We are writing this piece in our capacity as student activists, dedicated to an end to the Israeli occupation, and in recognition that the greater cause of peace is not served by another campus debate mired in polarization, which frames the debate in terms of absolute rights and absolute wrongs. In the last week, as negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, brokered by our Secretary of State, John Kerry, came to an end, the Wesleyan Student Assembly voted to divest their holdings in companies that materially profit from the occupation. This concurrent timing is not coincidental. With blame to go around, Israelis and Palestinians failed to make serious progress towards a final status agreement to the end of the conflict. This official setback to the peace process is deeply disappointing, and the campus vote marks a zenith of student disapproval with the situation.
But as the blame game kicks up as to who is not a “real partner” for peace, we prefer introspection as Americans: were we serious partners? Despite US energy, have the broken political dynamics around this issue changed enough to give Secretary Kerry the leverage and capital he needed to move the parties in the direction both have committed to as their ultimate goal?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. J Street U was founded to harness student political will to take on some of the worst dynamics and broken political discussions: one where our politicians are continually called upon to demonstrate their rhetorical support for Israel but are prevented from taking meaningful action to support the two-state solution that will guarantee Israel a secure and democratic future. It was those dynamics that made it nearly impossible for Secretary Kerry to do the work that we all know is so necessary to bring the conflict to a peaceful resolution. These entrenched interests forced New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to apologize for using the phrase “occupied territories” at a conference not two months ago. These entrenched interests resulted in many in the traditional pro-Israel community being angrier about John Kerry’s warning that without a two-state solution Israel may be heading towards apartheid than about the fact that this round of negotia tions yielded no serious progress.
Whether we agree with it or not, the passage of divestment at Wesleyan can be seen as a bellwether for student activism in the absence of diplomatic progress. The movement towards BDS is emblematic of what happens on many campuses when students no longer see a serious commitment from our communities and our elected officials to end the conflict. But BDS is a tactic, and with any tactic, the question must be: towards what goal?
As J Street U, we believe fundamentally that both Palestinians and Jews deserve the right to self-determination, dignity, and freedom. But we do not believe that this situation is a zero-sum game, where justice for one party must invariably lead to injustice for the other. We believe that there are solutions available that can protect the security and dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians. For us, and a majority of both peoples, the best way to achieve justice for all is through a two-state solution.
Therefore, while we applaud the desire to mobilize on campus and in the wider political community to generate reactions from our elected officials and communal leaders – instead of meeting the ongoing conflict with silence and resignation – the fact is that the BDS movement is not clear about its intended outcomes, and is not one we can support. Furthermore, the BDS movement frames the conflict in terms of absolute rights and absolute wrongs, aiming to shift the dynamics for the parties abroad, in this case, for Israel, instead of taking into consideration the fact that the parties – like those in most other major conflicts – will never be able to reach a final status agreement without the help of a mediator such as the United States.
So, the question remains: what is our role – as students, as Americans, and as activists – to resolve the conflict and end the occupation?
We recognize that many supporters of the divestment bid at Wesleyan are desperate to find ways to help end the occupation for the interests of Palestinians and Israelis alike. But this frustration must lead to even sharper and more focused efforts as Americans to change our own political dynamics. We must all take responsibility as Americans for the broken politics within our own government, and redouble our efforts to change them. With that work, we can lead the US to be a serious partner for peace.
Caspar-Johnson is a member of the class of 2015 and Berkman is a member of the class of 2016.