizenship under the Palestinian Authority.”
The attempt to equate Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to Palestinians with citizenship under the Palestinian Authority is not concurrent with my personal experiences or those of any other Palestinians with citizenship under the Palestinian Authority. For example, my family’s town is fewer than 10 miles away from Jerusalem, yet it needs an Israeli visa to pass through the checkpoints regulating Palestinian travel within the West Bank.
GIA’s statement additionally failed to acknowledge that SJP exists because Israel has in fact been oppressing Palestinians for over 60 years by holding the West Bank under military occupation and maintaining a blockade around Gaza. The statement blatantly ignored this fact, prioritizing Israel’s public image over holding Israel accountable to its democratic foundations.
Although I wanted to be fair to Israel during this week, GIA’s email left no space for my narrative as a Palestinian. Moreover, as various members of GIA updated their Facebook cover photos to one that read, “As a Hoya, I stand with Israel,” my frustration with GIA grew. I wondered why they could not say instead, “As a Hoya, I stand with Israel and Palestine.”
It seems all SJP and GIA did this week was role play the conflict. Then, at the end of it, they got to walk away. Both claim to be committed respectively to the Palestinian and Israeli people. However, they should seriously ask themselves if their actions are in any way advancing the cause for the people they claim to love. Unlike GIA and SJP, the Israelis and Palestinians do not get to simply walk away.
Laila Brothers is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.