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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Letter to the Editor: Why is it so hard to talk about Palestine?

Courtesy of Anna Feder

To my Emerson College community,

I want to frame this editorial by saying that I am a proud Jew. It is a core part of my identity and the way that I have walked through this world for over 46 years. I spent seven years in Jewish day schools, did a stint as the Jewish Affairs editor at my college newspaper, and (regrettably) participated in a Birthright trip. I am also an anti-Zionist and oppose the apartheid state of Israel that used landmines to blow up Israa University, the last institution of higher learning in Gaza. 

I should feel comfortable showing up on campus with all of my identities honored and respected—something laid out by the college in what they call “non-negotiable values,” including “respect and equal treatment for all people of all backgrounds, orientations [and] beliefs.” 

I have never felt more connected to my Jewishness and the call to tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” than when standing in solidarity with my Palestinian friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

(Courtesy of Ray Bishop)

I have been watching the climate on college campuses around the country with increasing alarm. Attacks on education have been par for the course in states like Florida, where Ron DeSantis directed state schools to ban chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that, according to their statement of purpose, “seeks to empower, unify, and support student organizers as they push forward demands for Palestinian liberation & self-determination on their campuses.” 

These attacks on the right of student expression are also happening just a few miles away. Brandeis University banned its chapter of SJP, and one state over, Columbia University suspended an SJP chapter as well as a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, for which they are being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Here at Emerson, I hope we won’t succumb to the kinds of maneuvering aimed at shutting down discourse in support of Palestine. At the start of the semester, the administration released a caveat to free expression, titled Presidential Statement on Campus Speech and Rhetoric.

In response to this document, the Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine, of which I am a member, asked for clarification on several points in an email to President Jay Bernhardt. After almost a month, and on the eve of a Feb. 28 discussion at the faculty assembly, we received a response that fails to address the substantive concerns we raised and which I will echo here. 

The statement starts with an idea that I hope we can all endorse. Having dedicated my career to building community and conversation through the Bright Lights Cinema Series, I am in full agreement with the values of “social justice and free expression.”  I hosted one of the few spaces for a conversation on Zionism that has been permitted.  We welcomed all identities for last month’s screening of “Israelism,” which was a resounding success. I also applaud the very noble goal of “protecting all Emersonians from bias, threats, and intimidation.” However, I do have concerns about a few crucial points that are not clearly defined.

The president’s statement reads: “We have zero tolerance for Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or any form of identity-based harassment in our community.”

How does the administration define “Anti-Semitism”? This is an important question in light of definitions that characterize any criticism of the state of Israel as anti-semitic, such as the one by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance pushed by the Anti-Defamation League and adopted by some colleges. The Jerusalem Declaration provides an alternate definition of anti-semitism as “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)” with clear caveats that “evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state” are not anti-semitic. This definition has been widely adopted by scholars for “providing clear guidance to identify and fight anti-semitism while protecting free expression.” 

As an academic institution, we should take a stand against the attacks on other academic institutions, whether that’s the destruction of higher learning institutions in Gaza or the rights of free speech among students, faculty, and staff here at home.

The president’s statement continues to say that: “Explicit calls for physical violence against people or groups based on their religious, national, or other protected identities are not consistent with our values or community standards.”

On its face, this is certainly an idea that should be easy to support. However, given what I’ve witnessed on other campuses, it raises some important questions: What is considered a “call for physical violence?” Who determines this? And what are the repercussions for violating this policy? There is a significant amount of disingenuous framing of several slogans used by those who are aligned with the movement in support of Palestinian freedom as a call for violence. 

What person or body determines what speech falls into this category and therefore is “not protected by our Statement on Freedom of Expression?” 

As a person of conscience committed to the care and well-being of all members of the Emerson College community, I am deeply invested in the “functioning of the College as a safe environment for students and other community members.” However, I am also concerned that without clarity, oversight, and a transparent process, such rhetoric could be used to silence members of our community who have a right to express political beliefs—even those that may not be endorsed by the administration. 

I would love to see the administration of the institution where I have built my career of almost 17 years take a clear stand in protecting freedom of speech and expression. I want assurances that I will not be disciplined when I join our students gathering in the streets around Boylston and Tremont, adding my voice to theirs when they say a prayer for peace, for a future in which there is one state with equality for citizens of all ethnoracial backgrounds: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Anna Feder is the Head of Film Exhibition and Festival Programs, affiliated faculty, a steward in the Emerson staff union, a member of Emerson Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace in Rhode Island.

