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Free Speech and Anti-Zionism at CUNY Law

The following is a transcript of Episode 141 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Friday, June 2nd, 2023.

Jewish news was a flutter this week, again with what we’ll call an old slash new story. Anti-Israel stuff at a university. In this case, the commencement speaker at the CUNY Law School, Fatima Mohammed, delivered a fiery speech in which she praised the law school as a rare place where, in her words, students and faculty were free to, quote, “speak out against Israeli settler colonialism, in contrast to the larger climate in which such ideas and free expression are suppressed.”

And then she went on to say, among other things, quote, “as Israel continues to indiscriminately rain bullets and bombs on worshippers, murdering the old, the young, attacking even funerals and graveyards, as it encourages lynch mobs to target Palestinian homes and businesses, as it imprisons our children, as it continues its project of settler colonialism, our silence is no longer acceptable.” 

I want to talk about this issue this week, and I want to do so intelligently. And I want to try to get on the same page about what we’re talking about before we engage with what we think about it. And in that context, it’s a little bit hard to know which pieces of information to share in this opening part of the show, which pieces of data about the story are actually material as the news elements before we get into the analysis. I feel like when it comes to these stories, what you choose to share as background is actually usually part of what you already think about the story, part of the trap that we’ve all fallen into in our collective inability to separate news and opinion, fact from analysis. 

So what I’m gonna do is give you a list of what I think are facts or data points material to this story, and you can choose to assemble them in the order that you see fit and into a narrative that you find coherent, though I strongly suggest that if you leave out some facts, because their inclusion would make the narrative that you want to tell incoherent, well, maybe that narrative requires some more examination. 

Number one. This speech culminated kind of a dramatic couple of weeks at CUNY Law, since just two weeks earlier, at an earlier graduation event, the students had both elected Mohammed as their commencement speaker and then had largely turned their backs on and openly booed New York City Mayor Eric Adams. 

Number two, for better or worse, Israel and Zionism were a major plot point of the speech and in fact the opening salvo, but they weren’t the entire focus of the speech. You might miss this in Jewish media. But the reason that noting that is important is because Israel and Zionism are, of course, a major plot point in American leftist ideologies, and it’s sometimes hard to tell whether they are the starting point for an anti-imperial and anti-colonial worldview or just an example within that worldview. I think that that may make a difference. 

Number three. The particular speaker has a history of saying inflammatory things about Israel. We’ll come back to that adjective, inflammatory, later on. Conservative publications like the National Review dug up some of her old tweets, some as recently as 2021, in which Mohammed had said, quote, “May every Zionist burn in the hottest pit of hell.” And then in response to comments made by Andrew Yang, quote, “May you burn in the same fire the settler Zionists celebrated today, and may every Zionist like yourself faith the wrath of your injustice.” 

Number four. Already back in 2016, CUNY had engaged an external investigator about allegations of anti-Semitism accused of being rampant in the CUNY system with an emphasis on Brooklyn College. It’s a little bit of a messy story seeing that it was the ZOA, a far-right organization that instigated this investigation with a letter alleging the anti-Semitism. And the story is especially murky because the alleged incidents all took place within a framework of anti-Israel activity. And while we’ll talk more about this later, the conflation of anti-Israel with anti-Semitic is a deeply contested, highly political, and controversial claim. 

Still, back in 2016, the independent investigator found that there were verifiable incidents that clearly crossed the threshold from legitimate protest against Israel into explicitly anti-Semitic acts and rhetoric, including public claims by students towards other students and sometimes by faculty, about Jewish power, about Jews controlling the banks, bankrolling terror, etc. 

As a result, for several years now, there’s been a rising drumbeat, mostly coming from the pro-Israel center and right, sometimes from the independent media, about anti-Semitism in the CUNY system, which again is largely connected to anti-Israel activism. 

