Claude Khalife: An ancient debate comes to campus

Few moments from my first semester at GW have stuck with me as much as the night of Nelson Mandela’s death. Shortly after his death was announced, I saw students rush to the “Free Mandela” marker on campus, where they laid flowers as a tribute.

Spontaneous actions like this remind me why I chose GW: Here, political activism and acceptance of diverse faiths and lifestyles are the norm.

Yet, an ugly undercurrent persists where we might not expect. Nowhere does this intolerance and refusal to consider the facts rear its ugly head more than in the ultra-sensitive Israel-Palestinian debate.

There is an all too common standard in our culture – pervasive here at GW, too – that any anti-Israeli sentiments are the same thing as anti-Jewish sentiments.

Just because I have my own qualms with the politics of the Israeli state doesn’t mean I’m an anti-Semite. But I’ve been labeled as such by students on this campus, which should encourage us all to reexamine the harsh effects of our words.

In conversations about the Israel-Palestine debate, I’ve shared this story: In 2006, my grandmother, who lives in Lebanon, broke her leg in a fall, and required urgent medical attention. However, she was instead forced to spend days at home because an Israeli warplane had bombed the only bridge out of her quiet fishing village. I have often used this anecdote in conversations with those on the other side of the issue.

Time and time again, I have been met with a strange, stone-faced silence.

Such a reaction makes no sense to me – not just because I am, in fact, Semitic myself. The well-documented abuses of the Israeli regime have no relation to the Israel of the Torah. The government that blatantly ignores elements vital to the peace process – such as the cessation of settlement building in occupied territory – doesn’t necessarily deserve leeway just because it shares the same name with a historical kingdom.

Drama is unfolding on campuses miles away, too. Hillel, the national Jewish student group, has come under fire at top universities like Harvard and Swarthmore for stifling student debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Because GW has the fifth largest Jewish population of any college in the nation, the conflict hits close to the spiritual and ethnic identity of many students. But when it comes to a discussion about Israel’s role in the Middle East, GW’s Jewish leaders need to sustain an honest conversation on this topic, shun the backwards policy set by the national organization and reject the notion that those who aren’t staunchly pro-Israel are hateful and aggressive.

GW has confronted the issue the past: In 2011, pro-Israel and pro-Palestine students gathered to discuss the Middle East conflict all under the same roof. A new batch of GW students could benefit from tackling the issue this semester.

As students who jump at the chance to communicate openly about a wide range of political issues, as evidenced by a huge showing of support after Mandela’s death, I’m shocked that this sense of understanding for different ideas doesn’t apply to conversations about Israel and Palestine.

At best, students like myself who are wrongly called anti-Semites are offended and confused. At worst, this casual labeling will cheapen the meaning of the word and weaken the recognition of past evils that have been committed under its philosophy.

The writer is a freshman majoring in international affairs.

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