NEW YORK — Israeli student Ofir Dayan sat behind a large wooden table on the Columbia University campus last week with a sign behind her reading: “Jews are indigenous to the Land of Israel. Change my mind.”
No one was really going to convince her the statement was false. “The sign is more of a conversation starter,” Dayan tells Haaretz. “And it has indeed started some great conversations.”
The daughter of Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general in New York, she is the president of the Columbia chapter of Students Supporting Israel — an organization aiming to serve as a “pro-Israel voice on campus that strengthens the Zionist community.”
Last week, SSI organized its biannual Hebrew Liberation Week — the group’s response to Israeli Apartheid Week, which is dedicated to promoting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on campuses worldwide.
Dayan and other members of her organization set up shop on one of the campus’ central lawns, displaying their logo and some artwork relating to Zionism and the Jewish people.
Only 200 meters (660 feet) away, across the university’s main walkway, Students for Justice in Palestine have set up a rival display: A mock wall that represents the West Bank separation barrier.
“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children,” part of the Palestinian display proclaims. “End Israeli Apartheid,” is written on another. Around the outdoor exhibit, SJP members wearing kaffiyehs (a head scarf symbolizing Palestinian nationalism) hand out flyers and engage passersby, vocally condemning Israel as a colonial oppressor.
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They are reluctant to talk to an Israeli newspaper. “We are very scared that [our words] will be misconstrued,” one of the students promoting Apartheid Week says, offering an explanation for the group’s blanket refusal to be interviewed.
When approached again for a statement, the group requested to see your correspondent’s previous work, as a “procedure [they] follow when deciding if [they] would like to conduct an interview as a group.”
Across the walkway, Ofir Dayan admits that seeing the rival display outrages her.
“I’m not going to lie,” she says, “the attendance at their events is significantly larger than for ours. During the week, too, they have many more people approaching them than we have approaching us, and people identify with them a lot more than with us.
“It’s something we are trying to change, but it’s not simple — especially in this university, which is know for the dichotomy that everything is very black and white,” she adds. “There is no understanding that some issues are a bit more complex than that.”
By organizing Hebrew Liberation Week at the same time as the apartheid-themed event, the pro-Israel students hope to present supporting arguments for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and familiarize students with the connection between Jews and the Land of Israel.
“Unfortunately it’s something that is constantly being challenged here on campus,” notes Dayan, who in the New York Post last year criticized the university’s leadership for not protecting pro-Israel students.
“When you talk about Israel here at Columbia — and unfortunately in many other universities — the question is not if Israel is good or bad; Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] or not Judea and Samaria; Golan Heights or not Golan Heights,” she says. “The question here is: Does Israel have a right to exist? So what we are doing here is mainly answering that point.”
Dayan stresses she recognizes “there are Palestinians who are suffering,” and “that the State of Israel could be doing things differently. But I also recognize that putting all the blame, or even most of the blame, on Israel is inaccurate,” she says.
Last week was the peak of Students Supporting Israel’s annual activities. Dayan says her goal is not to convince students to be pro-Israel, but to explain “it is not a crazy thing that Jews live where they live in the Land of Israel,” and that the issue has two sides.
“My country is not just a conflict [zone]; there is so much more to it than just a conflict,” she says.
“We don’t take sides in U.S. politics or in Israeli politics, and we are not a Jewish group either: We have Jewish and non Jewish members,” she says. “The idea is that as long as the question on campuses is whether Israel even has a right to exist, we don’t have the privilege of dealing with specific policies, or if we support Bibi [Netanyahu] or [Benny] Gantz.”
A few steps away from Dayan, Erica Nieves sits at another SSI table with her peers. She says she joined SSI “by chance” in 2017, after her LGBT group needed another group to work alongside. “I know Israel is up there when it comes to LGBT rights, so I went to their table, asked for a collaboration or just to talk to someone, and the rest is history and I’m here,” she explains.
Nieves, who is of Puerto Rican descent, says she feels at home in the pro-Israel group.
“I know there is a lot of anti-Semitism on this campus — and unfortunately I’ve witnessed it,” she says. “Some of the things I’ve heard are just outrageous and the thing is there is a double standard when it comes to what [Students for Justice in Palestine members] see as racist.”
Out of curiosity, Nieves and Dayan were among several SSI members who attended a Students for Justice in Palestine lecture during Israeli Apartheid Week.
“The professor said that Hebrew was a made-up language — and if someone said that about the Spanish language, I would be furious, the whole university would be furious,” Nieves says. “But the students there were not furious.
“I take issue with that because, if you are going to be there for marginalized communities, you have to be there for all marginalized communities — not just certain ones that fit your agenda or that happen to look like they could be oppressed because they have a different skin color,” Nieves says.
For four days last week, both groups’ displays attracted people who stopped by for conversations that sometimes become very heated.
“By your definition, are Palestinians also indigenous to the land?” a Palestinian student asks Dayan. This question sparks a respectful conversation, at the end of which the two shake hands. But Dayan says this isn’t always how these interactions unfold.
“Basically, it’s divided into three: There are people who are legitimately not aware of what’s happening; there are people coming to scream that I’m a Nazi and a terrorist, and then go away; and there are people, like [the Palestinian student who just approached her] who obviously disagree but at least they listen.”