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Columbia Student Groups Battle Over MLK, Israel

One side sees a call for peace, the other a defense of ‘genocide’

Daniella Greenbaum Davis
March 27, 2015

Anger. Shock. Frustration. Confusion. Outrage. Hurt.

These are just some of the feelings that overwhelmed me Wednesday night when I read the statement issued by Columbia University Black Students’ Organization accusing the pro-Israel campus organization Aryeh, on whose executive board I serve, of co-opting the “black liberation struggle for the purpose of genocide.”

Let me back up.

Every year, the Columbia chapter of Students For Justice in Palestine selects a week and declares it “Israel Apartheid Week.” They build a mock apartheid wall on campus and try to convince the student body that Israel is an apartheid state. Every year the pro-Israel community responds.

Usually, Aryeh (formerly LionPAC), Columbia’s largest pro-Israel student group, reserves space on College Walk, a well-trafficked area in the center of campus, to table and explain why SJP’S claims are factually incorrect. This year, though, SJP managed to book all the space on College Walk, leaving us unable to participate in this aspect of the campus discussion.

Without our usual outlet, we had to find a new way to share our message. On Tuesday morning we published an op-ed dismissing the claim of Israel Apartheid in the Columbia Spectator. The night before, more than 80 pro-Israel students covered the campus with 6,000 fliers.

While most of the fliers have been vandalized or torn down, one in particular provoked a strong—and inflammatory—response. Aryeh printed a flier with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. alongside a quote from his 1968 address to a rabbinical assembly. The quote read:

“We must stand with all our might to protect [Israel’s] right to exist, its territorial integrity, and the right to use whatever sea lanes it needs. Israel is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of […] how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality”

The response published on Facebook by the Columbia Black Students’ Organization was not only shocking, but offensive, discriminatory, and incorrect.

The organization, the statement explained, was writing in response to our flier campaign, “to condemn their co-optation of Black liberation struggle for the purposes of genocide and oppression,” and to show their support for Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, another pro-BDS student group.

The statement continued,

While we as an organization also acknowledge that Black and Jewish people also share a history of oppression, we understand that zionism has no place in our solidarity and, thus, we cannot and will not excuse the actions of the Israeli state and their acts of discrimination, segregation, and genocide.

The accusation of co-opting the black liberation struggle is a serious one. To answer it simply: we directly quoted King, a figure we all agree is an authority on the black liberation struggle.

But the most abhorrent part of the CUBSO statement is its total misunderstanding and misuse of the term genocide, and its callous disregard for Jewish history and the role that Zionism plays in it.

Genocide is defined as “the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group” and “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” Accusing Israel of committing genocide is hyperbolic and untrue.

CUBSO represents a huge population on campus. To see this organization take a blatantly anti-Zionist stance is frightening and hurtful. It would be one thing for CUBSO to comment on current Israeli policy, but their statement is a blanket disregard of Zionism and, essentially, dismisses Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

What’s shocking is that the CUBSO post received more than 700 “likes” on Facebook. To every person who “liked” the status, please understand that what you have just publicly endorsed is a disregard of Jewish history, an inappropriate and offensive misappropriation of terms, and a disturbing expression of anti-Zionism.

Today, I’m disappointed in my campus. I hope the Columbia student body sees through this hateful rhetoric and makes their feelings known to CUBSO.

Daniella Greenbaum is a sophomore at Barnard College. She is director of engagement for the student group Aryeh and was a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Daniella Greenbaum Davis is a writer living in New York. Follow her @Dgreenbaum.