During my career I’ve had the opportunity to observe several student association fairs in various countries, where dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of clubs and organizations campaign to attract new members. I am always interested in the Muslim associations and also the growing and increasingly visible Jewish-Israeli student associations. Recently I have accepted a new position at the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.As usual at the beginning of the academic year, while academics enroll students for their courses, associations compete for new and old members. I really enjoy the festive feeling and normally spend some time visiting the stands, among which the Muslim and Jewish association are obligatory stops and always produce interesting observations.
This time, as many other occasions I’ve seen before it, the Muslim Association’s stand displayed huge Palestinian flags, Palestinian-themed pins, and other related gadgets. Students provided flyers and information about the occupation. Overall, the “set up” is indeed rather similar to others I have seen. Even during the so called “Islamic awareness” week, Palestinian suffering and occupation often remains a prominent theme.
On the other side, a few rows down, one could find the Jewish-Israeli stand: again big Israli flags and a strong focus on how Israel, the Jews’ home (notice that Arab Muslims and Christians are also citizens of Israel), is under attack from all sides and how powerful dark forces (read: Muslims) are ready to wipe it from the map. Both sides presented their campaign as support to the ‘victims’ of the conflict.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with a strong campaign and support for the liberation of Palestine and the end of Israeli occupation or the security and the right to existence of Israel and its Jewish population. These are surely legitimate causes for students to engage with. However, there were many omissions from the context. The most visible and concerning one was a lack of critical (may we say self-critical?) views.
In other words, as soon as you speak to one of the students manning either of the stalls, the story of the conflict is presented in black and white terms. Indeed, in the majority of the Muslims or Jewish associations I have known, the Palestinian -Israeli conflict usually remains a matter of ideology (religious, political, nationalistic and so forth).
For instance, from the side of the Muslim student associations, there is little or no information about the brutality committed by Hamas against those Palestinians who disagree with the movement or Christian Palestinians who suffer increasingly difficult conditions in the region for multiple reasons, the oppressive, gradual talibanization of social space, the radicalization of youth and so forth. On the other hand, the Jewish associations are totally blind to the injustice and oppression suffered by Palestinians under the occupation, the destruction of livelihoods, the displacement and the incredible death toll the “security of Israel” has cost the Palestinians.
My concern is that this is not just a ‘general public” that has no access to specialized studies or reports, or “politicians’, who always have to sell their ideas to win beyond reality and truth, but rather university students, and among them postgraduates, who are supposed to develop strong critical skills and be able to see ‘reality’ from different angles – or, in other words, read more than one map to understand a territory.
There is among the members of these associations a rather passive attitude towards the Middle East conflict which ends in mirroring the well known and unsuccessful rhetoric of blame and ’evil’, which is one of the reasons why peace was never achieved in the region.
Another concern about these associations is the often very mono-thematic focus of their campaign. Take the Muslim association in Macquarie University for their O-Week as an example. As for many other Muslim associations I have seen during the recruitment weeks, the theme centered on Palestine, when today there are other pressing issues as well such as the case of Syria and also the incredible oppression and sometimes even slaughter of Shi’a Muslims. I could not see any real attention given to issues other than Palestine. Similarly, students of the Jewish association were unable to discuss or provide information about the increasing phenomenon of some Ultra-Ortodox movements harassing and even physically attacking Israeli women who do not follow “Kosher” dress codes or the segregation issue. These are just exemples, but ignorance about their own communities, the tensions among sects, and political movements as well as different social clases, is considerable. The only issue given prominence is the occupation and on the other side, the right to it.
I doubt that the lack of interest in the other topics is related to a lack of empathy towards victims of internal problems, such as the oppression by Hamas or the increasing violence of some actions among Ortodox-Jew sects. My impression is that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict attracts such unique support and attention because of how the conflict is read and conceptualized by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is not simply a conflict, as for instance the violence in Chechnya is, where Russians have oppressed and occupied Muslim lands for decades, but rather the epitomization of an Armageddon-like clash between the essentialization of the “West” and “Islam”– two maps that never matched the territory (for the discussion of maps territories and logical typing in another post see here).
Hence, the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine campaigns are rarely “pro” but rather “contra” something. In both sides of the ideological battlefield, it is never a rhetoric of peace, but rather of exclusion. Flags, pins with flags, key words such as “terrorists”, “monsters”, “killers’ or ”kafurs” are used within the ideological battle of maps. Effective and shocking pictures of traumatized Palestinian children from one side are mirrored by the horrific injuries to an Israeli Jew child, the handiwork of a suicide bomber.
The “war’ moves from the territory of the Middle East, to conceptual maps of de-humanization in which the map Muslim-Palestinian– or Israeli Jew– becomes the proxy of a distant battle of superiority–of cultural machoism, of imaginary superior civilization beyond people’s flesh and blood.
It is worrying when such “battle of the maps” (and we know that maps are never territories) uncritically permeate the spaces of universities through the various student associations. The essentialisation, sensationalisation, and abstraction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the complexity of suffering in Muslim countries and communities requires some strong questioning — so, too, does the lack of critical approach to the different Muslim actors of various resistant groups in the Middle East and beyond.
It is time that university students in university associations campaigning for one or the other side of the Middle East conflict start to read the conflict through a more general map; one in which at the end of a difficult journey there is only one destination: the human.