by Levi Dayan
Image credit: NYT
[originally published October 2021]
With Oberlin’s return to a normal semester plan has come the return of the Winter Term program, a typical staple of the Oberlin experience that was disrupted last year by the trimester plan. While Winter Term can take the form of pretty much any short-term project, the college also offers a number of programs for students to pursue. Given that it’s been two whole years since the last Winter Term, one would think that the college would have had ample time to put forth the best programs they can offer to students, many of whom were denied the chance to pursue internships due to the trimester program. Instead, they have offered us the “Bridging the Gap” program, which is such a tone deaf, cliche-addled piece of dreck that it is practically a mockery of itself.
According to the Winter Term catalogue, the project “encourages participants to take on the challenge of engaging the deep divides that plague American democracy by thinking deeply about Israel, a nation that is both important and divisive in U.S. political and campus discourse.” After an initial on-campus period focused on “dialogue and community-organizing skills,” students will make a week-long trip to Israel to meet with “diverse stakeholders.” The trip “will allow students to practice the skills they developed on campus and experience the complexity of issues facing Israeli democratic society that are too often deeply simplified in U.S. analysis, including the Occupation.” And to top it all off, this enlightening experience comes at the killer bargain of 45 hundred dollars.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this program, but a good place to start is the language. Whatever the fuck “diverse stakeholders” means, that term is clearly doing a lot of heavylifting in justifying the program. Do these “stakeholders” include people who are living in Gaza? Will they include people who have been, or are at risk, of being illegally evicted from their homes in the West Bank? Or people who are unable to move freely within the Israeli nation-state? Have any of these stakeholders lost family members in the most recent carpet bombing of the Gaza strip? Were any of them unable to obtain a COVID vaccine while the rest of Israel was swiftly vaccinated? Considering that the state of Israel has complete control over who can enter the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem, and that prospective tourists, particularly brown people, are heavily vetted and denied entry if they are found to be critical of Israel, and denied most permits to travel to Israel even if they aren’t particularly political, it’s fair to assume the answer is no. But even if this hypothetical, idealized scenario in which participating in the program can hear actual testimony from those most directly affected by the ongoing occupation of Palestine, there are still more questions raised. What does it mean to hear “the other side” of discourse surrounding the conflict when one side can travel freely around Israel with hardly any questions asked, even if they are born as far away as Seattle, while the other side, born within a short radius of the Israeli nation-state, faces constant surveillance and interrogation if they are lucky enough to even be allowed to visit their families?
Equally baffling is the objective of this program. If taken at face value, the program seeks to find new ways to “strengthen democracy and achieve social justice,” which sounds perfectly nice outside of context. But of all countries to explore these questions of how to build a functional democracy, the college chose one where there was never a democracy to build from in the first place. In fact, Israel — often referred to as “the only democracy in the middle east” by people who are willfully ignorant of the history of the region — may be one of the only Western powers with an even less functional democracy than the U.S. After decades of endless wars justified under the umbrella of “spreading democracy,” it’s fair to say that the word democracy has been twisted to the point. But there is no feasible definition of democracy that can account for a nation in which nearly five million people have absolutely zero say over the direction of a state that determines nearly every aspect of their lives, while the rest of the country can continually vote for politicians who opine about the destruction of Palestinian livelihoods.
The program description states “the goal of this program is not to minimize genuine political differences among participants or between different perspectives,” but paradoxically, that very sentence completely minimizes the viewpoints of Palestinians. It is an indisputable fact that the modern nation state of Israel does not, nor cannot exist without the mass expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians, the elimination of vast numbers of Palestinian villages, and the full-scale erasure of Palestinian society. A Palestinian who believes that the events of the Nakba created negative conditions for the Palestinian people is substantively no different from an Indigenous American who believes that the U.S. forced migration and adoption policies created harmful conditions for Indigenous people, or an Asian American who believes that World War II-era internment policies created negative conditions for the Asian American people, or a Black American who believes that insitutional racism exists. There is no clear definition for “political differences,” but the “viewpoints” I’ve outlined are simply acknowledgments of history and affirmations of said people’s right to exist and live in peace, not expressions of political ideology. Discourse surrounding the conflict does not present any seperation of the two, but the “Bridging the Gap” program does not even try.
