Israel-Palestine and Student Identity

Updated: Nov 6

Campus Discourses of Antisemitism and Decolonial Advocacy

By: Evan DeWitt

Abstract

The complex identities at play in the conflict of Israel-Palestine stretch the implications of this issue far beyond the land in question. The battlefield of university campuses in America has revealed key advocacy actors, yet the manifestation of this relationship is constantly in flux. National movements and organizations support a range of dominant discourses about the conflict, and varying levels of power and influence contribute to what is perpetuated on campus. This project uses a virtual-ethnographic technique to research how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is framed at American University (AU) in the current moment, examining how dominant discourses about this issue interact with and contribute to students’ experiences of identity. This primary research was conducted through a series of virtual interviews with student activists on campus, monitoring of relevant clubs’ social media posts, and field notes drawn from online campus events. This work asserts that two dominant discourses frame how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is discussed: criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism, and general anti-Israel rhetoric as antisemitism; and pro-Palestinian advocacy as a non-exceptional, decolonial, and anti-racist endeavor to support an oppressed minority population. These discourses influence and shape one another through the dual role of student activists as both producers and participants. Furthermore, students are subject to the repercussions of these dominant framings: labeled antisemitic or racist, singled out and discriminated against, or silenced and even made illegible. This research ties to questions of power and privilege, the context of ‘woke’ culture at the university, and the implications for future conflict resolution.

Introduction

Throughout my virtual-ethnographic ‘fieldwork’ during the Spring 2021 semester at American University (AU), I had the opportunity to interview several student activists involved with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus. One of my interviews was with Yazan Nusiebeh, a Palestinian-American student at AU whose work includes writings that draw parallels between the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and the Palestinian struggle. Eager for a perspective beyond my bubble of Jewish students, I was beyond excited when he showed genuine interest in my research and agreed to participate. Early in our conversation, Yazan said:

AU is like the UN almost in my head. They pretend we don't exist in many conversations that revolve around Israel, and that's a huge shame. There is the whole trope—the whole culture—of like, my assertion of me being Palestinian, in many ways, is perceived as being antisemitic here.

I was taken aback by his matter-of-factness. Were discourses like this really powerful enough to erase someone’s identity? I couldn’t believe that this was what antisemitism meant in this context.

Just your presence? I asked, shocked.

No, not my presence, I didn’t mean it like that. Yazan added hurriedly, seeing my surprise.

Oh, oh, okay— I said, unsure what to think and a bit embarrassed that I’d let my obvious surprise show.

Yazan continued: I meant it like, kind of symbolic in that so much is bracketed off as being antisemitic. If you say something for Palestine, it feels like, symbolically, to be myself, and to be who I am, and to breathe as a Palestinian, is kind of branched off as being antisemitic.

All I could do was nod along—a mixture of concern and fascination as Yazan laid out his experience before me. After referencing the connection to his writing, Yazan concluded his point:

You have to, like, deny your part of your humanity if you want to conform to what is allowed to be [or] what you are allowed to say in terms of the Palestinian conflict… [It] kind of warps the argument and the conversation in a way that inherently makes them, the oppressive side, the oppressive language, sound valid, and it dismisses all experiences on the Palestinian side. And it is a shame, because like, antisemitism is still a thing you know? There's still neo-nazis. Jewish people are still marginalized in a lot of places. But like, it's a shame that my existence, a Palestinian’s existence, is considered to be such an antisemitic thing (Nusiebeh 2021).

In this moment, Yazan had just transformed my research, making a smattering of dots and evidence into a complex constellation of framings, labels, and identity. In this research, I sought to answer: how do students interact with the dominant discourses surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at American University, and what are the potential consequences of political affiliation? How do multiple ‘truths’ about this issue exist simultaneously on campus, and how do they contribute to students’ identity-making? Yazan’s words made a beeline for the heart of the discourses I had been attempting to track.

