The Politics of Fear

Last week marked the sixth annual Israeli Apartheid Week. College campuses and organizations in Canada, the United States, South America, the Middle East, and beyond held demonstrations, talks, and other varied programming throughout the week in solidarity with Palestinians living under apartheid rule. Though the activist in me longed for a banner-toting, slogan-shouting, 24-hour protest in the middle of Manhattan, reason, sensibility, and looming midterms constrained me to holding up posters and handing out flyers on Low Plaza. I arrived by the mock apartheid wall built by Columbia students for justice in Palestine on Tuesday, glad to support a cause I firmly believed in. Though the cold and the wind were brutal, I toted my neon-green poster with pride, the graffiti-like writing spelling out Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote: “What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct.”

Across the Plaza, a modest booth toting the Israeli flag faced me, and I saw counter-protestors flyering in opposition to our wall. My initial unease and fear subsided after a few moments across from the counter-protestors: they rarely approached me, and when they did, they avoided my gaze. In our own small way, we co-existed.

As my shift ended, I passed their booth and took a minute to read one of the posters. A dim picture of John Jay Dining Hall, animated with tiny students, was shown next to a picture of a destroyed room, with the caption reading something along the lines of, “What would you do if John Jay were attacked?”

I shivered—what would I do? Though John Jay’s halal chicken was notorious for its rubbery consistency, and the pasta sauce had more than once tasted much too acidic, I loved John Jay and its dim, sultry, even romantic lighting. Hours of laughter with my friends and awkward moments balancing plates in my hands flashed in my mind with pictures of destruction and rubble. I was afraid.

This fear is a well-worn tactic of defenders of harsh Israeli policy against Palestinians. Israeli politicians use it over and over to justify measures such as preemptive strikes on civilian-rich areas and adamant scrutiny at checkpoints. If we let the Palestinians in without security checks, the argument goes, we invite terrorism and threaten the security of innocent Israeli civilians. And that cannot be compromised.

The problem with this tactic is that it is effective—so effective that it drastically impedes coming to any sort of understanding about this conflict, which is approaching 62 years of age. The picture painted is that of an innocent Israeli meeting his or her end by the cruel, inhumane actions of a ruthless Palestinian. Unfortunately, this image must be viewed in its context—a context of 62 years of Palestinian struggle to retain stolen land and a compromised identity, self-worth, and dignity. A context of consistent second-class treatment, of racial profiling, and a physical 25-foot-high separation from the “rightful” owners of this land. A context of overpacked refugee camps, blockades on goods like food, water, and school supplies, daily checkpoints lasting hours, cleaved communities, torn families, and shattered lives. To ignore the dehumanization Palestinians face on a daily basis is to make the folly we made after 9/11: when, instead of admitting to the American people that it was our money that fueled the mujahideen of Afghanistan, armed and trained Osama bin Laden, and cemented the foundations of Al Qaeda, our leaders shrugged and said “they hate us for our freedoms.” In the same vein, to lump those opposed to Israel’s belittling, apartheid-like treatment of Palestinians as anti-Semitic, democracy-loathing terrorists is to ignore the fundamental key to any kind of conflict resolution: seeing both sides of a story.

The Palestinians are just as afraid of losing their children, land, rights, jobs, and lives as any Israeli family. Simply acknowledging this will be a huge stepping stone for peace in the region—and here at home, in our schools, in the workplace, on Low Plaza, and where I walked towards John Jay that Tuesday with a new appreciation for rubbery food and rotten pasta sauce.

As published in the Columbia Daily Spectator on March 9, 2010

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