This is both what Mohammed was responding to, affirming the ways that her law school was protecting what she understood to be the right to free political speech. And it’s the context of what’s agitating the critics of her commencement address, who understood her speech to be a furtherance of what seems to be a protected culture of antisemitism in the CUNY system. 

I’m gonna repeat that, because I think it’s a key point. This context about accusations of antisemitism in the CUNY system is both what Mohammed was responding to, because she is affirming that she is proud of her law school for protecting what she understood to be the right to have free political speech. And the same context is what’s driving the criticism of the speech from those who understood her speech to be about that same protected culture of anti-Semitism. 

Point number five, the CUNY system, represented by its chancellor and the board of trustees, then distanced itself from Mohammed’s speech, by the way, a speech that was cheered on by her fellow students, with something of a strange statement that it released on Twitter, that a) Affirmed her freedom of speech, B) Claimed that the speech had crossed the line from freedom of speech and into hate speech, and C) That the speech represented, quote, “public expression of hate towards people and communities based on their religion, race, or political affiliation.” Religion, race, or political affiliation. Now, that’s a little strange, right? It seems that most of all, Mohammad’s speech was hatefully directed at people based on their national identity, namely Israelis, but that doesn’t get mentioned in the statement, while religion, race, and political affiliation do. 

A handful of organizations embraced the CUNY statement. They liked the fact that CUNY publicly repudiated the speaker, but over on Twitter it was clear that neither of the polls on this issue particularly liked it. A wide set of progressive organizations attacked the statement and the university and came to Mohammed’s defense, either in support of her free speech rights or because they agreed with her message. And I would suggest that some of said organizations are kind of hiding the football in saying that they merely support her right to say it when they’re actually cheering her on for saying it. 

Meanwhile, over on the right, plenty of pro-Israel Jews hated the CUNY statement also, because of what it didn’t say, most blatantly, for not using the obvious word, anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, the Jewish Law Students Association at CUNY Law came to Mohammed’s defense with a statement saying that the criticism of Mohammed was the result of her being, quote, “A person currently targeted by a racist hate campaign from external organizations.” And then the JLSA goes on to make its own commitments clearer, that they weren’t merely defending their colleague from external threats, but actually agreeing with key elements of her critique. The JLSA student statement reads, “As Jewish students attending an institution structured around social justice, we denounce both the murder and dispossession enacted in our name through the Zionist project and the harassment and lies that Zionist organizations are using to punish Fatima for her bravery and commitment to Palestinian freedom.”

I know I’m trying to be in the background section right now, but…yikes, when I read that statement from the Jewish Law Student Association. 

Number six. We have to note as part of the fact pattern, the particular university context where this controversy takes place. CUNY is a public university. It represents, rightly, the magnificent racial, ethnic, and political diversity that can be found in the global metropolis that is New York City. As a city university, it’s far more affordable and accessible than most private schools. and its students’ gravitation towards the work of social justice is indisputably connected to those conditions. 

Jews, of course, have a complicated relationship to city colleges. CUNY was a really important vehicle for American Jews in the early and middle of the 20th century, when they were excluded from private universities, as it is today for other marginalized groups to get critical access to social and economic mobility and to use the framework of the public university system to advocate for systemic political change against the very conditions that prevent economic and social equality, that require them to be in a public university to begin with. 

Today, there are still thousands of Jews in the CUNY system, and I suspect this is just a personal anecdotal observation that there are going to be many more over the years, as university admissions get harder and more competitive, and as more people recognize that local city and state colleges offer good bang for their buck. 

But there was a change in the past 50 years in CUNY being less of a part of the center of gravity of Jewish higher education pursuits in North America as Jews went to private universities, and then I guess in return, of Jewish students being less part of the center of gravity of CUNY itself. 

I’m not sure that that matters probatively in evaluating whether the speech was offensive, but maybe it matters in helping to situate the inside-outside feelings that many Jews, I would guess many of whom are pro-Israel, feel in the CUNY system right now. 

