These instructors’ actions show that the discussion surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not actually a discussion; instead, it is a constant relitigation of whether Israel should be treated in the same fashion as other countries. In September, I asked Radhika Sainath, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal who was then advising Cheney-Lippold, if the professor had ever before declined to write a letter of recommendation for political reasons, or if he would decline to write a letter of recommendation for any other country. She responded that he would have declined to write a letter “for a student studying in apartheid South Africa, or at a whites-only university, or at a male-only university in Saudi Arabia—or any other study abroad program that is discriminatory, where other students of his could not attend.” But she did not cite an example of his having actually declined to write such a letter, and the examples she did give—one of a government that no longer exists, and the others of particular types of institutions—only underscore Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy as a state.*
College campuses are often caricatured for, in the eyes of critics, trying too hard to make students feel safe and comfortable. I don’t think that creating an inclusive academic environment deserves criticism, but the same courtesy must be extended toward all students, including those who support Israel.
Read: How not to measure Americans’ support for Israel
Last week, in the window after Cheney-Lippold’s story died down and before Peterson’s emerged, a Michigan student’s account of a mandatory lecture for her major lit up social media. She said the lecturer claimed that Benjamin Netanyahu and Adolf Hitler are both “guilty of genocide.”
Israel’s collegiate opponents frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in black-and-white terms: Palestine, good; Israel, bad. Anyone who believes Israel has a right to exist? Also bad.
This broad-brush tactic means the whole range of experiences and political perspectives among Zionists—from the most progressive Zionists, who wish to end occupation and who call out Netanyahu’s unequal treatment of Arabs, women, and secular Jews, to their most right-wing counterparts, who view the expansion of Israeli settlements as a biblical imperative—are put under a single normative umbrella: bad. Unacceptable. Unfit for dialogue.
Serious conversations about real challenges in Israel (and there are many—just talk to any Israeli, or read the editorial pages of Israeli newspapers) aren’t happening on American college campuses, because pro-Israel students have to spend all their time and energy making the basic argument that Israel has a right to exist.
What’s most depressing about study abroad becoming the latest battleground in the conflict is that living in Israel offers American students their best chance to develop a sophisticated understanding of the country and its policies.