The Cornell Daily Sun (Cornell University’s daily publication) editorialized this past year that protestors and counter- protestors of a renewed Israeli bombardment of Gaza need to end the “dueling demonstrations in support of each side of the conflict.”1 In a similar vein, the leadership of Hillel at Cornell urged folks from both sides to model peace by coming together over the bargaining table and engaging in dialogue: “If what we want — which is what I think we want — is for the two governments to talk to each other, then we need to model that.”2 These attitudes imply that the conflict in the Middle East is one of insufficient dialogue. Indeed, there is a common perception beyond our own microcosm that political action is equivalent to something known as “dialogue.” One can see this at work in a mainstream view about the conflict in Palestine/Israel that sees the reluctance of leaders as the chief obstacle to peace; this picture implies that peace, if it is to come at all, is ultimately an issue of representatives meeting to iron out their differences.
But the facile symmetry of “dialogue” can neither comprehend nor deal with the history of racism, colonialism, occupation, dispossession and massacre that are the legacy of Zionism and the foundation of the present conflict. “Dialogue” suggests the misleading ideal of equal interlocutors, and cannot understand how it is difficult to speak with so many boots on so many necks. “Dialogue” cannot account for the outrages of the Oslo Accords, in which a decade of negotiations provided the cover for Israel to entrench, normalize, and expand the occupation. “Dialogue” does not understand that political activism is not a Model UN, and the realities of the occupation of Palestine will persist whether or not “student leaders” speak to one another. “Dialogue” does not see the conditions of its own possibility. “Dialogue” can’t talk about power.
What “dialogue” obstructs is critique, understood broadly as the investigation of the relationship between language and power: who sets the terms of the debate, what historical, political, social, and economic realities are veiled by buzzwords, what viewpoints, narratives, and experiences are excluded in advance, as a prerequisite to dialogue, and what oppressive structures and patterns are reinforced and legitimated by “dialogue”?
When Israel is criticized as a racist occupying power, it is not sufficient to assert that it isn’t. When it is pointed out that the current situation has its roots in a well-documented history of ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinians by Israel, it is not enough to deny that this happened. When the structural roots of oppression within Israeli society are pointed out in detail, it is not enough to glibly declaim that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East” or blandly tout how friendly (some parts of ) the country can be to women and gays. When the world condemns a renewed onslaught of one of the most bloated militaries in the world on a defenseless and incarcerated population, it is not enough to gesture towards a handful of ineffectual rockets flying the other way.
For these denials work in a dual way; on the one hand, they attempt to smooth over criticism by denying the facts of the matter. But perhaps more damningly, by answering every statement “X” with a counter-statement “not-X,” they would encourage us to believe that words have no rigorous meaning. Just as “dialogue”marginalizes and minimizes the actual issues by fetishizing the act of dialogue over its content, such facile pluralism boils down to the platitude that every issue has two sides. The false symmetry implicit in the demand for “dialogue” is echoed in the uncritical simplicity of calling for “both sides of the story.”
And to call for both sides of the story is a problem. Not just because stories have many more than two sides, but because this uncritically symmetrical framework suggests a Fox News idea of balance – that every claim should be evaluated not with a critical eye to the evidence, but by means of a simplistic recourse to the opposite claim. Such symmetries suggest that the truth is to be found “in the middle,” as if historical and political claims were a matter of taking the statistical average. What’s worse, seeing political conflict and action in terms of static binaries occludes the way that these terms shift with history. Today’s center is yesterday’s far right, and the goalposts of current discussions of a just, peaceful settlement for Israel/Palestine are not what they once were. Token calls for “dialogue” obscure the fact that meaningful political action precedes dialogue and determines who is allowed to sit at the table, and what topics may even be broached in the first place.
Here at Cornell, important factors limit the shape that a dialogue may take. While most members of any university community undoubtedly aspire to the ideal of the university as a bastion of free, critical speech, the reality is that the modern corporate university is deeply invested in maintaining oppressive power structures. From the beginning of the non-transparent process that led to the collaboration with Technion and thus to our university’s complicity with the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Cornell’s administration has signalled that it is more interested in pushing this partnership through by fiat than in fostering a space for a reasoned, democratic debate on this radical transformation of the university’s profile and mission.
The entanglement between various campus institutions and Israeli apartheid likewise makes a farce of any open discussion suggested by the idea of “dialogue.” Take President Skorton’s outspoken support for Israel, which includes a grotesquely timed visit during the brutal attacks on Gaza last November, as well as a blanket rejection of BDS, leading one to fear that Cornell may again be the last university in the country to divest from an apartheid state, as it was with South Africa.3 Or take Kathy Zoner, who in October 2011 became the first university police chief to attend the “Experience Israel Training Tour,” gaining from this experience the insight that one needs “to find a balance between academic freedom as well as keeping people safe. No one can thrive in a completely locked down environment but neither can people do so in a completely open environment.”4 Presumably this “balance” had something to do with the way the Cornell police attempted to shut down a protest against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza last November, assaulting a student in the process. Or take Rebecca Harris, the new editor-in- chief of the Cornell Daily Sun, whose credentials include work with CIPAC – the local junior branch of the conservative lobbying group AIPAC – as well as with Hillel and the NYC mayoral campaign of Republican Tom Allon5 who boasted that, “New York needs a Mayor like me who thinks like an Israeli: tough and always ready to defend his people,”6 apparently unaware of the resonance of that statement in a city where the police already act like an occupying army in poor neighborhoods of color.
In an environment where the president has made it clear that nothing about the Technion partnership is up for debate, where the police openly attempt to suppress free expression at the behest of a vocally conservative minority, and where the local student paper bewails the lack of communication but won’t print our perspective, what can it possibly mean to call for “dialogue”?
We reject token dialogues that see politics as conversation, and conversation as the empty call-and-response of claim and denial, but we do so because we believe in dialogue in the more genuine sense of sustained, critical engagement with the questions that lie at the root of the conflict in the Middle East. If we did not believe in dialogue, we would not have organized the multiple teach-ins and panel discussions at Cornell over the past year. If we did not believe in dialogue, we would not spend our efforts bringing well-known speakers and human rights activists to campus to share their perspectives. If we did not believe in dialogue, we would not need to continue organizing and co-organizing events, discussions, film screenings, and protests on campus and downtown. If we did not believe in dialogue, we would not have published this journal. The topics covered, from the complicity of the Lebanese Phalangists in the 1982 massacre, to the next steps for Palestinian solidarity activists, to a critique of the racism and classism found of Israeli society, to an evaluation of the role of cinema in portraying the conflict, represent our vision of dialogue as the critical and reflexive encounter of ideas with a vexed but changeable reality.
This is our dialogue. We hope you find it engaging.
1 Rathore, Manu. “Conflict in Gaza Sparks Heated Rallies at Cornell.” Cornell Daily Sun [Ithaca] 20 Nov. 2012: pp. 1.Print.
2 Otani, Akane. “Jewish Students Denounce Defacement of Hillel Posters.” Cornell Daily Sun [Ithaca] 28 Feb. 2013. Print.
3 http://nyact.net/news-and-updates/#Technion President.
4 Lin, Elaine. “Cornell Police Chief Zoner Attends Conference in Tel Aviv, Israel.” Cornell Daily Sun [Ithaca]. 8 February 2012.
6 http://www.timesofisrael.com/the-hebrew-named-outsider-bidding-to-become- new-yorks-fifth-jewish-mayor/