I also think it might mean it’s at least a slightly different story with these local resonances than when a BDS resolution or a speaker shows up at a private university in a different part of the country. I think part of our job as readers is to figure out when local contexts help us to understand particular manifestations of complicated national phenomena, much the same way that when we actually try to fix problems that we’re in proximity to, knowing the local context and the key players is essential. 

But number seven, the flip side of knowing some of the local context, is that we rightly also see this story as merely the local manifestation of a national trend. BDS campaigns and this kind of rhetoric show up in a lot of places right now in higher education. It happens more commonly on campuses with a clear progressive bent, and especially in sectors of academia where there are direct links between the area of study and the agenda of social justice, such as in the humanities and in law schools. 

We’ve talked about this phenomena on the show before, and I suppose that part of the reason this is happening is because universities, almost by definition, are always going to be out on the ledge towards more radical politics than the general public. Partly this happens because they embody or they inhabit a healthy climate of suspicion of the status quo that in turn guides good critical inquiry, which is the work that they’re meant to do. 

I think this also happens though because universities are like weird greenhouses. They absorb the heat of pressing social issues that comes in from the outside. Their architecture is fixed, so many of the quote-unquote plants inside, the professors, thrive in the conditions preserved inside in ways that they could never get away with outside the framework of their incubation. And students walk in, get sweaty and fired up for a few years, and then leave. Sometimes those students leave with those politics, but oftentimes they take a few years of cooling off and look back at that experience as having been kind of strange. 

Meanwhile, though, our society tends to treat universities less as an outlier and more as a predictor of what’s coming next for the rest of us. I’m a little bit skeptical of this. The radicalism of the college campus in the 1960s pretty smoothly gave way to the rampant capitalism of the 1980s. Ideological trends can be fickle. But it doesn’t stop our collective instinct of fearing that what young people are being exposed to is a quick pathway or a predictor of which politics might govern and dominate our community. 

Number eight. All of this is happening within a widespread and kind of pointless debate that we’ve also talked about on the show in the past about how to define anti-Semitism. The critics of the speech were disappointed with CUNY’s response precisely because they are more likely to view anti-Israel sentiment as inherently anti-Semitic, and therefore they see a speech like this as inflammatory and therefore dangerous, endangering Jewish students on campus who would hold beliefs that are being demonized from the stage. 

Defenders of the speech, meanwhile, will rarely concede that even if it was anti-Semitic, it’s still free speech. Most of the time, they’ll want to argue that anti-Israel doesn’t equal anti-Semitic, which makes it, therefore, easier to defend. In other words, the definition of anti-Semitism essentially follows after you’ve already decided whether the speech is problematic and not the other way around. 

There was one response that I found most impressive and it came from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. It was impressive because it dodged the question of anti-Semitism very productively by criticizing the instinct of the university, especially as a public institution, in limiting free speech by characterizing it as hate speech. The FIRE letter said, quote, “Regardless of the offense and backlash it causes, speech remains protected, even if hateful, towards people and communities based on their religion, race, or political affiliation. CUNY is free to condemn such speech, but it cannot claim the speech is unprotected solely because it considers the speech hateful. CUNY’s implication that such speech is unprotected will certainly chill students’ further future protected expression, which is unacceptable and unconstitutional at a public institution.”

I like this approach because I think it challenges the way that people who howl about cancel culture tend to operate on the basis of cancel culture for me and not for thee, some of the loudest voices lamenting that they have been canceled for their countercultural view and painting a picture of a censorious public square, but then they invariably carve out exceptions for the ideas that they think deserve condemnation and cancellation. And pro-Palestinian-ness tends to fit neatly into that category. Folks like that will argue that because the pro-Palestinian side uses strategies like boycott, that they are the censorious ones who deserve to be boycott. But the truth is it’s just a fight between different kinds of boycotts. 

