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In wake of Gaza violence, despite tension campus discourse remains civil

Published: Monday, December 10, 2012

Updated: Monday, December 10, 2012 15:12


Courtesy Hani Azzam

Students for Justice in Palestine organized a vigil last month to honor the victims of the recent violence in the Middle East.


As rockets flew in the Gaza Strip last month and the latest bout of violence in the conflict in the Middle East played out, university students across the U.S. and on the Hill had a choice to make.

They could retreat to their respective camps of opinion, stick to the facts they had been taught and hurl ideologically charged diatribes in the form of demonstrations or op-ed submissions, just as much of the rest of America was doing.

Or they could take the high road.

Campus leaders and those with an active role in discussions about the conflict have said that Tufts students, for the most part, chose the latter, creating an environment for complex dialogue that — at least this time — has remained tense but generally levelheaded and sensitive to the intricacies of the issues.

Senior Daniel Bleiberg previously served as the president of Tufts’ Friends of Israel (FOI) and is now the group’s representative to campus organization Tufts American Israel Alliance. He said that in his discussions with friends and other campus leaders passionate about the issue, he has found a rich and meaningful level of discourse.

“Overall, I thought that the atmosphere on campus was very civil,” Bleiberg said. “I think everyone’s been very respectful throughout these difficult weeks despite the intense controversy of the issue.”

Sophomore Munir Atalla, a member of the Tufts chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), said while the discourse in public and organized events has remained academic and considerate on all sides, the self-selecting power of social media sites and students’ ability to use links and comments as a form of communication instead of face-to-face interaction has made the online discourse, specifically, somewhat more polarized.

“A lot of people on the Tufts campus kind of look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as falling into this false dichotomy of Israel versus Palestine and then kind of check out ... because there are so many emotions,” he said. “I think that a lot of times you see people who have a very certain understanding of the issue posting on Facebook things that are very offensive and not really doing anything constructive.”

In person, however, at discussions and vigils on campus organized by groups like SJP, FOI, J-Street and the New Initiative for Middle East Peace (NIMEP), conversations have been largely devoid of hostility.

“The conflict is much more complicated than ... pro-Palestine versus pro-Israel, that’s not the way things are,” Atalla said. “I think that a lot of people do understand that nuance.”

At a FOI-organized event called Cafe矄Dilemma, at which attendees regularly discuss and debate issues related to Israel, students gathered following the November violence to address the situation. According to Bleiberg, the event was well attended.

“People were able to speak very openly and introduce challenging questions, and I really benefited from having that safe space to talk about it,” Bleiberg said. 

The campus’ overall inclusion of a more diverse and multi-faceted approach to discussing the conflict in the Middle East is a recent phenomenon, new to Tufts in the past few years, Atalla said. He attributed this change partially to an increasing diversity of perspectives on campus —including the Palestinian narrative that SJP promotes — that has pushed the discussion away from what he once saw as a largely one-sided conversation.

“SJP is doing a lot of awareness-raising,” he said. “We’re a group that provides a variety of different views on campus, [and] we’re bringing a different narrative to campus that was previously unheard,” he said.

“For the longest time, there was only one narrative on campus, and it was a very Zionist narrative,” he added. “Part of the reason things have gotten better is because our thoughts have picked up traction, and we have a lot more members now and a lot more people who are wiling to look at the issue from multiple perspectives ... and say, ‘Let me try to figure this out on a more nuanced level.’”

FOI President Shira Shamir, a junior, agreed that the civility that characterized the public discourse on violence in Gaza was partially due to a proliferation of varying narratives on campus, but also said it was related to students’ understanding of the most recent clashes as a humanitarian, as compared with political, crisis.

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