In my fieldwork, I had identified two major ways the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is framed and talked about: criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism, and general anti-Israel rhetoric as deeply interconnected with anti-Semitism; and pro-Palestinian advocacy as a non-exceptional, decolonial, and anti-racist endeavor to support an oppressed minority population. What I had yet to fully realize until this moment were the ways in which these discourses interact and shape each other, and the key role that students play in the center of this relationship. Serving as producers of these discourses, student activists marshall support for organizations that reflect their perspective and values, speaking out for what they believe in, posting about it on social media, and holding events to spread their message and recruit other students. However, students are also participants in these discourses, attending events and classes, consuming media, and observing the culture surrounding the conflict without a conscious effort to get more involved. Furthermore, students are subject to the ramifications of these discourses: labeled antisemitic or racist, singled out and discriminated against, or silenced and even made illegible. This illegibility can venture beyond merely a lack of seeing, as these dominant discourses consume the mutual and productive space between narratives and certain student identities or beliefs that conflict with the discourses are incomprehensible to those entrenched within them.

This research ties into the broader conflict of Israel-Palestine, as seventy three years since the establishment of the State of Israel/Nakba, this conflict seems to grow farther afield to encompass activists, supporters, and all those who have a personal stake around the world. With narratives that create a sense of identity for the parties involved, a “negative interdependence” has evolved, where the “conflict largely depends on the perception of the self in relation to the other” (Mitrani 2013, 248). Furthermore, the intertextuality that influences this debate, from international norms to shifting political alliances and national advocacy organizations, creates a broad range of contexts that must be considered. Especially potent for conflict and debate is the battleground of the university campus, with intersectionality of identities and a wide range of student backgrounds. This, along with modern ‘woke’ and ‘cancel’ culture, create a fascinating microcosm of dominant discourses. This research aims to better understand these framings, as well as the complex role of identity, in order to contextualize future attempts at conflict resolution.

Methodology

Key Research Context

This research project aimed to better understand the dominant discourses about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at American University (AU) and how students’ interactions with these narratives contribute to a sense of personal identity. The research was conducted through a virtual-ethnographic method during the Spring 2021 semester at AU, focusing on the dominant discourses of the current moment. A discourse analysis of this specific space and time aims to limit the context of the research within a massive breadth of interconnected actors, events, and histories. Depending on the party questioned, some might argue that this conflict has been continually raging since the establishment of the State of Israel/Nakba in 1948, for the last hundred years, or even several thousand years in terms of ethnic/religious claims to indigeneity. Additionally, the politics surrounding this debate are constantly in flux and manifest themselves in diverse areas of society. For this reason, this project does not aim to provide an explanation of the conflict, nor falsely attempt to pose as an objective perspective in which to view the ‘truth’ of events.

As was introduced in the scholarly literature, various discourses about this conflict have risen to the forefront of the debate, and two central themes have emerged through the primary texts gathered here: framings of Israel criticism as antisemitism, and Palestinian advocacy as decolonial and anti-racist. Both narratives take many forms and the primary sources gathered for this project point to a complex intertextuality between international norms, national organizations, and localized activity. Beyond the academic scholars contributing to the literature, prominent speakers for the discourse that anti-Israel rhetoric is antisemitic include the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), pro-Israel advocacy organizations and their campus chapters, and even individual students, all aiming to reach the international community in some way. The same is true for the discourse that pro-Palestinian advocacy is decolonial and anti-racist, as liberal activism in support of the Palestinian cause stretches across each level of society.