To FIRE’s credit, they are strict interpreters of the law. It can be hateful, and I think the statement might be implicitly saying that maybe it’s anti-Semitic, but that nevertheless we should be vigilant in saying that it should be allowed. To be clear, they say you can criticize it, but they say it should be allowed. 

Let me spend one more minute on definitions of anti-Semitism here, since there’s another news angle tie-in. The Biden administration last week released its massive strategy to combat anti-Semitism. This is a big deal, and hopefully, when the time is right, we’ll devote an episode to unpacking the strategy. 

Right now, most of the quick hot-take analysis follows pretty much along partisan lines, missing the fact that for the U.S. government to take on the project of addressing anti-Semitism is basically an ideal outcome for a Jewish community that has argued for a long time that anti-Semitism is a problem for the society itself and not for Jews to have to solve. The administration’s report, to its immense credit, dodged the question of which definition to use for antisemitism, which allowed a lot of people on both sides of the issue to claim victory. 

This week, though, and this is again on Twitter, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, who is the administration’s special envoy on antisemitism, she cited from the strategy document to emphasize that even if the administration was not using the widespread IHRA definition on antisemitism, which comes the closest of all the definitions of associating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, there’s obviously still a link between the two. 

The quote reads, this is from the White House strategy document, quote, “Jewish students and educators are targeted for derision and exclusion on college campuses, often because of their real or perceived views about the state of Israel. When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or their identity, when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is anti-Semitism.”

That seems totally right to me. balanced and coherent and not inflammatory. But then the statement also says, quote, “All students, educators, and administrators should feel safe and free from violence, harassment, and intimidation on their campuses. And this is also coherent, but now it’s a little tricky. Because I think a lot of different people in the story, not just the Jewish pro-Israel students, but also the pro-Palestinian students, do not feel free and safe. It’s a wildly unpredictable and unstable reality when multiple opposing sides of an issue feel like threatened victims. 

So number nine, we have no agreed-upon terms about which ideas are, to pick a few adjectives, dangerous, inflammatory, or traumatizing. All of those words are in the atmosphere, and young people do show a lot of signs of vulnerability amidst a massive mental health crisis. But it’s a contentious idea to begin with, as argued by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, that words are weapons or weaponizable and that students need to be protected from them. And it feels a little unstable that even among those who believe that to be true, we can’t possibly agree on which words or ideas are the ones that are threatening and which words or ideas in turn protect us. 

And finally, number 10. You can think that something should be allowed to be said, and that that same thing that is being said is really bad, and that it’s worth fighting like hell against it and trying to defeat it. Critics of Israel oftentimes are invested in the idea that their criticism is entirely political in nature, and it’s therefore protected speech, and therefore they get really upset when others, who in turn see Israel as endemic to their own Jewish identity, fight back, quite angrily in the public square. 

I get that everybody wants the right to scream bloody murder. I just don’t really get the intolerance involved with insisting that everyone has to listen to you politely, applaud, and feel bad about themselves as a result. By the way, the logic of those trying to prohibit BDS is not usually, they don’t usually believe that it’s an exception to free speech. Their logic is that BDS is not speech activity, it’s economic activity that states are free to regulate. 

Legally speaking, sometimes the argument between pro-BDS advocates and those who are trying to make it illegal is not apples and oranges about free speech. It’s more like apples and wheelbarrows about what we’re talking about. 

I suppose that in this framing, I’ve strayed a little far from merely laying out the facts. I’m not a journalist, and I do tend to think that situations like this can be legitimately complex. In moments like this, it’s actually good to note that there are blurry lines between facts and opinions, even as I think we do have a moral obligation to try to first understand something complicated, even as it reinforces or shapes our opinion of what to think about it or how to respond. The alternative, just curating the news that serves our biases and then engaging in color war, I don’t know, I just find it really unsatisfying. 

