Had my only contact with Palestine Awareness Week been the formulaic reactions offered by Tammy Rubin and USAC President Emily Resnick, I would have tread carefully across Bruinwalk the following Monday, wary of falling into the gaping wounds in our campus rent by “loud screaming matches between students” and “phrases that were very disrespectful and rude” uttered by the bitter rivals in our very own Middle Eastern mini-conflict.
Luckily, as I attended as many PAW events as I could, I found them to offer a not-unexpected combination of education, rhetoric, and that feeling of instability that comes with any healthy dose of self-criticism. Confident in my ability to “get to class on time” despite the presence of a Wall that I could choose to either appreciate or ignore, I found PAW to be a worthy addition to the ever-complex texture of our campus community.
The comfort with which I attended PAW events escalated when I discovered that every time I went to one, I could expect to see some friendly faces on both sides. In fact, it seemed as though the “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestine” establishments at UCLA collaborated with each other to ensure that every event during PAW — whether pro- or anti-Israel — was well-attended.
Then came the event that everyone was talking about for two whole days — the Walkout.
On February 29 — the last night of PAW — Bruins for Israel hosted a presentation called “Israeli Soldiers Speak Out.” The presentation, which was arranged by the pro-Israel advocacy powerhouse StandWithUs and has been performed throughout the country, features two former Israeli soldiers who share their stories with the aim of humanizing the actions of IDF soldiers and providing the context in which their decisions are made. This, too, would have been an invaluable source of information for anyone with an interest in fully grasping the complexities of this conflict. However, it seems that on that night, UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine and StandWithUs came to an agreement that this was information that the students present could go without.
The videos below depicts the StandWithUs speaker, Shai Bernstein, acknowledging the apparently overt plans of some students to stage a walkout in protest of the event and the actions of the Israeli government in Operation Cast Lead (which Israel carried out against Gaza three years ago). Shai then goes on to repeatedly insist that the students stay in order to “dialogue.”
Shai’s very vocal commitment to dialogue could only have been motivated by two things. The first is that Shai and the StandWithUs organizers are not familiar with SJP’s aversion to dialogue. The Palestinian student movement in the US has publicly resolved to eschew all activities that it designates as “normalization.” Perhaps, in his ignorance, Shai truly thought that he had a chance at sitting down with the SJP students and convincing them of Israel’s ineffable virtue.
The other, more likely possibility is that the persistent mention of dialogue was planned specifically for the purpose of producing a video that would “expose” the intransigence of Israel’s critics. A cute, little illustration shown at the end of the StandWithUs video quips, “Peace takes two.” With this strategically planned video, StandWithUs seeks to be able to convince audiences that unlike Israelis, Palestinians and their sympathizers are not committed to finding a just peace. These tactics seem to have had some effect. In the past few days, no less than three articles have appeared in the Daily Bruin that either denounced the Walkout as counterproductive or criticized the general antagonistic attitude toward Zionism that pervades our campus.
But StandWithUs is not the only group to have gained from this incident. SJP used some of the very same footage to deride the concept of dialogue in the Israeli-Palestinian context and to explain the grievances that motivate SJP’s activities on campus, including the 1,400 Palestinian casualties of Operation Cast Lead.
It is truly beautiful to see that groups as historically contentious as StandWithUs, BFI, and SJP can cooperate with each other by sharing video footage in order to contribute their divergent narratives and objectives to an atmosphere of intellectual sharing on our campus.
Even more indicative of the bright future of cooperation between these groups are reports that when the plans of the Walkout protesters were uncovered hours before the BFI event, even when Hillel representatives offered to host the event in the relative safety of the Hillel building so as to avoid a dramatic incident, StandWithUs officials remained adamant in their commitment to bring their soldiers to campus, thus guaranteeing that a walkout would take place.
Given the commitment of StandWithUs to allowing a peaceful protest to occur even at the expense of its own event and the technical collaboration between “pro-Palestinian” and “pro-Israel” students to produce two effectively rhetorical videos for their own initiatives, it seems as though those who worried about campus climate had it all wrong. Using the same event to deliver two possibly contradictory messages, SJP and StandWithUs have succeeded in giving us a microcosmic metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole. Like the walkout, incidents that take place in Israel and the Palestinian Territories will never be interpreted in the same way by people who see the conflict differently. What better way to preach the importance of looking at multiple sides than by producing examples of those sides in a collaborative effort?
To roughly echo the annoying adage about making over the fence by reaching for the stars, it seems that when two groups strive with honesty and integrity to affect positive change on a situation 7,563 miles away, they just might succeed in bringing peace and understanding to the campus climate right here at home. And we all know that nothing is holier than campus climate.