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Zionism, civil rights and Stanford activism: The case for productive education

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On Nov. 11, the women of Delta Sigma Theta sponsored “Whose Rights?”, an event advertised as “an educational debate” about the connections between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the American Civil Rights Movement. The four panelists – Kristian Davis Bailey, former president of Stanford Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP); Dr. Clayborne Carson, director of the MLK Research and Education Institute; Shiri Krebs, former legal advisor to the Israeli Supreme Court; and Chloé Valdary, a conservative Black Zionist activist – were portrayed as offering a balanced overview of the connections between the two issues.

We appreciate the space Delta Sigma Theta and the panelists created for discussing this complex and charged question. We are concerned, however, that the conversation erased moderate voices that acknowledge both Israeli and Palestinian histories and rights to self-determination, and did an intellectual disservice to those in the audience by framing a multifaceted issue as a binary of right and wrong. The debate failed to meet the standard of critical dialogue and meaningful education that befits an institution like Stanford.

Substantive conversations and educational events about these issues are essential. With emotions high in response to tragedies in Gaza, Ferguson, and Iguala/Ayotzinapa, among others, Stanford has entered a year of debate and action to support movements for justice and equality. As Stanford students, our voices are amplified and our actions examined closely. With this role comes the responsibility to educate ourselves from a variety of perspectives and to challenge our own biases. The panel did not live up to that responsibility: Krebs spoke primarily about the legality of occupation, and Dr. Carson offered a historical civil rights perspective, leaving Bailey and Valdary to address the political dimensions and giving no space to moderates who would challenge their diametrically opposing interpretations of the conflict.

The panel did a particular disservice to the audience by including Valdary as representative of Zionism. She cast herself as an Israel-loving, settlement-promoting, expansionist extreme Zionist who disregards Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israelis. Valdary argued that Israelis lack civil rights because they cannot settle in certain areas of the West Bank, and was silent on Palestinians’ experiences of checkpoints, police raids, separate roads, and military brutality under occupation.

Her presence was neither educational nor productive.  Instead of showcasing the legitimate range of opinions on Israeli-Palestinian and civil rights issues, and challenging students to think seriously and deeply about the overlap and tensions between them, the event painted Zionism as a monolithic, racist movement dedicated to Jewish supremacy over disenfranchised Palestinians. This was exacerbated by other panelists and the moderator Sherif Ibrahim, a member of SJP, who openly disrespected Valdary’s ideas, eliciting chuckles and snaps from the audience.

The Zionism depicted in this event is not the Zionism any of us at J Street U, an organization that advocates a peaceful, negotiated two-state solution to the issue of Israel and Palestine – condone or espouse. Valdary’s and Bailey’s arguments for and against Zionism, respectively, erase complexities and portray groups as heroes and villains, eclipsing space for meaningful exchange. They attempt to excuse us from taking responsibility to learn more and confront the paradoxes and challenges that make this conflict so intractable. From attending the Whose Rights? panel, no audience member would have known that many students reject the false dichotomies presented and work to end the conflict, the occupation and Palestinian inequality, while also embracing Zionist values such as Israel’s continued existence.

We believe that rigorous education and productive action must go hand in hand when we approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Educating ourselves without acting on our knowledge reduces pressing problems to unproductive intellectual exercises. Jumping to action without fully understanding the complexities of the issues, meanwhile, risks wasting energy on misguided initiatives or even exacerbating the problem. We challenge the Stanford community to close the gaps in understanding left by this panel. In the coming months, J Street U will create spaces for learning, discussion and action. We urge those who attended the debate, or who are interested in improving their understanding of the conflict as divestment and other actions present themselves, to engage, regardless of background or opinions. We hope that we, the Stanford community, can establish practices of mutual respect, critical thought and productive education as we approach pursuing justice in Israel, Palestine and around the world.

Julia Daniel ’17

Julia Daniel is the co-chair of J Street U Stanford and can be contacted at jdaniel7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.