View Comments (15)

Comments (15)

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  • M

    Mitchell / Apr 7, 2024 at 2:06 pm

    It frightens me that this individual is empowered to mis-educate our nation’s youth. Such a lack of historical understanding and moral clarity! All the more troublesome that she is exploiting her own Judaism to give support and comfort to those that would deny the Jewish people self-expression and self-determination. Maybe she should read SJP’s “toolkit” before questioning the President’s statement on “explicit calls for violence.” Alas, she has no understanding of what “from the river to the sea” really envisions, even though the world witnessed it first hand on October 7. It must be nice living in her impregnable ivory tower.

  • A

    Alex Lang / Mar 5, 2024 at 6:41 pm

    Thank you for sharing! I wish for safety and freedom for the people of Palestine.

  • A

    Amiri / Mar 4, 2024 at 12:45 pm

    Lovely article, thank you!

  • D

    david bloom / Mar 2, 2024 at 3:46 pm

    Where were the new champions of free speech when Turning Point USA was banned from campus a couple of years ago?

    Will Feder et al support in the future the expression of “problematic” opinions very different than their own?

  • B

    Brynna Bloomfield / Mar 1, 2024 at 1:09 pm

    Adding to my comments, we would all benefit from collectively defining the meaning behind the statement, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
    I know many students envision this statement to mean that all people – Jews, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, etc. – will live together in the lands called Israel and Palestine.
    The problem is the vast difference between what this means to well-meaning Westerners and what it means to actual indigenous dwellers in the ME, including Jews (whom we must accept are also indigenous).
    Currently NO government in the region supports or encourages a vision of a peaceful, shared, wonderland. The Hamas government and Hezbollah, as well as their support structure in Iran clearly state that the land must be free of Jews.
    So there is that impediment, and it is huge enough to reduce the “Free Palestine” vision to magical thinking.
    Instead, most Israelis, Israeli Palestinians (who are citizens of Israel) and peaceful Palestinians in the occupied West Bank favor what we call the “Two-State solution”.
    While the 2-state solution has gone through several iterations of envisioning, its source can be traced back to the period before there were no states, and the region was a British Mandate territory.
    There is much to like about two states, not the least of which is that it does not call for the dismantling of the sovereign state that is Israel. For where else do we cry out in numbers for the entire destruction of an established country? Do we ask that North Korea be abolished? We sanction, yes, but we do not reduce an entire population to refugees.
    To reiterate, the current vision for a state called Palestine that encompasses all of Israel as well, is one where even the Author of this article would not be allowed to live in safety.
    This means that my gentle colleague, when calling for, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is either engaging in magical thinking or calling for the destruction of the entire Jewish population of Israel.
    I know many, if not most, justice-minded Emersonians will be surprised at my explanation. As white people must be regularly educated in what constitutes racism, so must non-Jews and secular Jews be educated in Judaeophobia- the fear of, and ignorance about, a tiny people with a long history and a huge impact.

    • N

      Nelli Sargsyan / Mar 1, 2024 at 4:44 pm

      Indeed it will benefit all of us at our educational institution to discuss and define various phrases that have been incompletely understood and uncritically circulated. Israeli historian Ilan Pappé in his different writings defines and explains the phrase in detail and decisively disagrees with you on what you term as “magical thinking” and invites a more capacious, and compassionate way of living on the land. And labeling a thoughtful perspective shared by the author in this article as “misinformation” because their perspective doesn’t align with yours is not exactly a substantive engagement, is it? Notice how you only refer to Palestinians in the occupied territories as “peaceful” and assume it for Israelis citizens. Perhaps questioning the assumptions behind that phrasing will be a good place of engagement with the article.

      • B

        Brynna Bloomfield / Mar 2, 2024 at 8:16 pm

        Thank you for commenting. I am approaching this not from a point of future envisioning, but from where we are as humans in this very moment (as opposed to say, a century from now).
        Currently we are struggling to maintain civil engagement on our campus – a postage-stamp sampling of a small part of the world. Please share what you personally see and experience as evidence that Jews and Arabs can create a shared state in this moment, given the groups roiling on American campuses, where many are far from actual events. Believe me, I would love to be wrong about this, but with the impediments I mention it seems intractable.
        I used the term “misinformation” because there is no mention of Iran and their proxies’ intentions to eradicate the Jews, and this is an important part of the equation if you intend to give Jews a life in the land. It’s a big omission.
        The Torah elucidates a beautiful source for the wisdom of two states: Jacob has left the land of his uncle, Lavan after working for him for many long years without fair compensation. It is time for him to take his family and make his own way. Lavan pursues him and the two end up with camps pitched up on two mountains. The two argue, but the argument is productive and they agree to form a pact. Each erects his own alter. They agree to live apart and not harm one another. It worked, by the way.
        Given that humans have done this already and can successfully hold this type of agreement, the two-state solution is the more plausible. There also has never been evidence that a majority of Palestinians or Israelis even want this.
        Finally, your inference from my omission of the work “peaceful” before “Israelis” reveals that we know nothing of each other. You do not know of the work I’ve done for Palestinians and peace and I know nothing of your visions, hopes, and commitments. Please feel free to reach out via email so that we can learn about and from one another. May our conversations and even our arguments be pathways to understanding.

