Last night’s SSMU General Assembly motion brought an ugly and ongoing conflict back to the surface. And it is time that we talk about the unjust and disproportionate aggression faced by thousands of students on campus.
Much happened in the aftermath of the invasion of Gaza in late December 2008 by Israeli forces: Gaza’s irrevocable damage; an unabashedly overconfident Israel finding itself at the receiving end of a barrage of international condemnation; the Goldstone Report and the growth of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement. Yet perhaps the most striking aftershock, for us here, was the conversion of the McGill campus into a second front for Operation Cast Lead, with shells of identity politics being cast upon all those who dared to speak out against Israeli aggression.
February 2009: I pushed through the doors of Redpath, my body welcoming the accompanying brief breath of warmth. I headed downstairs to grab a quick coffee and joined two friends, Sarah and Ayesha, in the overcrowded cafeteria. Interested in Ayesha’s perspective as a Sri Lankan Muslim, I brought up the issue of the conflict in Sri Lanka. This conversation was taking place during the days leading up to the now infamous February 5 General Assembly and all three of us had found ourselves frustrated with the whispered segregation taking place between students. We needed something else to discuss.
The response from Ayesha consisted of a smirk and a roll of the eyes.
Ayesha admitted that the Sinhalese Buddhist government did not treat its minority population most preferably, but argued that the Tamils did not appreciate the state’s attempts to bring them onto an equal footing. The government had to do what it had to do to keep the country together and safe from a terrorist organization. With this justification as a foundation, she insinuated that the killing of thousands of Tamils was not tantamount to genocide: they were just, albeit unfortunately, collateral damage. They also seemed to forget that they were being used as human shields by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Genocide, as a claim, was just in vogue.
These words sounded all too familiar – I felt as though I was sitting across from a hijab-clad Zionist.
As I pushed further, she began to struggle with her words. How did she see the slaughter of the Palestinians as genocide but not of the Tamils?
“I just…I just can’t imagine my society doing something like that.”
And just like that an epiphany struck Sarah and me. Ayesha was unable to fathom how her society – consisting of people just like her and her family – could be involved in the slaughter of another people.
All of a sudden the Armenian-genocide-denying Turks, Darfuri-genocide-denying Arabs, and Zionists I had argued with had become humanized in an almost vulnerable sense. For a fleeting moment, I understood, without any anger, why my arguments with such individuals never really went anywhere other than exasperated gasps and frustrated fleeing.
Their denial of such atrocities cannot be forgiven; an injustice is an injustice regardless of circumstance. The support for any injustice is support against all of justice. But, again, for that moment I finally understood how deniers of atrocities could deny what they did. Denial of atrocities, especially when they are linked strongly to a national, religious, or ethnic identity, is a dissociation of the self’s complicity in any sinful doing. To accept the wrong committed is to accept that there is something somewhat deficient, in an indeed peculiar way, with oneself in terms of self-identification and history.
And that admittance is terrifying.
And here we are again, a year later, back to playing on our identity. Last night’s General Assembly ended up being nothing more than a showcase of passionate identity politics. In particular, it reminded us that there is a high level of intolerance on campus regarding the issue of Palestine. The mere mention of the occupation of Palestine, which is illegal and a clear violation of human rights, created uproar and a campaign that claimed that the motion was demonizing Israel.
Last year’s motion, which asked SSMU to condemn Israeli attacks against schools during the Gaza invasion, was a motion that had Israel as its focus. No one denied this. This year’s motion put forward by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), however, was focused on social corporate responsibility, on expanding the Financial Ethics Review Committee’s mandate, using the Occupied Palestinian Territories as the example of a human rights violation, which it is. The fact that the preamble in the motion, which mentioned the Occupied Territories, created the sort of outcry and controversy that it did is most unfortunate and deplorable.
The fact that an SPHR member’s Facebook account was hacked into, and subsequently, that the event supporting the motion was cancelled with false information about the GA spread to over 2,000 people is disgusting. Are we not above this? Or, are we so subordinate to our identities that we lose rationality and any sense of fairness and justice?
It’s time to close the second front of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here on campus. We need to stop militarizing our minds and our words. Student support against Israeli aggression and occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories must continue – Israel is not being singled out for human rights abuses or breach of international law. Supporters of Tibet are not told that they are singling out China. Supporters of Iranian homosexuals are not told they are singling out Iran. A wrong is a wrong is a wrong. This continued attempt to shut down any small public debate on any issue even mentioning Palestine or Israel – which must always be discussed behind closed doors, it seems, between deceivingly congenial club executives – is a form of mental violence being fuelled by the irrationality of identity politics.
Enough is enough.
Sana Saeed writes in this space every week. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.