Campus Discourses of Antisemitism and Decolonial Advocacy
By: Evan DeWitt
If you haven't already, check out the first half of Evan's paper here.
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.
The Role of Students
Students As Producers
Students embody a key role in the relationship between these two discourses as both producers and participants who are faced with the repercussions of political expression around these narratives. As producers, students’ ideas and beliefs help to shape the discourses on campus, and this role is demonstrated through examples of student activists at AU. For example, my interview with Eliza Schloss illuminated more about her experience in finding, and now leading, J Street U. She described that while J Street is not necessarily a Jewish group, they work primarily in Jewish spaces on campus to have conversations about that conflict that are “meant to make people uncomfortable” (Schloss 2021). In Eliza’s position as president of an advocacy club, she is consistently leading events, like the J Street event discussed above, that promote a specific discourse and framing of the conflict. In another example of intertextuality, she mentioned similar issues of defining terms like anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and took a hard stance in opposition to the IHRA definition, which she described as a “skewed perception” used by “pro-occupation right-wing establishments” (Schloss 2021). These views, along with her role as an activist on campus, show how Eliza has a role as a producer of discourses, asserting a particular positionality on the conflict of Israel-Palestine.
Similarly, I had the opportunity to speak with Lindsay Schawelson about her experience as the former president of AmeriPAC—“American University's chapter for pro-Israel political advocacy” (AmeriPAC (American's Pro-Israel Political Group) 2021). Lindsay described her work as advocacy that focuses on student government and campus leaders, along with lobbying the national government to support Israel (Schawelson 2021). On campus, her political beliefs, and that of the organization, contribute to the relative power of a discourse. For instance, Lindsay said, “domestic criticism in Israel is not antisemitic in my opinion. Overall criticism of the state of Israel is. You cannot deny a Jewish state the right [to exist]” (Schawelson 2021). She went on to describe her position in more detail, arguing that Israel is treated differently than other states, as well as explaining how antisemitic tropes are used in criticism: “where it can get antisemitic, you know: they're greedy, they're colonialist, they're white” (Schawelson 2021). Lastly, Lindsay emphasized that her role at AmeriPAC was to grow and support pro-Israel advocacy, not monitor anti-Israel opposition. Clearly, Lindsay is an example of a student who works diligently to produce and uphold a discourse she champions.
Lastly, I can briefly return to Yazan Nusiebeh, a Palestinian activist at AU who is not involved with SJP. As mentioned in the introduction, Yazan is a self-motivated writer who composed two pieces last summer drawing connections between the Palestinian cause and BLM here in the United States, and has continued writing since. One of these essays, titled “Lest we Forget - Palestine in a Time of Social Justice,” eloquently frames public support for racial justice in the US, while “We the people remain silent” about Palestinian oppression (Nusiebeh 2020). Yazan described his inspiration for writing as being angry at the recent normalization in Israel and how people were not making the connection to similar structures of discrimination (Nusiebeh 2021). He also emphasized a hope to “arm people, or affirm people, who choose to stick up for Palestine” through his writing (Nusiebeh 2021), and while the articles are not officially published anywhere other than his personal website, they received attention, circulation, and good responses from peers, with current views on his first article up to 331. As a student activist, Yazan can be seen here in a role of a producer of the discourse framing the Palestinian cause in terms of anti-racism and comparison to other minority struggles.
Students As Participants
Students are also both active and passive participants in the dominant discourses on campus. In some cases, students seek out events about the conflict or opportunities to get more involved. Yet, for those with a personal identity at stake in the conflict, they are participants whether they are actively engaged or not, forced to grapple with the ‘truth’ and what they believe. For both this research project and my own motivation as a Jewish student, I took part in Hillel’s Engaging Israel Fellowship, where Jewish students applied to join this 8 week long program for learning and discussion about Israel—a case of active participation. The fellowship mainly focused on the history of Zionism in its different forms and an overarching history of Israel before and after it became a state in the 20th century, but also included a discussion of values and various perspectives throughout these events (Benkendorf, 2021). Surprisingly, a majority of the students shared at the end of the fellowship that this had been an eye-opening experience for basic knowledge and history about Israel. While I can not share any of their comments directly, there was also a broad consensus that the students had wanted to participate in order to make sense of how Israel might connect to their Jewish identity, showing an intentional effort to get involved in the broader discourses of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In a similar sense, students attend events on campus, exemplified in part by the university department and advocacy club events described in detail throughout this primary source analysis. Additionally, students mentioned in interviews that discussions, questions, and discourses about Israel-Palestine manifest in classes as well. Students grapple with these discourses, often confirming or challenging their beliefs. In my interview with Lindsay Schawelson, she spoke about a class from her freshman year where the professor framed “Zionism as a white colonialist movement” (Schawelson 2021). She explained her frustration and internal struggle, believing that the professor’s content was “very inaccurate and very uninformative to the naked eye,” and showing concern that her fellow students were being misinformed about the conflict (Schawelson 2021). Ryan Sassouni—an active Jewish student on campus and the current president of Chabad at AU—also mentioned hearing that some classes “slip things in” when talking about the history of Israel, skewing the narrative for students (Sassouni 2021). However, compared to Lindsay’s experience of conflicting beliefs, Ryan described a class he was taking at Chabad that taught about Israeli history after 1967, content which he believes actively contributes to his complex views on Israel (Sassouni 2021). Both of these cases show students as participants in discourses on campus, positioned to reaffirm or grapple with framings that support a dominant narrative.