    • S

      S.S. / Mar 1, 2024 at 5:03 pm

      (This comment has been removed because it does not follow The Berkeley Beacon comment section policies.)

  • B

    Brynna Bloomfield / Mar 1, 2024 at 9:22 am

    While I absolutely agree with any move towards free expression of opinions, we are an educational community and as such should strive to exchange knowledge. In this article, the author demonstrates a lack of knowledge about Judaism. One example is the misapplication of the concept, “Tikkun Olam”. This is sadly a common misconception. Tikkun Olam has nothing to do with the cultural social justice our secular society pursues. Rather, it is a halachic (pertaining to Jewish law) term the Talmud attaches to the keeping of specific laws, including the laws of property ownership and divorce. Later in Jewish history it was used to include laws of prayer and keeping the Sabbath.
    The modern use of the term comes from a great Rabbi of Jewish thought, Jewish law, and a leader in the religious Zionist movement.
    If a Jewish person with minimal Jewish education spreads misinformation, how much more so may this be happening among the greater Christian hegemony? Judaeophobia is in great part of result of ignorance, which leads to fear and mistrust.
    This is why education and knowledge are key for all.

    • I

      Illona / Mar 1, 2024 at 7:32 pm

      Hey, a fellow Jew and an Israeli chiming in to correct one very false statement: ‘Tikun Olam is not about social justice” it absolutely is. It has been the principal use of the term for 200+ years by Jewish scholars. You don’t get to erase Jewish thinking you disagree with. Social justice has always been an integral part of judaism.

      As Rabbi Hillel said 2000 years ago:
      If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

      “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation;[a] go and learn.”

      Speaking of things which are hateful to us, what is happening in Gaza right now is a genocide. Women are having c-sections without anesthesia, half-starved people are huddled in crowded and unsanitary conditions trying to seek shelter from bombings and an invading army that can’t even distinguish between hostile forces and its own hostages waving a white flag.

      So we can debate the meaning of ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free’ but I fear it’s only a distraction from the conversation we are not having.

      • B

        Brynna / Mar 7, 2024 at 3:15 pm

        You honor me by arguing with me, dear Ilona. ישר כח! It’s so in our nature and tradition. So let’s examine your response:
        I am specifically referring to the origin of “Tikkun Olam” in the Talmud and later, in Lurianic writing. To do Tikkun Olam one must observe specific Jewish Laws. It has nothing to do with secular, contemporary social justice. I am not separating Judaism from social justice. I am explaining the real meaning of Tikkun Olam so that these words may be correctly applied.
        I appreciate you adding Hillel. It’s a great point. Hillel’s words are a completely separate concept but yes, important as well.
        We can build on your Hillel reference. The Torah advises us to go out of our way to be kind to people we dislike. This is really hard, but well worth the effort when you succeed at it.
        I like to examine words and concepts because I am a scholar and we are all in a school.
        But I believe these are not just ancient academic ideas, rather, they are words to live by.
        I am not in Gaza or even in Israel. No matter how much I care about this terrible מצב, my first priority is to act kindly and respectfully towards people in close proximity. At the moment, this is you, and I hope I’ve done so in this response.

  • J

    Jim Delaney / Feb 29, 2024 at 10:32 pm

    For all the talk we’ve heard for years about more transparency in so many aspects of Emerson life, this may be the most urgenct transparency concern I’ve seen yet. Well done, raising this questions logically, eloquently, and compassionately. I hope they have the integrity to provide thoughtful answers to your reasonable questions, and to continue this conversation going forward.

  • T

    T. G. / Feb 28, 2024 at 7:52 pm

    Thank you for this letter! As a recent alum, it’s been disheartening to see the college’s response and, often, silence towards what is going on.

    But it’s been a relief to see pockets of faculty and current students supporting the Palestinian people. Please keep up the fight and keep talking about Palestine!

    • A

      Anna Feder / Mar 2, 2024 at 10:20 am

      Thanks for the kind words. There are faculty, staff and students on campus that have been organizing in support of a free Palestine, but the atmosphere has been stifling, as my letter alludes to. Hopefully the tide is turning and we’d love to connect with more alumni in this effort.

      • M

        Mitchell / Apr 7, 2024 at 12:37 pm

        I’m curious what you define as a “free Palestine” and what that means for the millions of Jews born and living there. If you honestly believe that Palestinians will accept “one state with equality for citizens of all ethnoracial backgrounds,” then you haven’t been paying attention for the last 75 years, and you certainly have not learned the lesson of October 7.

        In fact there is only one country in the Middle East with equality for all citizens of all “ethnoracial” backgrounds and religions. It is called Israel.