Beneath this ignorant disregard of Palestinian lives, the program also makes a condescending, blanketed generalization of discourse surrounding the conflict. On Oberlin, and also on campuses across the nation, Jews have a large presence in pro-Palestine groups, such as Oberlin JVP (which I was involved with my second year) and SFP. And yet, even on supposedly more sympathetic campuses such as Oberlin, pro-Palestinian activists are constantly essentialized as being part of a singular mob. To the extent that support of Palestine is framed as even reflecting the individual beliefs of Jewish students at all, they are beliefs cultivated not through continual discussion with fellow Jews as well as Palestinians, but merely an effort made in conceit to gain social clout, a result of mindlessly believing anything read on the internet, or a position take out of fear of being ostracized.
This is obviously complete horseshit. For one, Oberlin’s student population may be far further to the left, especially on issues relating to Palestine, than the rest of the country, but it is by no means a monolith. I know just as many people involved in J Street and Hillel as in leftist groups such as JVP and SFP. Furthermore, in my experience with JVP, group members were constantly communicating with people involved in these groups. And yet, far too often people who we work to engage with in spite of our disagreements continue to push these false narratives. Less than a couple of years ago, people active in Jewish life on campus wrote an op-ed for The Algemeiner - a right-wing newspaper that claims to speak for the Jewish people despite repeatedly championing open antisemites such as Rupert Murdoch and the hero of American Nazism himself Donald Trump - that implied members of student groups were stifling debate surrounding Israel. The reality is that many pro-Palestine students on campus come to their conclusions because those debates are omnipresent in their individual Jewish experiences, both at home and on campus. My point in citing all of this is that it is these conversations and arguments with Jewish friends and family alike that have shaped my belief in Palestinian freedom and self-determination, and have likely done the same for many other Jews on campus.
But if these narratives are frustrating for Jews such as myself, whose identities are often tied in with a settler-colonial state supported by racist imperial powers that is fundamentally at odds with our spiritual identity, they are nothing compared to the dehumanization that Palestinians experience every day. While the reaction to the pogroms that swept Sheikh Jarrah and the subsequent carpet bombing of the Gaza Strip earlier this year represented a hugely significant shift in the discussion surrounding the occupation, institutional support for the occupation is practically unshaken. Israel is still governed by unrepentant xenophobes, continues to support illegal settlements in the West Bank and enforce a blockade of the Gaza strip that the UN predicted would create unlivable conditions as soon as last year, and both major political parties in the U.S. continue to unconditionally support these practices. The bombing campaign that left 256 people killed, thousands wounded, and additional displacement of 72,000 illustrated the absurd imbalance of power that has always been at the center of the conflict, and the emboldening Israel has received since then has merely been the icing on the cake. But even as discourse surrounding the conflict shifts, Oberlin continues to betray its image of standing for progress and supporting the oppressed, just as it did during the divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa in the 80s.
The fundamental truth is that, if the “Bridging the Gap” program truly seeks to encourage respectful dialogue and a greater understanding of the conflict, it is already doomed for failure. The language used in the description of the program would be questionable even if the program was entirely on-campus. But how are students supposed to get an understanding of “the complexity of issues facing Israeli democratic society” when said “democratic” society won’t even allow students to witness the conditions Palestinians are forced to live in? As it stands, “Bridging the Gap” only offers meaningless platitudes and revisionist both-sidesism, and does not show any promise to offer insight into the conflict. The program is an embarrassment to Oberlin as an institution and a tremendous waste of time and resources during a time in which students are struggling more than ever.