In discussion of students as participants in these discourses, one must also recognize that individual identities are influenced by far more than what they experience on campus. As discussed in the methodology section above, this project limits the research context to focus on student interactions with these discourses at American University. However, I must acknowledge that each person brings individual experiences and histories with them that influence their opinions and beliefs. For example, in each interview that I conducted, the student insisted that they give an explanation of themselves, their backgrounds, families, and prior connections to Israel-Palestine. While this may seem like an obvious way to begin most interviews about beliefs, this generational experience is deeply tied to students’ identity and influences what they bring with them to campus. It is with this individual complexity in mind that we might contextualize student experiences and begin to grapple with the ramifications for student identity that campus discourses create.
Repercussions of Dominant Framings
Students, as the central audience of these discourses, are faced with the repercussions of how this conflict is framed on campus. Voices are shut down, left out, or even made illegible, leading to perceptions of discrimination by students. The fear of labels like racism and antisemitism target the ‘woke’ culture of the university, as these terms can be used as political clout against opposition, justifications for actions, or deflections against criticism. The issue of labels also ties into campus power dynamics influenced by social hierarchies, affording privilege and power that fuels key aspects of these discourses. Events and experiences of student discrimination may then inspire identification and activism to support a discourse that reflects their personal stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This circular relationship between dominant discourses—that intertwines the roles of students as producers and participants—pushes students to plant a mutually exclusive flag on one ‘side’ or another, limiting the space for productivity or common identities.
Ethnographic efforts to speak with students from these ‘sides’ began to illuminate the intricacies of this relationship between dominant discourses. In my interview with Lindsay Schawelson, she talked about her experience with the impact of these framings on common space:
“there's other discourses happening that can be really productive sometimes. I’ve had really great, productive, conversations with many Palestinian students on campus—Palestinian students who are involved with AIPAC who don't like AIPAC or whatever—but then there's the people who are just so not willing to listen at all or see the other side, on both sides, but like on the other side they’re so quickly to label you like racist, colonialist, like whatever, if you engage” (Schawelson 2021).
Lindsay points out here that these discourses do not manifest in isolation. Rather, they influence and limit the space of productive conversation on campus. Through these labels, associated with the second discourse that frames Palestinian activism as decolonial and anti-racist, Lindsay felt that reconciliation was made more difficult. Furthermore, Lindsay relayed her perceptions of antisemitism on campus caused by the discourse that frames Palestinian advocacy. She described one instance where a neighbor of her friend was putting up pro-Palestinian rhetoric and images around the dorm and his room: “This kid was very specifically targeting my friend, because he was Jewish, and because he was pro-Israel. …That was something that was really disturbing. To me, it was really scary” (Schawelson 2021). Here, her friend felt targeted for his identity as a supporter of Israel and as a Jew, evidently a cause for fear and discomfort. This tactile manifestation of a dominant discourse, where another student saw this effort as pro-Palestinian advocacy, resulted in what Lindsay and her friend considered antisemitism. Experiences like this then influence what activists like Lindsay consider to be antisemitic, aligning with a discourse and influencing her future work with organizations like AmeriPAC. This example shows one way in which the discourses connect and shape each other, as Lindsay experiences both roles: a producer, participant, and then producer again, perpetuating the circular relationship.
The repercussions of these discourses can also be seen through the lack of responses and willingness to participate in this research from non-Jewish students. Despite meeting with clubs at the involvement fair, emails and trying to reach out to students individually, and an attempt to utilize personal contacts, this effort was met with little success. Clubs like the Muslim Student Association (MSA), Arab Student Association (ASA), and even Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), may have been interested in the idea for the project, but declined to participate or stopped responding entirely. Fortunately, one classmate and friend involved in the MSA was willing to speak to me unofficially if they could remain anonymous. They explained that groups like the MSA wanted to stay out of having any public opinions or affiliations with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for fear of being labeled ‘antisemitic’ or perpetuating the false narrative that it is a religious conflict between Muslims and Jews (Anonymous. 2021. Interview with a classmate in MSA. February 15). Likewise, the lack of responses from SJP was especially surprising, as they unapologetically hold events in support of Palestine, yet this reaction connects to the same issue of labels. I was briefly in conversation with a member of SJP through direct messages on Instagram, who similarly stipulated that they would only participate on the condition of anonymity, citing a fear of websites like Canary Mission that blacklist Palestinian activists (Anonymous. 2021. Discussion with a member of SJP. March 23). However, when it came time to actually schedule a time to talk, they stopped responding to my messages and blocked my social media account. Evidently, the repercussions of the dominant discourse surrounding criticism of Israel made the risk too high for the student to participate.
