DU apathetic towards Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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The Hillel Library at the University of Denver [photo by Helen Filanowski]

DENVER-College campuses have been in the spotlight as havens for social justice since the 1960s, when students began to protest the Vietnam War, Civil Rights and the Free Love movements. Today, the issues have changed but the forum that college campuses provide for young activists has remained.

Is every college campus as active as one might think, however? The Israeli-Palestinian issue is one of the most hotly debated of our time. The conflict is centered around the country of Israel and the Palestinian people, many of whom were forced to flee Israel as refugees after Israel fought for independence in 1948.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is multi-faceted, but the most common hot-button issues are whether the country of Israel should allow Palestinians back to their homelands which were seized in 1948 (commonly referred to as the right of return), voting rights, and settlement-building beyond the Green Line.

Support from the United States government for Israel has been unyielding since the 1960s, and this has led to a lot of support for Israel from American citizens. Today, however, the debate has widened, and more people than ever have begun to additionally support the Palestinian cause.

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US support for Israel and the Palestinians from 1978-2016 [courtesy of the Pew Research Center]

University students across the country have been vocal about this issue lately, participating in rallies, protests, and clubs such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Students for Israel.

A popular cause that students have rallied around has been the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement that encourages universities to boycott, divest from, and sanction companies that are associated with Israel or are located in the West Bank. Currently, there is no defined movement for BDS at DU.

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Jamie Skog, DU graduate and director of Hillel [photo by Helen Filanowski]

Jamie Skog, director of Hillel at DU, said that DU’s campus “is definitely not exempt from the possibility of BDS becoming more prominent. BDS is a well-funded machine that has the resources to cause trouble.”

The Students for Justice in Palestine Club did not respond to repeated requests for comment, however their Facebook page features posts explaining and promoting the BDS movement.

BDS, however, is not something that is being actively pursued on this campus. In fact, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rarely comes up in conversations, unlike at campuses such as the University of California at Irvine where protests against then-Israeli ambassador to the United States grew so tense that 11 students were arrested.

If college campuses are locales known to foment social justice movements, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so prominent at other college campuses, why isn’t it at DU?

“Often, this issue on other campuses becomes something that is extremely divisive,” said Skog. “Here, at DU, we’ve had a lot of apathy to the conflict in general. There’s a general apathy in the student body to begin with. When students are passionate, it’s passion towards environmentalism, sustainability, or things that are more pertinent to their lifestyle in Colorado.”

The Pew Research Center reports that 51% of the Millennial generation (ages 18-33) are Democrats or lean democratically. Furthermore, “a growing share of liberal democrats sympathize more with Palestinians than with Israel.

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Sympathies towards Palestinians and Israel by party affiliation [courtesy of the Pew Research Center]

DU seems to be an anomaly, according to these statistics. This issue is not a preeminent one on campus, in the same way that Divest DU is, for example. DU is considered a left-leaning campus, like most universities. Does it support one cause over the other?

Amir Luria, 19, a DU student from Israel says no. “People need a personal stake in an issue in order to care about it most of the time,” said Luria. “This issue doesn’t affect the majority  of the population so it’d be unjust to choose one side over the other.”

Hillel at DU has between 250-400 students self-identifying as Jews. About 100 students attend Hillel programs regularly. Holiday gatherings regularly drew more than 150 students, according to a Hillel factsheet. Comparably, the Students for Justice in Palestine club has its membership listed at between 11 and 20 students.

With a large Hillel membership and a contrastingly small Students for Justice in Palestine membership, there could be dissent among the student body population.

“I don’t think this campus supports one cause over the other,” said Skog. “We do have a decent-sized Muslim student population, there is a large number of international students from the Gulf area…we have the potential for massive conflict over this issue. There is a sense of entitlement on this campus, which contributes to a ‘if this doesn’t affect me, I don’t care’ attitude.”

Luria doesn’t understand why this issue is so prominent at other schools. “At campuses like UC Irvine and UC Riverside, this issue is a way to get involved on campus. I have no idea why people are so fascinated by this particular issue because it’s going on all around the world; China and Tibet, Pakistan and India, and the suppression of minority rights in Saudi Arabia don’t get as much media attention, but I couldn’t tell you why.”

The lack of discussion surrounding this issue could dissolve as DU’s student population grows. Skog hopes that Hillel can stimulate a conversation about this issue in the future. “I think there is a dead space surrounding Israel in Hillel right now. A challenge on campuses, not necessarily ours, is that it is sometimes unsafe to have conflicting opinions. When you think differently, it can turn to conflict.”

“Where are the correct places to be having these conversations?,” Skog has asked herself. She plans to create an “educational series where people can come and engage in historical learning, and move into political and social conversations about the challenges in Israel.”

DU’s campus is experiencing a surge of growth. As the student population gets larger, the space for conversation surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may grow with it.

“Hillel has not done the greatest job of engaging or teaching about Israel on our campus,” said Skog. “I want to create a space where students can express their opinions, whatever they may be.”

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