Last year George Mason University’s chapter of SAIA (Students Against Israeli Apartheid) hosted the National Students for Justice in Palestine Conference. One of their main focuses was to promote their campaign of anti-normalization, meaning that while they would lead their own pro-Palestine events and protest ours, there would be no space for any sort of dialogue. Members would no longer be encouraged to attend our events and ask questions. Any form of meaningful discussion would give the state of Israel legitimacy, a status they were unwilling to grant.
In my time at Mason, SAIA has held boycott and divestment workshops. They’ve protested pro-Israel events and posted graphic images all over campus accusing Israel of brutally attacking innocent civilians. Jewish students were coming to the Hillel office saying that they felt unsafe on campus because there were posters that made it seem like they were committing atrocities. This is problematic not just for the Israel Student Association, but for all the students at Mason. By engaging in hostile rhetoric and posting graphic content all over campus, SAIA scares students away from attending events.
Even though we are an explicitly pro-Israel organization, we had planned many events over the course of the year that were aimed at exploring and understanding Palestinian issues and moving towards coexistence. We invited Ambassador Dennis Ross to discuss his role in peace negotiations and found graphic posters accusing Ambassador Ross of conspiring to destroy “the state of Palestine” leading up to the event. Students who saw these flyers were hesitant to attend the event and learn from a man who was actually there trying to broker a treaty. In his event, he offered advice on how peace between Israelis and Palestinians could be achieved and shared personal stories about working with Palestinian ambassadors. Another group we work with called Bridging Narratives held regular discussions concerning the different narratives within the region. Discussion only goes so far though if only one side is willing to talk.
I feel this problem affects many members of our community at Mason. With such a diverse community on campus it is important that we as Jews support other groups on campus. We are unapologetic supporters of Israel and we believe in peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis. We believe that dialogue is vital to achieving lasting coexistence. When those with different opinions cover their ears and walk away, the prospects for peace are diminished.
During Israel peace week though, we were surprised to see members of SAIA come to two of ISA’s events. The first event we held was called Roots/Judur/Shorashim which was a conversation about nonviolent resistance and changing perspectives. It was co-hosted by a Palestinian activist and an Israeli rabbi. Members of SAIA sat and listened to the Palestinian speaker. When the Israeli, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger came up to speak, the students from SAIA stood up, disrupted the program and declared we were turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed in Israel refusing to let anyone speak until finally storming out of the room. In doing so, they attempted to distort the truth and rewrite the narratives that the speakers were sharing. They prevented the Israeli speaker from sharing his story and they prevented the Palestinian and Israeli students on campus from engaging in an open dialogue about one of the world’s most complex issues.
This year, unfortunately, we are faced with the same issue. Members of SAIA refuse to engage in a meaningful dialogue, or even to acknowledge our group. At their event “A Century After Balfour”, members attempted to rewrite the history of the Balfour Declaration and accused the Zionist Federation of establishing the state of Israel with the intent to rob Palestinians of their rights. When our members confronted them about these historical inaccuracies, SAIA’s members grew hostile and accused us of trying to derail their event. When an Israeli student brought up that they were lying about Palestinians not being allowed to drive on the same roads as Israelis, they refused to address her comment and went on to accuse Israel of segregating its citizens.
While the Israel Student Association hosts events that share the daily struggles faced by Israelis and Palestinians, SAIA is harassing students on campus with graphic images and shouting down anyone who tries to ask questions. Students on campus deserve events that are honest and promote an open discussion of this difficult issue. People who attend SAIA’s events will hear a persuading, albeit one-sided presentation of a narrative designed to delegitimize conversation. Mason’s students deserve better.
Contributed by George Mason University CAMERA Fellow Julian Moss.