Schwalb: Jewish students should engage in campus activism beyond Israel-Palestine


Jessica Schwalb, Columnist

A banner with the words “From Palestine to Mizzou, We Have Nothing to Lose But Our Chains,” hung outside the Black House as protesters stood in solidarity with students at Missouri and across the country last November. It was one of the enduring images of this Fall Quarter for Northwestern students.

This quarter, Unshackle NU and Northwestern Divest joined for a rally in front of The Rock. Weinberg junior Marcel Hanna, a member of NU Divest and Unshackle NU, told The Daily the demonstration was intended to show “how our campaigns’ struggles are linked.”

“We want to show how the inhumane treatment of the prison-industrial complex both here (in the U.S.) and in Israel and Palestine treats the detainees and how they’re stripped of their human rights,” he said.

I thought I had a clear picture of campus activism and liberalism before arriving at NU. However, I soon discovered a complication in my idealized version of activism at NU; I was going to have to wrestle with involvement and intersectionality. How was I, as a Jewish student, going to navigate supporting organizations like Unshackle NU which were linked with NU Divest, a movement with which I wasn’t sure I aligned with?

I certainly overestimated the simplicity of campus politics. Having arrived in the wake of last winter’s successful ASG divestment resolution, I began to understand that our campus is profoundly split. Even pro-Palestinian Jews expressed to me that they often felt last year’s divisive divestment vote left them unsure of how to proceed in campus activism.

Students for Justice in Palestine and NU Divest have rarely hosted events with Jewish groups this year, which stifles any opportunity for productive dialogue. Self-segregation means members of the two camps rarely interact, even socially. But this separation goes both ways — Jewish students and groups must seek to reenter campus activism.

The fact that Unshackle NU’s prison divestment resolution, which ASG will vote on Wednesday, is endorsed by NU Divest may complicate Jewish students’ support for the resolution. However, in practicing allyship, Jewish students should not disavow Unshackle NU’s resolution simply because it mentions Palestine. Expressing solidarity against the mass incarceration of black Americans does not require that Jewish students agree with all parts of the resolution.

There is ample precedent and justification (a shared history of diaspora, slavery and discrimination) for Jewish involvement and support for black civil rights. American Jews have a history of involvement with social justice: Jews helped found the NAACP in 1909, held leadership positions in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and represented more than half of white Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer activists.

Anti-Semitism runs rampant throughout U.S. history and certainly still exists, but today Jews have been largely absorbed into white American identity; we now hold the privileges that come with whiteness, further reason to think critically about racial injustice. Complex campus politics about Israel should not deter us from engaging on this issue.

Students should not abstain from dialogue about other campus issues simply due to the polarizing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Allyship often requires we set aside parts of our political profiles to support a worthy cause: in this case, the goal of ending NU’s investment in mass incarceration.

NU Divest’s success has polarized Jewish students on campus, many who now choose not to participate in activism that features anti-Israel rhetoric. This is not the solution. In the hopes of more productive dialogue, in the hopes of conversation that crosses political principles, Jewish students must find a way to engage in campus activism, not shy away from it.

Jessica Schwalb is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.