Guest Column: Moving to a higher narrative on Tel Aviv University partnership

Jonathan Kamel and Jamie Lovegrove

Serene Darwish’s recent column in The Spectrum was compelling and important. We commend her for expressing her identity and beliefs as a Palestinian-American on campus. We do not object to her reaction to President Schapiro’s statements or to her political beliefs. Nevertheless, we and many other students on campus have concerns with her claims that partnerships with Israel represent a political stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or marginalize a specific community on campus.

Academic partnerships are not political in nature but based on shared goals of scholarship, research, and expanding students’ opportunities. To our knowledge, Northwestern does not have a stance on the two-state solution, the occupation of the West Bank or the leadership within the Israeli government. However, it does have a stance on providing a world-class education, enhancing study abroad programs and exposing students to a diverse array of cultures and perspectives — all of which are occurring between NU and Tel Aviv University.

The decision to partner with TAU was not part of a “full-fledged top-down pro-Israel campaign” as Darwish called it, but a strategic decision to enhance the quality of education at NU. By the same token, it would be unfair to suggest that participants in the program endorse any particular political position of the Israeli government. They are simply trying to develop a stronger understanding of topics in the Middle East at a world-class, international university.

Collaboration with TAU should be viewed in the context of NU’s campus in Qatar and in the burgeoning partnership with the Bridge School in India. It should be noted that Qatar has an extremely poor record on human rights. However, few students have criticized the University’s decision to build a satellite campus in Doha. It is hypocritical to attack partnerships with Israel on a humanitarian basis while not addressing NU’s established relationship with Qatar.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has been long, bloody and incredibly complex, encompassing many narratives and multiple perspectives. Many perspectives within the modern state of Israel — such as those of the Bedouins, Black Hebrews, Arab Christians and Arab Jews — continue to go untold. All narratives have a right to be expressed and shared.

In her opposition to NU’s connection with TAU, Darwish cites a recent decision TAU made that “banned a Palestinian speaker” for an event commemorating Land Day. She neglected to mention that Mohammed Kena’ana was not just any Palestinian speaker, but a convicted terrorist conspirator who spent four and a half years in Israeli prison. Furthermore, Kena’ana is a target for extremists on both sides of the conflict, and therefore posed a security concern for all students. While Kena’ana is a free Israeli citizen with a right to speak, there were significant safety factors in TAU’s decision that should not be omitted in order to portray the situation as purely political.

To classify the Palestinian narrative as a voice that goes unheard on campus is misleading. In the last few months, multiple articles have been written in The Daily Northwestern and The Protest voicing pro-Palestinian opinions in regards to the ASA boycott of Israeli institutions. Darwish and her fellow members of Students for Justice in Palestine have had plenty of opportunities to make their case heard. The University has a right to disagree with SJP’s views on Israel and make decisions which they believe will benefit the greater student body.

We did not write this piece to attack Darwish’s positions or to have the last word. We actually believe she has legitimate claims and her ideas are well-received. Yet we ask her to understand our perspective and not label those who support partnerships with Israel as a domineering voice on campus. President Schapiro’s positions are in line with a large percentage of the student body that supports extensive study abroad opportunities around the world, including in Tel Aviv.

While we and Darwish have vastly different opinions and may not agree on many aspects of the conflict or its history, we should work to understand and appreciate each other’s narratives. A nuanced perspective should neither view the establishment of the state of Israel as a form of unforgiving colonialism nor ignore the deep injustices that Palestinians have endured for decades.

The tragedy of the current climate on campus and within the modern state of Israel is blindness to the other’s narrative. Pro-Palestinian activists at NU have not been able to understand the legitimate claims of pro-Israel students, while advocates for Israel cannot comprehend the concepts of “the Nakba” or identifying as a refugee. But Darwish fails to acknowledge that the self-determination of Israelis and the self-determination of Palestinians are not mutually exclusive beliefs.

The Spectrum’s framing of advocacy as a “war on this campus” makes productive discussion difficult and eliminates the important role of nuance in a complex situation. Palestinians and Israelis have been at war for decades. If we can’t move beyond the legitimate claims of multiple perspectives and achieve a higher level of narrative, then who can?

Jonathan Kamel is a Weinberg sophomore and president of Wildcats for Israel. He can be contacted at Jamie Lovegrove is a Medill sophomore who is currently studying abroad at Tel Aviv University. He can be contacted atjamielovegrove2016@u.northwestern.eduKamel and Lovegrove are former Daily staffers. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. 

Clarification: An earlier version of this column referred to a columnist by her first name. It has been updated to reflect Daily style.