From the Editors: The Spectator Needs to Raise Its Editorial Standards
Among the many newsworthy events that hit Columbia’s campus last fall, one incident stood out—not because of its shock value but rather due to its sheer predictability. This past November, the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (C-SJP) simulated West Bank checkpoints on Low Plaza. The goal, as one C-SJP member told the Columbia Daily Spectator, was to “portray what Palestinian students go through on a daily basis.” Subsequently, the Columbia/Barnard Hillel staged a counter-demonstration on the sundial emphasizing the “complicated” dimensions of the checkpoint issue and condemning the “provocative” nature of C-SJP’s approach. Eventually, the two sides clashed—literally—in the middle of College Walk, leading to an all-out verbal slugfest that proved as unproductive as it was entertaining.
These demonstrations are nothing new, and the issue that sparked Hillel’s counterargument against C-SJP—the latter’s refusal for dialogue—should also come as no surprise. Indeed, C-SJP has run a campaign against dialogue for some time. In its place, C-SJP has preferred bombastic and extreme methods of awareness. Explaining the construction of a mock Gazan wall during its Israel Apartheid Week last year, one C-SJP member told the Spectator, “Remaining ignorant of the wall or writing it off as a mere security apparatus is offensive and is one of the main reasons why Israel Apartheid Week members have chosen to erect the wall rather than engage in dialogue toward ‘peace.’ ” By tearing down the wall, C-SJP believes peace can “be established in its wake.” Constructive dialogue, in contrast, does nothing toward this effort.
One may ponder the reason behind C-SJP’s dichotomization of dialogue and public demonstration (not to mention their fatuous claim that ignorance is “offensive”). Even members of C-SJP explain their reasoning with some hesitance. During a conversation with another Current editor at the checkpoint display, one C-SJP member stumbled before claiming that it considers programs with other groups, including Hillel, on a case-by-case basis. Minutes later, another C-SJP member approached the editor and said outright that it will not co-sponsor an event with Hillel because of its Zionist affiliations (C-SJP believes Zionism is “naturally racist”). Thus, dialogue of any kind would prove utterly impossible.
It would be a mistake to think, however, that because C-SJP eschews dialogue it refuses to talk at all. On the contrary, C-SJP has found an outlet in one particular campus publication: the Spectator. In addition to the slew of articles, mostly opinion pieces, written about the checkpoint demonstration and other on-campus occurrences, The Eye—the “weekly features and arts magazine” of the Spectator—featured an essay about C-SJP’s opposition to dialogue regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the article, C-SJP offered a smorgasbord of reasons for resisting dialogue, including the classic “Zionism is racist” refrain as well as the issue of fair media presentation:
“If [media] coverage were already a little bit more balanced, if our narrative were already given a little more weight publicly, then a debate would make a little more sense for us. But when the Palestinian voice isn’t even acknowledged at all…then it becomes our priority to make sure they are presented first.”
But the issue here does not necessarily concern the Spectator’s own articles about C-SJP. Rather, by publishing a series of unprecedented op-ed pieces that advances C-SJP’s anti-Israel agenda, the Spectator has become the bullhorn for its misguided humanitarian and political objectives.
The main problem with the C-SJP op-eds surrounds their tenuous connection with anything Columbia-related. The first, published on October 12, 2010 and written by anthropology graduate student Dina Omar, criticizes the university’s affiliation with the Israel study abroad program MASA. The piece offers an inventive yet inane exegesis of the MASA slogan “Explore What’s Yours.” Omar claims, for example, that the word “explore” is “insensitive” because—by suggesting “adventure as if the land is an uncharted frontier for Jewish students to discover, claim, and stake out as their own”—MASA thereby encourages Jews to visit Israel and subsequently expel Palestinians. Omar, however, does not provide any evidence to support her claims. Nowhere does she demonstrate how college students on a study abroad trip to Israel have anything to do with “expelling or marginalizing” its Palestinian population, nor does she explain how such a trip will lead to “the erasure of Palestine.”
