Challenging Checkpoints: A Success Story At Columbia
Tue, 11/30/2010
Special to the Jewish Week

A recent Opinion piece,  “Exclude Me At Your Own Peril” (Oct. 26) by a fellow Columbia University student, depicted the ostensible fragmentation and dissolution of the pro-Israel movement, especially a Columbia. It described the necessity to acknowledge the conflict at home - referring to the growing division in the Jewish community concerning Israel and Israeli policy - before addressing the conflict abroad.

I write today to tell a very different story.

On November 18, the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine staged a “mock Israeli checkpoint” on Low Plaza. Less than 48 hours before, Columbia/Barnard Hillel was notified of the demonstration and the pro-Israel groups on campus, along with their allies, mobilized to assemble a coordinated response.

LionPAC, the largest pro-Israel group on campus, of which I am vice president, helped marshal not only our own community at Columbia, but also our friends and colleagues from around New York City.

What I witnessed that Thursday, as the Students for Justice in Palestine were putting on their show, was an incredible turnout of support for the Jewish and pro-Israel communities.

What we saw while positioned directly opposite the C-SJP, was a radical and misleading demonstration of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank.

The message of the C-SJP was not about peace, security, or even reality; in fact it represented a gross violation of everything Columbia stands for.

Although freedom of speech is held in the utmost regard at Columbia, as epitomized by the controversial 2007 visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, these students' free speech only espoused hatred and negativity.

The organizers of the C-SJP checkpoint had students line up, be led to the middle of the plaza, then forced onto their knees, blindfolded, and had their hands tied behind their backs.

They did this to every student who participated. It was a gross distortion of the daily reality at checkpoints in the West Bank.

In response, the pro-Israel students of Columbia and many others turned out in droves to form a coalition of various opinions and ideologies.

LionPAC,  Just Peace, the Israel Cultural Society, and Garin Lavi, all rallied under Hillel's direction to present a unified front against this anti-Israel effort. We were joined by organizations such a StandWithUs, Hasbara, the David Project, Hagshama and the Zionist Organization of America.

Our theme was of discussion and debate grounded in factual information about checkpoints. Our motto was "it's complicated."

We stated clearly that checkpoints can be very frustrating, upsetting and often make life difficult for Palestinians, but they exist for a reason.

We provided balanced information and stories so that our fellow students at Columbia could make informed and educated decisions, something the C-SJP systematically rejected. In a press release the following day they wrote “C-SJP maintains a firm stance that this is not a 'conflict' that requires 'dialogue.'”

This is not an isolated incident. The campus protests against Israel have grown over the last decade. Jewish and non-Jewish students who support Israel are constantly under fire and pressure from anti-Israel groups and anti-Israel professors.

This month alone saw an effort to boycott Sabra Hummus at Princeton University, mock checkpoints at Columbia and at Brooklyn College, and the hosting of Norman Finkelstein at Rutgers in an effort to promote a United States-led flotilla to Gaza.

At a time when Israel is being attacked abroad and by academics and students at home, the pro-Israel community cannot afford to squabble and engage in petty arguments.

Whether you agree or disagree on settlements, whether you lean left or right politically, whether you identify with J Street,  AIPAC or ZOA, is of no consequence when Israel's very right to exist is being questioned. Generating an artificial conflict at home only serves to distract our community and belittle the true conflict that exists abroad.

Whenever I speak about Columbia and the challenges we face, I say with conviction that I truly believe my campus is predominantly pro-Israel.

This is exemplified by the ability of every single Israel-related group to put internal issues aside in order to stand as one group together in support of Israel against a demonizing anti-Israel group.

It is demonstrated by the hundreds of supporters who came to help in our effort that Thursday, Jew and non-Jew alike, holding signs and giving out fact sheets and information. And it is represented by the positive feedback we received and the dialogue that occurred as a result of that coordinated effort.

What we learned from that day is that the pro-Israel community at every university in the country must put differences aside in order to join hands in defending Israel. Not doing so only widens the divide in our own community, and gives Israel's detractors greater opportunity in their persistent and unrelenting campaign to delegitimize its creation and its right to exist as a Jewish democratic state.

Eric J. Schorr is vice president of LionPAC, a pro-Israel advocacy group at Columbia University, and a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow. He is also a student at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

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It is very easy to say that students on all campuses need to "put differences aside in order to join hands in defending Israel" when the typical Columbia experience has been that every Jew on campus actually is pro-Israel and actually does come to the defense of Israel, regardless of their approach. I recently graduated from UC Berkeley and I can say firsthand that "squabbling and engaging in petty arguments" becomes infinitely harder to avoid when the "pro-Israel" community houses vehemently anti-Israel Jewish student groups that actually support and partake in the checkpoint display. The corruption of pro-Israel Jewish institutions on campus is not only taking place at Berkeley, where a vocally pro-BDS Jewish student group called Kesher Enoshi is allowed a voice in Hillel and in the Jewish Student Union, but is becoming more and more popular with the increasing number of Hillels across the country that allow the presence of J Street U (the university level of J Street that purposefully removed the term "pro-Israel" from their logo) in their building. In a perfect world the pro-Israel community could always come together to bravely fight against the evil anti-Israel community, but on the West Coast, the two groups paradoxically overlap. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
I want to first say I agree with your opinion on the current situation facing many campuses around the country. The nature of my op-ed in fact was not to show a utopian existence of the pro-Israel movement at Columbia, rather to highlight that in fact the campus IS fragmented and an increasing division seems to be growing. What I explain though, is that the dissenting opinions were put aside when the SJP put on a provocative and incendiary demonstration. Now, when we're talking about even more left-wing and radical groups, especially Jewish ones, then it gets more tricky. I'm referring to Peace Now, Breaking the Silence, Code Pink, etc. When dealing with those groups, something Columbia's pro-Israel movement is often forced to do, the conversation and strategy gets more complicated. I'd love to expound further but think it best to do so privately. Head to www.lionpac.org and I think my e-mail address is somewhere on there. Best, EJS

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