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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Informing ourselves about more than just one side of divestment

Whether or not you support the divestment measures outlined in the Student Government Association (SGA) referendum that was sent out on Monday, we should all be concerned about the process by which the case for this referendum is being carried out. I appreciate that the SGA addressed the concern about anonymity stemming from the collecting of email addresses that was part of the original survey on Google Forms. However, we should all reflect, as a campus, about why some students fear having their names attached to their opinions. 

The social repercussions of expressing any support of or connection to Israel have been persistent and real for many of our students, as well as for staff and faculty in our community. Based on conversations with students, these repercussions have eroded the mental health of students, and others, who are withholding those opinions. I have heard from many students, faculty and staff who feel that a significant expression of their religious, cultural and sometimes national identity, as well as their political opinions, have been silenced on campus since the beginning of this war. 

I commend the Gaza Solidarity Encampment for taking care that antisemitism was not a centerpiece of their protest, but I want to be clear that we can’t ignore the backdrop of crude rhetoric against “Zionists” on YikYak and other social media. Those at Middlebury posting such rhetoric do not critique the Israeli government’s policies, but rather reduce a wide-ranging group of political beliefs — and those who hold them — into one monolithic group to be derided. The postings contribute to an environment where some students are afraid to speak their opinions. The same is true about the Israeli flag that was taken down from a student’s residence hall window and desecrated.

Just as if not more concerning is the significant lack of neutrality in the way the referendum was presented to students. The informational links provided in the referendum went to materials prepared by the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, often sourced from materials by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS). At least from the outside, it seems that the encampment alone was given the platform to define the terms and make the arguments that the SGA chose to promote.

If this subject were not controversial, we would not need a referendum on it. Since it is controversial, students deserve to be provided with a wide range of resources for further study and reflection. It is my hope and understanding that the SGA’s role is to strive to represent the whole student body. Yet the student body was given only one side of the debate about BDS as a method for addressing the war and occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. 

I believe that the war and the occupation need to be addressed immediately. However, not everyone agrees on the best strategy for doing so. A common critique of the BDS movement is that its approach places the blame only on Israel for what is happening in the region, whereas Hamas is also an active player in this war. Another critique is that the BDS movement aims to isolate Israel and make it feel that the world is against it. Both these dynamics serve to undermine the possibility for co-existence and healing, which is the only way I believe we can work toward a true and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. 

Healing and co-existence work are often dismissed as soft and naive, or as perpetuating the existing power imbalances. But they are a crucial part of the real, on the ground work of transitional justice. This work builds capacity to shift public opinion in Israel now by building trust, and works toward justice, peace and equal rights in the future. This is the kind of work that was and still is instrumental in the change of regime and peace work in places such as South Africa and Northern Ireland.

Conditions are not perfect in Israel and Palestine right now, but we cannot wait to do this work until they are. There are many people and organizations already engaged in such efforts. One such organization is Standing Together, a joint grassroots organizing group of Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel working together for systemic political change.

In a glaring example of how the BDS movement undermines transitional justice, this past January they called for a boycott of Standing Together. As Nora Berman writes in her article on this in The Forward, “By disavowing the only group within Israel that is speaking up for Gazans under bombardment — at great personal risk to the groups’ Palestinian Israeli members — BDS isn’t just alienating a powerful ally. It is showing that it’s committed not to the cause of Palestinian liberation through coalition building, but rather that of ideological purity.” I urge you to read Berman’s entire piece, if only to inform yourselves about an aspect of the debate on BDS not included in the sources that the SGA sent out in its referendum. 

When we prepare ourselves to vote on any issue, on campus or in our local and national governments, we should try to understand multiple perspectives on the issue before we cast our votes. This takes time and a willingness to question our own initial assumptions. It is also crucial to our democratic system.

I often see signs around campus and quotes in this newspaper entreating: “Do better Middlebury.” When I see them, I assume they are directed at administrators, and as someone who works for the college, they prompt me to take stock. I am now directing that request back toward the SGA and the student body. Each one of us makes up this thing we call Middlebury College, students no less than administrators, staff and faculty. Do better Middlebury.

Danielle Stillman is Middlebury College’s Rabbi and Associate Chaplain at the Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life.