While there are vocal activists on both sides, I believe most college students are largely neutral on or even indifferent to the Israeli-Palestinian-Jewish-Arab-Muslim conflict. And while universities are (or should be) good places to learn about such conflicts, there must be many students who do not appreciate the specific manner in which activists take over their campuses and student governments not merely to educate others on their cause--which used to be the role of professors, in the old days--but to agitate for it. The result is typically a lot of hollering, tremendous divisiveness, individuals feeling marginalized and even attacked, and overall a great diversion of resources from what should be the main focus of student governments: tackling issues that directly concern student life on campus.
The activists will claim (for example) that social justice and human rights are the business of student governments. They will point to previous successes, in particular the anti-apartheid movements on campuses against South Africa, which (they will claim) helped lead to the overthrow of that regime. They urge repeatedly that Israel is guilty of apartheid as well, and that student governments should rise to the challenge once again.
But there are big differences between then and now. For one thing, however critical you may be of Israel, the use of the word "apartheid" is simply false, a dangerous libel, and offensive to the victims of true apartheid in South Africa. More importantly, the case against South African apartheid enjoyed near universal consensus on campus. It was a no-brainer, requiring minimal campus resources. When a student government passed a resolution against South Africa, one could feel that it represented the student body opinion. Protesting South African policy didn't leave many students on campus feeling directly targeted. None of those apply with respect to the debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the debate visits a campus, it typically leaves behind a campus in shambles: friendships and relationships are severed, people stop talking to each other, and the overall educational mission of the institution is irreparably harmed.
To be clear, I am not suppressing free speech, or advocating that students don't learn about the Middle East conflict, or rejecting the role that students groups might play in educating student populations. Have at it, I say: have campus rallies, sponsor speakers, set up a soapbox and pontificate all you like. What I am saying is leave student government out of it. Student government has better things to do. Like govern student life, addressing the immediate needs and concerns of the local student population. This cannot be done if they are forced to spend hours debating complicated, decades-long international conflicts going on half a world away, about which they are largely ignorant. Students should resist efforts by angry activists to hijack their student governments in the service of their divisive agendas.
So here is my proposal. Let us spread as far and wide as we can the following template for a resolution, to be submitted to as many student governments as possible. I hereby relinquish any copyright claim to the text below (though I would appreciate an acknowledgment if you use it), and of course I license anyone to edit as s/he believes would be most useful at his or her institution.
Whereas, the primary purpose of student government is to address matters of immediate relevance and urgency directly affecting the campus life of the general population of students attending this institution;
Whereas, the many very complex and long-standing political, military, economic, and civil disputes going on all over the world simply are not such matters;
Whereas, it would require long and intensive study before anyone could expect to have an appropriate, fair, and well-informed opinion about such complex and long-standing disputes;
Whereas, those volunteering their time on student government do not have the time or resources to undertake such long and intensive study on matters not directly pertaining to campus life;
Whereas, those interested in the noble pursuit of activist causes concerning such disputes are perfectly free to pursue them elsewhere on campus, and already have many resources available to them to support their pursuit (such as the ability to form special interest groups, sponsor lectures, and hold other events), not to mention take relevant classes;
Whereas, it is simply not appropriate for a student government, aiming to represent the interests of all students, to take official positions on complex issues on which the student population is deeply divided and as a result of which many students may feel disenfranchised as well as personally targeted;
Whereas, the introduction of student government resolutions on such matters, and in particular on the century-long conflict between Israelis/Palestinians/Jews/Arabs/Muslims, has on many campuses proved extremely disruptive and divisive to normal campus life;
Whereas, the introduction of such resolutions has often produced very hostile environments in which many members of the campus community felt isolated, marginalized, dehumanized, under attack, and unsafe;
Whereas, such environments are not at all conducive to the proper academic study of the disputes in question and can have long-term negative consequences on the civility of campus life, as well as damage the mutual civility and respect necessary to ensure genuine freedom of speech;
Be it resolved, that
(1) This student government reaffirms its commitment to freedom of speech, to the free exchange of ideas, to the safety of all who express their ideas and in particular to those supporting minority opinions, to the mutual civility and respect parties must show to those who disagree with them, and, overall, to the careful and objective and fair and rational pursuit of truth in all such exchanges;
(2) This student government urges all those interested in the noble pursuit of activist causes to whole-heartedly pursue their activism by means of the many other resources available on campus;
(3) This student government shall restrict its discussions and activities to matters of immediate relevance and urgency directly affecting the campus life of the general population of students attending this institution.
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