At a closer glance, then, Omar’s rant against Columbia’s affiliation with MASA has more to do with her personal anti-Israel sentiment than anything affecting the Columbia community directly. Omar does not consider that some supporters of Israel may not approve of the current Israeli government and its policies, but by invoking C-SJP buzzwords like “racist” and “colonialist” she evades that responsibility. Moreover, despite the Spectator’s disclaimer that her writing “does not represent the official views of SJP,” she conveys the very principles and rhetoric articulated by the aforementioned C-SJP members.
Five days later, the Spectator printed another op-ed written by a C-SJP member, this one about the forthcoming visit of Palestinian Liberation Organization ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat to Columbia. In the wake of renewed Israeli settlement construction in the West Back, the writer, Alaa Milbes, condemns Areikat and the Palestinian Authority for engaging in “farcical negotiations” with Israel and the United States. According to Milbes, Israeli “inhabitants” of the West Bank “have rained terror on Palestinians since the beginning of the occupation.” Milbes also believes that the key for a two-state solution—returning the entire West Bank to the Palestinians—is “simple.” However, because of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unwillingness to negotiate about settlement freezes, the two-state solution has drifted farther away.
By reducing this centuries-old conflict to a “simple” solution and blaming years of failed negotiations entirely on unilateral Israeli aggression, Milbes rehashes Omar’s highly circumspect reasoning (although here the disclaimer from Omar’s op-ed is conspicuously absent). This is not to say that the current Israeli government does not warrant criticism for its decision-making; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has persisted because of problems on both sides. But neither Omar nor Milbes demonstrate any willingness to address the complexities of these issues. Instead of viewing this conflict as the nuanced one it is, they simplify it to an offensive degree.
The Spectator even printed an op-ed written by C-SJP as a whole explaining all the other pieces written about it, specifically the Eye article mentioned earlier. Despite the myriad direct quotes from C-SJP representatives included by the Eye’s reporter, C-SJP felt it needed more ink and paper to explain its view that dialogue “shifts the focus away from Israel-Palestine and onto our campus.” Instead of dialogue, C-SJP has chosen to focus on opposing the “process of ethnic cleansing” that Israel allegedly supports, although it never explains how this “ethnic cleansing” has occurred.
The Spectator can write any disclaimer it wants, but the C-SJP op-eds do not belong in it. Their dubious ties to campus-related events and issues belie their actual agenda, which is both hateful and intellectually lazy.
This does not mean that Hillel’s pro-Israel groups have rights that C-SJP does not, although the Spectator appears to have accepted Hillel’s own pieces—mostly retorts to the C-SJP articles—purely out of a weak attempt to foster balanced journalism. But for the Spectator, a newspaper dedicated first and foremost to issues pertaining to the Columbia and Morningside Heights communities, to publish extraneous pieces that rely on empty phrases and unfounded generalizations illustrates not merely poor judgment and editorial deficiency. It reveals a lack of intellectual discipline.
The Spectator’s obsession with C-SJP comes as a greater surprise given the cuts it has made to its printed content. As one former Spectator editor told me, recent budget constraints and the appearance of Spectrum, the Spectator blog, have forced the paper to make significant changes regarding its daily printed content. This has led to, among other things, a constriction of the Arts & Entertainment section to three days a week. Why, then, must the Spectator devote so much space instead to a group whose interests are narrow and short-sighted, whose ideology spouts hatred instead of the compassion one would expect from a “humanitarian” group, and whose rhetoric shies away from “dialogue” and instead prefers blanket accusations?
C-SJP’s continued resistance to dialogue and its blatantly anti-Israel sentiments are to be expected, but the Spectator’s willingness to print its offensive material is not. By giving C-SJP this amount of attention in one semester alone, the Spectator has amplified the words of a group who paradoxically favors action over talk. As a newspaper dedicated (hopefully) to fostering good journalism, the new Spectator editorial board should be more considerate when evaluating what it publishes.
Editor in Chief
*A footnoted version of this article is available by request at [email protected]
SAM KERBEL, GS/JTS ‘11, can be reached at [email protected]