The case was painful for all and turned Middle East discussion into a no-man’s-land on campus. “Up until recently, I was very afraid to express an opinion either way,” says Olivia. “It was a taboo subject. I didn’t want to be anti-Semitic or anti-Arab.”
Three years on and the mood has changed. Liberal Jewish kids seem to be trying to figure out how to think about Israel in ways different from those of their parents. At a recent Hillel event, a visiting Israeli scholar was asked to respond to the question “Is Zionism racism?” She dismissed the question out of hand. Then the room of 35 people went airless as the discussion was taken over by Saif, wearing his black kaffiyeh, who described the Zionist movement that had cost his family its land as a hodgepodge of colonialist and messianic ideas. “You might as well base citizenship on the horoscope. No Scorpios are allowed, and my family are Scorpios.” The Jewish kids, many of them members of Lionpac, the pro-Israel lobby on campus, sat shell-shocked. And yet: These kids thanked Saif for coming, and they had chosen the provocative topic of the session. Moreover, Saif was joined in his assault on Israeli history by a Jewish undergraduate, Noah Schwartz, who compared Zionist emigration to Palestine to a million Chinese showing up in Philadelphia. Later, Noah said that the fading of the mealac battle has allowed students to actually talk about the issues.
Still, the Israel-Palestine issue has thrown a monkey wrench into the old lib-left antiwar coalition. During Vietnam, almost all of the radical white students were Jews. Abbie Hoffman came to visit Columbia and said, “If you’re born Jewish, you can either go for money or go for broke,” Bob Feldman says. “Dylan was the model. We knew that Schwerner and Goodman [killed alongside James Chaney in Mississippi] were Jewish.”
Those Jewish kids felt like outsiders. When Mark Rudd was a boy, his father had changed his name from Rudnitsky because he didn’t think a Jew could rise above captain in the Army. “We never talked about being Jewish. Never once,” Rudd says of his classmates. “We were attempting to become Americans, we were attempting to escape the shtetls we were coming out of in Queens and New Jersey, escaping Jewish identity.” The Columbia leadership was an alien caste. “[T]he place was dripping with goyishness,” Rudd wrote in a paper he delivered in 2005, titled “Why Were There So Many Jews in the SDS?”
In the last 40 years, the sociology had a sea change. Jews occupy many important positions at Columbia, and pro-Israel Jewish kids on campus have a conservative vibe. Today, the vessel of American outsider energy that Rudd brought a generation ago would be Tina Musa. Soft-spoken, pretty, verging on suburban with her nostril stud and blue jeans, Tina is the daughter of Palestinian-immigrant professionals (she calls them refugees) and has a strong sense of commitment to the cause. Tina’s parents worry that she’ll blow up her career when she talks about, say, building a wall on campus to mock Israel’s “security fence,” but they also cheer her on.
Those divisions were plain at the antiwar coalition’s meeting to choose speakers for the teach-in following its February strike. Two of David Judd’s choices were guaranteed to make the pro-Israel community crazy. One was Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies (and one of the 101 most dangerous professors); the other was Saifedean Ammous, the Palestinian graduate student whose editorials in the Spectator routinely generate a whole page of angry responses. It was the tensest meeting of the coalition I observed.
David Catalinotto, a decidedly laid-back Jewish member of the coalition who spent most meetings covering a page of a dog-eared notebook with intense doodles, voiced concern. “There are a very large number of Jewish liberals on this campus who do have sympathy for Israel. I’m out of the closet here.” Those students would be “deterred” from participating if Palestine was on the agenda. The coalition was at its best focusing on Iraq.
The left-wingers stuck to their guns, but nicely. Karina said, “Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, these issues are connected.” Aaron Hess said, “The issue of the occupation of Palestine has been ignored too long by the antiwar movement. We should remind ourselves, who have been the main victims of racism in this war? Arabs.”
Catalinotto wasn’t the only Jewish kid who was concerned about Israel. If the coalition wanted to grow, it had to address that concern. That night, the students came to a creative solution. They weren’t going to lose the Palestinian issue—Israel/Palestine was a key part of the Middle East policy puzzle—but the coalition would keep the headline Iraq.