In order to continue, it is also imperative to note issues of power and privilege prevalent to this research context. As briefly discussed in the literature, students associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—via personal identity or a commitment to activism—often come from marginalized groups, and may endure an intersectionality of such identities. Social and structural inequalities may contribute to a difficulty in having their voices heard, as well as the associated risk of political expression. However, similarly important is the relative position of privilege for Jewish students, especially in the case of Israel, where they often have significant organizational support, more established national infrastructure, and an association (whether true or not) with wealth and whiteness. Furthermore, my own identity as a Jewish, white, male student must be considered, as it likely provided opportunities in the research process and contributed to my relative power of researcher versus student participants. Nevertheless, this asymmetrical positionality may have also motivated a lack of response from many students, who may have been concerned or unsure of my intentions or qualifications in this work. Questions and considerations of power, privilege, and positionality are key to understanding the research context of this project, as well as how students interact with the dominant discourses on campus—a theme I will continue to explore in the evidence analysis section below.


Mapping For Exposure

This virtual-ethnographic research was carried out through two main avenues: identifying and tracking two dominant discourses prevalent at the university, and self-generated primary interviews with several fellow students throughout the semester. In order to maneuver the online and remote format of the university due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the discourses were mapped through a combination of virtual events held by student clubs and university departments, a monitoring of social media posts by student advocacy organizations, and content drawn through the student interviews, where I had the opportunity to ask about students’ personal experiences and their thoughts on the discourses I had identified. In order to map for exposure, the research trail began by attending the Virtual Involvement Fair at the beginning of the semester and speaking with student representatives who might be involved or have a stake in this conflict. Along with the contacts and interest developed there, personal relationships with professors and fellow classmates were utilized to develop a snowball sampling of individuals to speak with and interview. These contacts also allowed for a ‘finger on the pulse’ of events relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as various student media produced and proliferated virtually on campus, including images and student-written articles.

While this strategy for collecting primary source data revealed a lot of content and evidence for the dominant discourses on campus, it also struggled to account for voices that were not as loud or at the forefront of the conversation. This may have been for any number of reasons. Perhaps my positionality created a barrier to meeting students with starkly different backgrounds, issues of power and privilege may have made some afraid to participate, or my initial lines of research—curious about possible religious connections to the conflict—may have turned off students who thought this connection was a fallacy. Likely, this issue was a combination of elements. In order to address this concern for breadth of exposure, the research aimed to gather various types of evidence, beyond self-generated interviews, to read deeper into implicit framings and tie to what I could learn from fellow students.


Primary Source Analysis

Dominant Discourses and Multiple ‘Truths’

Primary source texts gathered through virtual-ethnographic methods have lead me to identify two dominant discourses about the Israel-Palestine conflict at AU: the framings of criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism, and general anti-Israel rhetoric as antisemitism, and pro-Palestinian advocacy as a non-exceptional, decolonial, and anti-racist endeavor to support an oppressed minority population. These discourses are often presented as at odds with each other, and talked about as ‘sides’ to be considered. However, discourses have an internal complexity, with discussion and disagreement within them, and depending on the actors and the setting, these narratives may be interpreted differently. Additionally, rather than being solely contradictory, these discourses have an intimate relationship, shaping each other through students’ central role. This section will focus on the broader campus manifestations of these discourses, with the positionality and identity of students to be explored in the next section.


Anti-Israel and Antisemitism

The first discourse, which connects anti-Israel with antisemitism, manifests as a debate on campus, especially among the Jewish community and in Jewish spaces at AU, whether one is critical of Israel or not. This discussion is clearly seen through events held on campus. For example, the Center for Israel Studies (CIS) held an event titled “Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism with Dina Porat and David Myers,” the final expression of the “Antisemitism series” during the Fall 2020 semester, which I accessed via an online recording available on the CIS website. At the event, the scholars debated the connection between these two terms, drawing the line at vastly different places. For instance, Dina Porat explained her support for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which includes four points that posit framings and characterizations of Israel as antisemitic (Porat 2020). This starkly contrasted with David Myers’ limit for this connection, as he argued that claims of Israel as a racist or apartheid state were not antisemitic, but rather accurate descriptions of unequal treatment, especially in the West Bank (Myers 2020). These differences led to argument, but both scholars agreed that there can be a connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and that we should be wary of when this is the case. Additionally, the fact that this event was organized and held though a university department on campus is noteworthy. Events like these are aimed at and reach a large audience, and they invoke a level of academic professionalism that reinforces the power of this discourse.

