U.S. Students Silent on Israel-Palestine

For the past decade or longer, it seems students passionate about the Middle East are asked to pick a side and stay on it – “pro-Israeli” or “pro-Palestinian.” Once they choose their side, the battle lines are drawn. They join their respective group in activities that further the divide between students and disable constructive discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We’ve seen students clash during demonstrations and speechesUC-Berkeley has faced polarization for nearly a decade. 

But the issue of ending the Israel-Palestine conflict has been more muted recently. In 2010 and this year, I visited 39 universities across the United States, as the coordinator of speaking tours for OneVoice’s International Education Program. OneVoice is an international movement aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by focusing on youth empowerment and grassroots mobilization. Accompanying me were pairs of Israeli and Palestinian youth activists, each working within their own society to lay the framework for a negotiated two-state solution. In seeking to directly face and extinguish campus polarization by introducing students to their Israeli and Palestinian peers, I expected to encounter anger, shouting, and perhaps even protest. 

Instead, what I encountered this past semester was apathy. Many students, barring handfuls of passionate student leaders, were disengaged, detached, and for the most part not present at our events. Our last tour took place in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan. Normally, we engage over 700 students during our events, discussions, and training seminars, but on this tour, we engaged just 200 across four states.

This was surprising given that just one year ago this issue was near a boiling point between student groups on college campuses. While these tensions undoubtedly still exist, they are either being vocalized by smaller and smaller numbers of students, manifested mostly in the issue of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or the divides created in the past have led to complete silence between groups. I was told by one student that members of opposing groups on his campus will even turn away from each other on the street. 

Simultaneously, the rest of the students are completely distancing themselves from any Israeli-Palestinian conversation on campus. Students I have spoken to say that when they see calls for more extreme events or the beginnings of protests in the center of campus, they are fed up by the same old polarized activities disrupting their student life.

But I think this disengagement goes deeper. I meet many students who care strongly about Israel and Palestine, but they no longer care enough, or are too fed up with the status quo, to show up to a moderate event that features an Israeli and Palestinian telling their personal story. It’s my impression that students are getting fatigued by anything related to Israel and Palestine. The political stalemate makes it seem like nothing can be done to end the conflict, and this frustrates students enough that they decide to detach completely.

This apathy is that much more glaring when comparing American students with their peers in the Arab world. Young people in the Middle East are mobilizing and leading revolutions to change the entire political system of their countries. Meanwhile, the future leaders of our country are taking a back seat to supporting the efforts of Israelis and Palestinians in ending the conflict, a conflict that has reverberations for us as Americans too. Our foreign policy, national security, economy, and reputation in the world are seriously impacted by the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

I know that students have the energy to be constructive players in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The status quo is indeed discouraging, but changing dynamics can begin with forming one positive relationship. Students must have the courage to bridge the silent divides affecting campus groups already engaged in Israeli-Palestinian issues, and create new groups that build productive, active, and creative programs on their campuses that attract the attention and passion of their fellow students.   

Young people in the Arab world have realized their power, and have taken responsibility for activism to create change. I’m still waiting for American students to learn the same lesson and realize that their actions on campus can have both a local and global impact. 

Photo Credit: Rachel Steinberg