The arrival of a pro-Israel speaker on campus on Sept. 20 rapidly reignited students and faculty in the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Continuing the series of events supported by the President Office’s Dialogue and Engagement Across Difference Fund, Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Steven Cook hosted the interview “Why I Support Israel and You Should Too” with Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens. Two days later, the campus community responded with the event “Reflecting on Bret Stephens” hosted by Professor of History Joshua Schreier.
Cook began the session by asking Stephens to respond to the titular question: why one might support Israel in this contentious debate. Stephens said, “Look, it’s actually…a very complicated question. It involves two main points: one is identity, and the other is values.” Explaining that his own Jewish ancestry and love of Israel motivated him to argue for the integrity of its political borders, Stephens argued that negotiation for a two-state solution has stalled from the refusal of groups like Hamas, a Palestinian Sunni-Islamic fundamentalist organization, to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Interim President Jonathan Chenette explained that President Emerita Catharine Bond Hill decided to invite Stephens and Cook to campus to encourage intersectional, respectful thought. Chenette continued, “Cook did a good job of asking questions that audience members might have had about the topic. Stephens had a clear position that he articulated with conviction while acknowledging some contrary viewpoints.”
During the second half of the session, the audience was invited to pose questions to the speakers. Chenette commented, “The questions from students were well-informed, engaged and challenging. I appreciated one student’s willingness to challenge some assumptions about the audience conveyed by Stephens in his opening remarks and Stephens’s sincere apology for those remarks.”
For example, Stephens suggested that the youthful idealism of students in activist movements could disconnect them from political realities. Schreier, however, disagreed. “I am continually impressed by the intelligence, engagement and curiosity of so many Vassar students,” he declared. Citing student challenges to Stephens’s arguments, he explained, “As for questions, a number dealt with Stephens’s implicit argument that JVP [Jewish Voice for Peace] / SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine]’s activism is to be condemned because gay rights and women’s rights are respected in Israel. Other questions related to his vague, straw dog arguments resting on the false dichotomy between those who are ‘pro-Israel’ and those who feel Israel ‘does not have a right to exist.’ He was ignoring, of course, the fact that the major student movements at North American campuses advocating a boycott (notably SJP and JVP) are not calling for the elimination, expulsion or subjugation of any national group, but rather for equal rights.”
The rhetoric of individuals like Stephens, a journalist at a renowned publication like the Wall Street Journal, carries weight in forming U.S. foreign policy and public perceptions of the Middle East. Acknowledging this influence, SJP reported in an emailed statement, “It is important to respond to Bret Stephens, because his opinions do not sit on the racist fringe where they belong, but rather represent more or less the mainstream perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the U.S. The new, 38 billion dollar aid-deal to Israel is evidence enough of this. It should never be forgotten that the Occupation of Palestine exists only with the complicity [of] Western governments and corporations, and that Bret Stephens and others like him have an important role in normalizing the Occupation in the mind of the American public. It is for these reasons that it is necessary to constantly challenge him and his viewpoints.”
Chabad on the Fulton Directors Rabbi Daniel Sanoff and Dalia Sanoff reflected, “In thinking about this issue, we are reminded of a section of the Talmud which relates to the manner in which scholarly debates were conducted two thousand years ago between two competing Jewish groups–the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. The Sanoffs continued, “The Talmud (Mishnah, page 13b) notes that when one group borrowed utensils used for ritual food preparation, the borrowing group would follow the lending group’s rules even where they contradicted their own practices. Both groups understood they could be respectful of the other’s beliefs without diminishing their commitment to their own principles.”
Some members of the community, however, prefer to focus on the College’s ethical obligations to human rights. SJP stated, “SJP’s goal is not to resolve tensions, because tension is not the problem. The problem is the Israeli Occupation of Palestine and the human rights violations that occur there. SJP hopes that the administration, faculty and student body will altogether realize the moral imperative of the situation and collectively decide to fight the Occupation through BDS and other methods.”
Keeping the focus on morality, Schreier added, “For those looking to make a ‘positive contribution,’ I suggest rejecting all overt or veiled racist, anti-Arab or antisemitic assumptions and supporting the non-violent movement to pressure Israel to change their laws and guarantee equality for everyone, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity.”
The Sanoffs reiterate the importance of developing mutual understanding through dialogue saying, “Our hope for this school year is that everyone can take a lesson from Shammai and Hillel; have strong ideas and be passionate about your beliefs, but in doing so ensure that your neighbor also has a safe space to do the same. Push yourself to critically examine your own views, engage your neighbor in challenging conversations, allow each person’s voice to be heard and through this come to a greater understanding of each other.”