Engaging with the same themes, J Street U at AU held an event titled “Defining Antisemitism, Anti-zionism, & Understanding Weaponization.” The club, which positions itself as a “a pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian organization that advocates for human rights and a two-state solution” (J Street U at American University 2021), is an interesting example of an alternate student perspective about this discourse. At the event, the club executive board gave a presentation that focused on defining terms and making a key distinction: “Anti-Zionism is not inherently equivalent to Antisemitism” (Becker-Klein et al. 2021). While they explained that these terms can lead to each other, they were critical of pro-Israel organizations and supporters using this argument to counter valid criticism of Israel politics. However, this did not take away from the genuine effort the J Street leaders took to explain and show concern for antisemitism, arguing instead for the need to be able to distinguish it from anti-Zionism to educate one’s peers and call out antisemitism (Becker-Klein et al. 2021). This example, along with the CIS event explain above, illustrate a range of support for this argument and the prevalence of campus debate about the discourse connecting criticism of Israel and antisemitism. Furthermore, the pervasiveness of this discourse in Jewish spaces is significant, as the specter of antisemitism limits what political expression is considered acceptable—a key concept that I will return to in the next section.

Pro-Palestinian and Decolonial

The second dominant discourse at AU, which frames Palestinian advocacy as decolonial and anti-racist, is similarly represented through an intertextuality of department events, student clubs, and social media. An example of this discourse at work can be seen in the image and caption below from @au_sjp:

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June 1, 2020


Repost from @paliroots


Two Countries, Similar Systems 🇵🇸 🇺🇲 ⁠


⁠🇵🇸 Eyad al-Hallak | On Saturday morning, Eyad al-Hallak, 32, a resident of eastern Jerusalem with “special needs” (autism – DI) was killed by Israeli police in the Old City. After he was shot it became clear that he had been unarmed. An investigation into the shooting was assigned to the Department for the Investigation of Police (DIP). About 300 leftwing activists protested in Jerusalem on Saturday against the killing of al-Hallak.⁠


🇺🇲 George Floyd | 46, died after being arrested by police outside a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Footage of the arrest on 25 May shows a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd's neck while he was pinned to the floor. Chauvin, 44, has since been charged with murder.⁠⠀


Not only is this heartbreaking, inhumane but goes against every SINGLE human rights act possible. This act of injustice against Eyad al-Hallak, a Palestinian with Autism, & George Floyd & so many others who have lost their lives against injustices, NEEDS TO BE SEEN.


Share this post, this must be KNOWN❗

🎨Artwork: @thepipd


#BlackLivesMatter #GeorgeFloyd #EyadalHallak #Palestine #PaliRoots 🇵🇸

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This image, and the caption attached, came from a repost on the American University Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) Instagram. The original post came from @paliroots, a Palestinian clothing brand that focuses on “Preserving Palestinian Culture & Identity” (PaliRoots, n.d.), and was shared on June 1, 2020—during the thick of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests last summer. As shown through this repost, AU SJP is plugged into broader national and international discourses about the Palestinian cause, which the organization can pull from and disseminate to its following via social media at AU. The account has 404 followers, and the post was directly liked by 41 people.

This particular discourse frames criticism of Israel as an anti-racist and decolonial effort to support an oppressed minority group. In the image, BLM and Palestinian protests are framed side by side, with “TWO COUNTRIES SIMILAR SYSTEMS” in bold across the center (AU SJP 2020). The BLM protest, labeled “United States,” is also characterized through the protester holding an ‘I CAN’T BREATHE’ sign, referencing the slogan associated with the BLM movement. It is unclear which protest the image labeled “Palestine” is drawn from, but a fire is burning in the foreground, evoking violence, destruction, and possibly armed resistance. Additionally, almost all of the people in each image are wearing masks, implying that the photos were taken during the COVID-19 pandemic this past year. The caption below the image also draws a parallel between excessive police violence in both cases, referencing Eyad al-Hallak and George Floyd specifically. This discourse is important because it de-exceptionalizes Israel, comparing it to another case of minority oppression that a liberal American audience can relate to and support. The use of an image like this is also significant, as it can be easily shared and reposted, drawing distinct parallels even for those who do not read the caption. In the words of Eliza Schloss, the current president of J Street U at AU,