Meantime, there’s also just the prosaic reality that I’m sure that there were CUNY graduates that day who felt that their commencement speaker didn’t represent them. And that probably felt miserable, that this is the message that they had to sit through. More than that, they felt that the whoops of approval that they heard from their peers and from the faculty constituted an endorsement of anti-Semitism in their home institution. And we are going to see more of this, and we have obligations to the First Amendment, and, and, and. 

If you haven’t been able to tell just yet, I am not just the host of this week’s show, I am also the guest, partly because I have a lot of opinions on this subject, as you’ve heard already. So here’s what I think we have to do about this. And I want to get there by telling a different story with lower stakes, something that happened to me recently, which I found instructive for my own thinking. 

So last fall, I got a terrific email from a professor at a law school, a person I only know by reputation, a Palestinian-American scholar who had previously served as part of the Palestinian negotiation team. So he was organizing a symposium on BDS and the First Amendment and invited me to offer an opening keynote that probed the question of the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, as a question that he felt, and I agreed, constituted a critical data point in trying to establish the question of what was protected and should be protected by law and what was prohibitable speech. 

In the invitation to me he wrote that, quote, “Our aim is to facilitate a civil and constructive discussion among people with diverse perspectives about these matters.” In a later exchange he said that “It remains important to me to find someone who can engage with other participants thoughtfully and temporally even if their views differ sharply.” 

As you can imagine, I loved this. I find it continually courageous in these polarized times when people work really hard to engage the viewpoints of others, when they can find ways to respect speakers with other opinions, and to listen carefully even as they reserve the right to disagree vehemently. I truly love the effort. 

I was also quite nervous. I intuited that a law school conference on BDS and the First Amendment was probably gonna tilt in a particular direction, definitely towards the public policy that BDS has protected speech and that it was wrong to try to prohibit it. And I suspected that among the participants and the attendees, there was probably going to be overt, outright support for BDS itself. I also knew that the event was going to be recorded and would eventually find its way online. And while I always feel that I am speaking on the record, and generally do not struggle with finding the right words to say, I felt like this was one of those situations where if you don’t say exactly the right thing, you could get torn to shreds in any number of online venues. 

So I prepared extensively with fully written out remarks, and I solicited a lot of input from friends and colleagues on different sides of the issue. Maybe at some point, I’ll publish my piece because I was proud of the research and the clarity with which I was able to lay out my view. I showed up to the conference, which was taking place on Zoom, and I had the honor of going first. 

It all went according to plan. My remarks were followed on the opening panel first by a very assertive dissent to what I had just said by an activist who worked on this issue from a progressive political position. And then it was followed by two presentations by law professors who offered conflicting views on the aforementioned debate as to whether BDS should constitute political speech, in which case it deserved legal protection, or economic activity, in which case it didn’t. So far, so good. 

And then something strange happened. When the chair opened up to the audience for questions, they first called on a speaker who unmuted, showed up on screen, and offered a scathing 10-minute attack on me. Not what I had said, but on me and on my institution. 

It turns out that this activist, who comes from a BDS organization called Palestine Legal, had originally been invited to be a panelist as well, but refused to participate once I joined. This was all unbeknownst to me, and in fact, the whole thing was a little bit weird because now she was de facto the fifth panelist on the panel. But in order to account for that, she devoted her time to the problematics of my organization and why the principles of the boycott movement required her to disavow appearing alongside me, and essentially using the work of my organization in Israel to discredit my very legitimacy to be able to participate in the discussion. 

The whole thing was hopelessly circular. She would argue that my organization, with one of its campuses in Jerusalem was fighting against BDS, which meant that I was thus to be boycotted, even in an academic discussion about the legitimacy of boycott itself. It would suggest that you can’t even talk about boycott without establishing a core commitment to boycott. It’s like that cartoon image of the different Spider-Mans in the metaverse, all pointing a gun at each other. No, you started it. You started it. 

