Several weeks ago, I stepped into the Chapel to hear a lecture by Aharon Barak, former President of Israel’s Supreme Court. I was taken aback when I saw a protester holding a sign decrying Wesleyan’s decision to bring him to campus. Indeed, as a student who wishes to engage with different ideas, this message struck me as unhelpful to the goal of fostering understanding and seeking an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The reaction to Wesleyan’s decision to invite Justice Barak to deliver the 23rd annual Hugo L. Black Lecture reminded me of the importance of critical engagement. As the President of Israel’s Supreme Court, he authored scores of decisions that established him as a leading voice for equality and democracy, including a landmark case that outlawed discrimination in housing and residency by nationality. Barak is seen by many to be a leading judicial voice against the rightward shift in Israeli politics.
As part of its protest of the event, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) argued that Wesleyan should never have brought Justice Barak to speak in the first place, with the justification that he is a part of an Israeli political system that the group opposes overall. Excluding his voice, however, would hurt the interests of all Wesleyan students. The call to diminish the breadth and scope of dialogue and engagement on our campus is harmful to the educational mission of the University.
While I disagree with much of the content of the protests themselves, their attempt to bring marginalized ideas and issues to the forefront is a vitally important and productive exercise. As someone who attended the lecture, I wish even more of the SJP members had attended the talk and asked the sort of difficult, challenging questions that a figure like Justice Barak deserves to be asked.
I wish he had been pushed to answer whether and how international law is applied in the West Bank. I had many friends and acquaintances ask me about the protests and the ramifications of the points the protestors made. Students learned something, and they had the opportunity to think critically about both the lecture and the protest, neither of which would have been possible had Wesleyan bowed to SJP’s original demands.
At the end of the day Justice Barak’s voice on campus and SJP’s voice challenging him were both valuable to the conversation. This is why SJP’s demand that Wesleyan should never have brought Barak in the first place is so puzzling. What SJP seemingly failed to realize is that if Wesleyan had not invited Justice Barak to our campus, there could have been no dissenting voices and no space created for a critical examination of the issues at hand. There would have been no chance to engage the campus and wider community in dialogue, no chance to ask critical questions, and no opportunity for students to learn something new. Ideas that we find disagreeable inspire frustration and anger not because they have been voiced, but rather because of the reality to which they give voice.
We need to be having a conversation about how we can end the occupation, extend democratic rights and security to inhabitants of both Israel and Palestine, and implement the two-state solution. If Justice Barak had not spoken on campus as per SJP’s original demand, this rich conversation about the many challenges that Israelis and Palestinians face would not have been sparked. We need more conversations about the tough issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not fewer.
The persistent aversion to engaging in dialogue with individuals and groups we find problematic is symptomatic of a wider malaise that afflicts the politics surrounding the conflict. Many advocate for a type of politics that foreswears dialogue and negotiation unless one side has already acceded to the other’s position. This sort of politics results in an echo chamber, one where we can hear ourselves perfectly clear but are no closer to solving the difficult issues at hand. Years of non-negotiation brought us no closer to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The result has been perennial insecurity for Israelis and continuing occupation for Palestinians. It is negotiation that has given Israelis and Palestinians a chance for peace, democracy, and self-determination. The resumption of negotiations with the help of Secretary John Kerry has shown once again the power of negotiations over boycotts and sanctions.
This is why I believe J Street U’s work on campus to be so crucial: it creates the space to grapple with the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and provides opportunities to advocate for vigorous U.S. leadership to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a member of the group, I invite everyone to join us in our campaign to make the two-state solution a political reality. If we want to encourage an open and critical discussion on our campus, we need to engage with the most diverse set of voices possible, no matter how challenging they may be.
We need Israeli figures such as Justice Barak, Palestinian activists and leaders, Israeli civil society organizations like Breaking the Silence, and leading American policy makers. It is through dialogue, education, and agitation that we learn about the issues that need our redress and attention. Dialogue opens the space for us to understand the problem, formulate a response, and engage our leaders in an effort to end this enduring conflict.
Blinderman is a member of the class of 2014.