“Where you’re getting your information from, and therefore what you’re bringing to campus, forms who you are and what you think about the conflict. I think social media has definitely been a huge outlet for where students get their information about something like this… it’s really easy to make an Instagram graphic… and it's really easy to follow only certain social media accounts” (Schloss 2021).


What Eliza indicates here is the power of social media in building and disseminating a discourse, reinforcing dominant narratives through followers and support.

This directly connects to another primary source analyzed: an article written by Eliza from The Eagle, AU’s student newspaper, describing an AU event titled “The Palestinian Exception to Calls for Social Justice,” which brought in Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, Arab and Muslim studies professor from San Francisco State University, as a speaker (Schloss 2020). In the article, Schloss notes that “Abdulhadi said that people should recognize that criticism of Israel is not the same as anti-Semitism,” and quoting Abdulhadi directly: “‘Israel should not get exceptional treatment because Israel is not exceptional. Palestine is not exceptional. The U.S. is not exceptional, and we argue against exceptionalism. This is a question of justice’” (Abdulhadi qtd. in Schloss 2020). Schloss also spoke with a few SJP members, since the club co-sponsored the event, and the article highlights their emphasis on community support of justice (Schloss 2020). Both of these sources—the SJP Instagram post and the Professor Abdulhadi speaker event—show intertextuality as they both work to counter the popular narrative that criticism of Israel is antisemtitic. While Israel may be recognized as a Jewish State, these sources argue that it must still be subjected to scrutiny. Rather than antisemitic, they promote the idea that criticism of Israel, or support for the Palestinian cause, is a liberal advocacy effort in the pursuit of justice.

Taking the argument posed by this discourse one step further, the Antiracist Research and Policy Center (ARCP) at AU held a speaker series titled “Thinking Freedom From The Global South” throughout the Spring 2021 semester, culminating in a final event: “Palestine & the Global South: A Roundtable on Emancipatory Futures” with Irene Calis, Linda Tabar, and Steven Salaita. The three speakers were Palestinian academics and activists, and the dialogue grappled with the Palestinian struggle as anti-colonial and indigenous in character. The speakers made a direct comparison of Palestine to South Africa, referencing a need for “fluency in other liberation struggles” to counter white supremacy and colonialism (Calis et al. 2021). They also discussed the movement to “decolonize the university” following anti-racist struggles in the United States, and the need to recognize the risks of academics and students in practicing solidarity (Calis et al. 2021). In response to marginalized student identities being shut down, the scholars emphasized the need for groups like Students for Justice in Palestine to partner with other organizations for support and protection. Overall, the implications of a faculty-organized event through the Antiracism Center can not be overstated. This element frames the discourse of Palestinian advocacy through an additional lens of legitimacy, as the university, and its community, take anti-racism work very seriously. Furthermore, the absence of references to Israel, Jews, or antisemitism at this event shows how this discourse has expanded beyond contention with the framing of anti-Israel and antisemitism to become an independently complex narrative on campus.

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Want more original research on this topic? Check back soon for Evan's deep dive analysis of students' roles in Israel-Palestine discourse and the conclusions he drew from his study - or else check out the paper in its entirety here.


Evan is a Junior studying international relations with a focus on peace and conflict in the Middle East. He closely follows the Israel/Palestine conflict, both abroad and at AU, and hopes to do diplomacy work in the region. Evan is currently a program intern at the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, as well as a long time barista currently working at the Dav on campus.