I naively thought we were having an open discussion on an impossible topic to talk about. I was actually walking into what felt like kind of a trap, where because of my institutional affiliation, I was disqualified from having an opinion. I was offered a chance to respond, and I did so briefly, essentially reiterating my viewpoint and my desire to be in dialogue with those who disagree with me, and my deep dissent with the efforts to anti-normalize the very people who we should be talking to. 

I don’t want you to feel bad for me. I want you to notice that it’s a yucky story. Honestly, I think those folks shouldn’t be boycotting American Jews like me, even those of us who are connected to organizations in Israel. We are, after all, Americans. And when I show up as a Jew speaking about my Zionism and someone holds me accountable for the actions of the Israeli government, I think that’s a really bad look. 

But it was also just ugly because it ran so contrary to the goals of the organizers. Instead of talking to each other, we’re talking to witnessing third parties about what we refuse to hear from each other. So originally I was upset at the conference organizer because I think he knew what was going to happen and didn’t tell me. But more than that I actually ultimately felt kind of bad for him. He apologized to me and I think he was in an impossible position. 

I complain a lot about the narrowness and the parochial politics of the Jewish community in America and Israel. And yet I think it’s way harder to try to show up with nuance and sophistication to engage in real dialogue from within the pro-Palestinian networks in America. 

In the end, though, the story didn’t aggravate me or anger me, it just made me kind of sad. There was almost a nearly ideal version of how people who disagree on Israel-Palestine, the issue that animates and divides some of us more than any other, might actually discuss that disagreement in a principled, semi-public setting. Instead, it was performance theater of cancellation. 

Have you ever had a chance to listen, to really listen to a really fantastic articulation of a position or an idea that you think is wrong, you’re inclined to think is wrong, maybe even dangerously wrong? Maybe it’s an idea that goes against what you’ve been raised to believe, maybe it’s an opinion that goes against the ideas that form something essential to your identity, maybe it’s something that if it turns out it was right, it would require you to make some changes in what you believed and what you thought. Have you ever had the chance to do that? 

Wow, when you experience moments like that, it’s a reminder of why education is so powerful, why the human encounter with difference is so essential, why what John Rawls calls the fact of pluralism, that our differences are endemic to human society, why that fact makes demands on us to show up differently as human beings in the world. When you actually get to encounter ideas that are different than your own, it’s actually a terrifying experience, because even if you come back from the brink and conclude that you were still right all along, even as that competing narrative that someone else is offering is a little bit compelling, maybe you caught a glimpse of the abyss as you began to tumble down for your certainty, and even that glimpse made you forever changed. 

Why on earth do we work so hard as mortal human beings, who know that we can never hold a monopoly on truth from the opportunity to do that kind of work? Why do we default so commonly to litigation as a way of confronting our differences rather than the ancient and modern art of persuasion? Why have we come to believe that the simple statements, I disagree with you, or I think you are wrong, are like naive expressions of civility, which is thought of today as a luxury item in the face of injustice, as opposed to what they are, a commitment to passionate democracy, which might be the precise foundation for combating that very injustice? 

Personally, I thought the CUNY speech was terrible. It was truly terrible. And I suspect that the instinct to shut down Ms. Mohammed in response is going to wind up making things worse. There is and needs to be a basic right afforded to Palestinians and Palestinian Americans and pro-Palestinian Americans to narrate their traumas and their grievances. 

We Zionists should be resilient enough in our beliefs to not be threatened by hearing these stories and these complaints, whether or not they change our minds or influence our politics. But we are so weak at doing it. Our community leaders act so threatened by it, so eager to privilege our own narratives of victimhood, that we wind up shutting down far less violent and less inflammatory expressions of that descent than what Ms. Mohammed said at CUNY that day, and in the process of doing that we lose the credibility that we need to rightly call out the really bad versions. 

We are feeding a culture that merely breeds worse and angrier alternatives, that then become themselves even more passionate about preventing us from making our voices heard. Boycotting the boycotters, round and around we go. 