Let us now return to the words of Yazan Nusiebeh from the beginning of this piece. He described the experience of being made to feel like he does not, and can not, exist. His identity as a Palestinian is cast as antisemitic and the power of the discourse shuts him, and supporters of Palestine, down. Speaking more on this point, Yazan went on to say:
That just got me thinking about the whole situation at AU, and America as a whole, where there's this label of antisemitism just floating around in the Palestinian discourse. And my thought was: if I could write enough, if I could speak enough about Palestine, perhaps the conversation will move forward where it's not crazy saying—where more people can say—you know, ‘Palestinians are being wronged right now. There's something bad going on in Israel,’ without being thought of as crazy or a SJW [social justice warrior] (Nusiebeh 2021).
Here, Yazan illuminates the relationship of dominant discourses, describing his response to experiences of being shut down and made illegible—the repercussions of the discourse of antisemitism. He explains how this inspired his own activism and identification with the second discourse, framing the conflict as a minority struggle, and emphasizes his determination to spread this message.
Finally, the repercussions of dominant discourses on campus lead to a conversation of power dynamics and status quo. This was an important consideration addressed in the literature, but was not discussed directly in student interviews. This omission may have been due to my personal position of privilege as a white Jewish student and the one conducting the research, as well a reflection of who was willing to participate in the project. Even so, this issue is always lurking below the surface, influencing what is discussed and who has the power to say what they believe. This contrasts with those who can not bear the social risk of this public expression, the case for minority populations that may be faced with an intersectionality of identities that contribute to social status. This is evidenced by those who asked to remain anonymous or declined to participate entirely, defying overwhelming obstacles to resist the status quo. It should be noted as well that some Jewish groups on campus, such as the Jewish Student Association (JSA), Chabad, and others that are not focused on Israel activism, also declined, as they may not have wanted to associate with these dominant discourses for fear of repercussions in the form of campus backlash. Risks like this stem from the climate of political speech in the 21st century: ‘cancel culture’ and ‘wokeness’ that lead to labels, accusations, and a limiting of common, productive space.
This research sought to answer a few key questions: How is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict framed through dominant discourses at American University, and how do multiple ‘truths’ about this issue exist simultaneously on campus? How do students interact and identify with these discourses, and what are the potential repercussions of political expression? Through a virtual-ethnographic discourse analysis over the course of the Spring 2021 semester, I identified two dominant framings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism, and general anti-Israel rhetoric as deeply interconnected with 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, creating a circular relationship with student identity at its core. While identity is influenced by more than what students experience on campus, the repercussions of these discourses are particularly potent for inspiring activism and identification with an alternate discourse. The ‘woke’ culture of the university makes labels like ‘racist’ and ‘antisemitic’ formidable and dramatic instruments for bolstering and defending these discourses. These labels shut down voices of opposition and criticism, yet also productive discussion, even going as far as to make some student identities illegible in terms of acceptable expression. This issue is especially pertinent for minority groups at the university, as they may be more susceptible to silencing, and must face a greater risk in public political expression. Along with labels, these discourses also result in some students feeling singled out and discriminated against, experiences that inspire activism on campus that supports a particular political position within one of the dominant discourses identified. Activism and identification by students then shape the discourses, feeding the circular relationship fueled by students in their roles as both participants and producers.
In many ways, these findings of discourses about Israel-Palestine at American University are reflective of the theoretical literature. The academic debate brings up similar themes questioning the roles of antisemitism and colonialism that are prevalent at AU. This research acknowledges that conversation, but also questions how those debates might be connected, shaping each other through student identity in the university setting. It adds to the conversation by asserting that students themselves, with their experiences, identifications, and activism, are the key audience and manufacturers of these dominant discourses. Furthermore, it links to the emerging culture of liberal ‘wokeness’ and ‘cancelling’ through an exploration into labels and the asymptote of limited space for productivity and common ground. As this conflict continues raging on, the battleground of the university campus will likely remain a key space for activism and support outside of the land in question. Furthermore, as new spaces of conflict emerge, a better understanding of key actors and identities involved, as well as their relationship with dominant discourses, will be imperative for future conflict resolution.
Additional research into how these discourses and identities tie into woke and cancel culture may continue to unveil new contexts and meanings for students. Furthermore, this context can be exponentially expanded, as student identities and dominant discourses are interconnected with other contexts far beyond the space of the university campus. For example, how do high school experiences and activism compare and translate onto the university campus? How does upbringing and socialization contribute to identification with dominant discourses once students reach college? A project tracking student activists after they leave the university would also be helpful, as one could see how students’ relationship to dominant discourses about this conflict affect future activism and support. Even broader still, research into the intertextuality of international politics and norms, national organizations and support, and the proliferation of framings at the university level will establish more in-depth connections about this issue. Lastly, a longer, hopefully in-person research project into these same themes at American University may continue to raise questions about counter discourses, ramifications of dominant framings, and the role of students.
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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.