For a period of a few weeks the Jewish community followed the events of Israel Peace Week and Israel Apartheid Week at my school, Brandeis University. Looking back, there seems to have been a large disconnect between the amount of attention the events received in the Jewish press and the reality that exists on my campus.
Ali Abunimah — a leading proponent of the one-state-solution — received a lot of media coverage recently when he traveled to many campuses across the country, visiting mine as well during the first Israel Apartheid Week organized at Brandeis. But the Abunimah event came and went without much fanfare. There was certainly a decent audience present, but most were either from the pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian camp, along with a handful of adults who traveled from around the Boston area to hear Abunimah speak.
What makes Brandeis University particularly unique compared to other universities across the country is its Jewish character. With about 50 percent of the school Jewish, many of the students on campus have grown up in pro-Israel households. Although there is a large pro-Israel community, there is a much smaller group of students who actually participate in advocating and vocalizing their political views. For the purpose of uncovering what is happening on my campus I spoke to Pinchus Polack, co-president of Brandeis Zionist Alliance, and Noam Lekach, co-president of Students for Justice in Palestine. Both these men were influential in creating and participating in IPW and IAW respectively.
According to Polack, BZA is a club “that promotes cultural programming and tries to give Israel a voice culturally. BZA tries to stay away from the politics as much as possible and instead attempts to show other parts of Israel that are overlooked in the international community.” Polack emphasized that many students have simply gotten sick of hearing and engaging in the politics surrounding Israel. Therefore, the club “has really striven … to go towards a more cultural strategy to show a different side.”
When asked what his opinions were of SJP, he seemed to believe that their actions during IAW further marginalized the group and made them look extreme. Overall, however, Polack believes that IPW was a success. “If you ask me did IPW succeed I would say yes,” he said. “If you asked me has BZA succeeded 100 percent in creating a safe environment where the political rhetoric isn’t really the dominant factor, I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’re definitely on the right path.”
On the other side of the political spectrum is Lekach, an Israeli who had lived in the country for twenty-two years. He explained that SJP’s main goal is “to bring the Palestinian narrative to the discourse. [Brandeis] is a school where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being discussed often, but there is a lack of Palestinian voices on campus.” Lekach, along with about 15 other SJP members, succeeded in bringing speakers who offered a Palestinian perspective, but whether those voices made a lasting impact at Brandeis is still to be seen.
His main critique of the conversation on campus addressed what he sees as a stifling of different opinions on the issue. “I think that we are operating in an atmosphere in which the pro-Israel movement is a hegemony,” he said. “So we are not on this equal ground in which both parties are trying to promote their ideas.” On a more personal note, it is his Israeli background that he finds to be another problem at Brandeis. He is frustrated by the assumptions he says are made by many students when they first meet him and find out he is Israeli and Jewish. Therefore, he finds a “need to present myself as who I am as opposed to who people assume I am.”
The events at Brandeis are more nuanced than just a protest or a counter-protest. Beyond the school, and beyond Boston, there are many Jewish Americans who truly care about news of Israel advocacy on campus, and rightfully so. Indeed, their support is empowering to students like me, who sometimes feel lost in the endless trial and error of Israel programs, events, and speeches. At the same time I am in no way naïve; there are battles to be fought on campus. Those who choose to demonize and de-legitimize, to suppress and oppress other people’s opinions — these people do exist on campus, and they deserve to be condemned in the highest degree. The two men I met with are only an example of some of the real-life characters that influence and play a role in the greater conversation taking place on campus.
Ryan Yuffe, 18, was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a freshman studying at Brandeis University.
Israeli Politics at Brandeis University