And what’s power about anyway? Zionism succeeded way beyond its wildest imaginations and whatever version of peace and reconciliation with Palestinians that will ever emerge will probably be far less for them than what they once dreamed of for their own future. You can blame their leaders for their many historical and political failings, but at a certain point, we Jews, we Zionists, are gonna have to start acting like we are the sovereign that we are, and in turn, we might need to make more space for the painful dissent of the governed. That may place more of a burden on us than we feel comfortable with, but it’s a pretty good problem for the Jewish people to have. 

Instead, what’s happened here for us pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian folks in America, is a tragedy layered on a tragedy. Israelis and Palestinians are knotted in a conflict. For better or worse, their lives, their fates, and their destinies are intertwined. That reality could make things better if only they understood that their mutual thriving depends on the other. Oftentimes, their interconnectivity makes things worse, as humans are oftentimes bound to believe that our survival and our happiness are in zero-sum relationship to other people. 

That’s them over there, but we over here, what are we doing? We are in effect importing all the hate, hostility, and fear that characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to us, but without any of the intimacy. We then tattoo our commitments onto our identities, so that we might wear them in public, and we hold them out against each other, and our proxy attachments to over there become even more severe and uncompromising than even some of those that divide between Israelis and Palestinians themselves, who should be implicated far more by this conflict than by us, than we, our brothers and sisters, may be real, may be imagined thousands of miles away.

Is any of this helping? Or maybe it’s making it worse. Maybe we’re opening up a new and unnecessary frontier on a conflict that has already taken enough lives, and then mirroring back to that fraught region, even more conflict than already inhabits a pretty small stretch of land between the river and the sea. 

You know, I’ve had enough of these stories taking place on campus, and I apologize for fueling them by engaging them, by accepting that in narrating this hostility, we normalize it and allow it to flourish. Maybe we could do better. Maybe it’s not inevitable, regardless of what some publication or other wants you to believe about a culture war that publication is profiting from. Maybe better discourse and dialogue will only emerge if we actually start modeling it. 

Some folks in the Jewish community believe that this conflict here between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine is entirely intractable and of existential significance and therefore they want our young people to go to college campuses to become warriors for Israel. 

Warriors for Israel. It’s an astonishing phrase, entirely out of whack with what young people tend to want to do with their lives when they get their first glimpse of freedom and autonomy. Those who want young people to become warriors think that moral courage is to fight against bigotry with hostility. They may wonder why it keeps rebounding against them with greater and greater conviction, but then again that very same data, which is the obvious result of that strategy of trying to make warriors for campus on Israel, winds up becoming usefully reinforcing of their bias as to the evil they see themselves fighting against. 

What would happen instead if we coached and invited our young people to be peacemakers for Israel? If this now here is a front on the war between Israelis and Palestinians that many of us believe need not be zero-sum, and even if there is no political will in Israel for negotiations, why can’t those negotiations happen here? What if we decided on resilience rather than fixating on what we win by trying to win a battle for who is more traumatized than the other? What if we committed to the idea that moral courage could be found in persuasion, in negotiation, in listening? 

If we knew that Fatima Mohammed might not come running into that conversation, but that who knows who else might be watching this happen mournfully, shaking their heads at the constant that we are actively cultivating while wondering why the walls are closing in. I’ll tell you this, status quos of all kinds are extremely overrated. To be truly courageous is always to imagine alternatives to the present, and then to remain in the discomfort of not knowing whether the masses will join you. 

There are a lot of peacemakers in Israel and Palestine, good individual human beings trying to desperately humanize the other, in spite of the conveniently available political alternatives. Can we hear on our campuses? Can we see them? Can we help them? Can we be them too?

Thanks so much for listening to our show. Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our vice president for communications and creative, and our music is provided by Socalled. 

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas for what we should cover in future episodes, so if you have a topic you’d like to hear about, if you have comments on this one, please feel free to write us at [email protected]. You can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people find the show. You can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, and thanks for listening.

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