HARRINGTON: In favor of the mock wall
The creation of the mock wall was an effective way to spark discussion at the University about the Middle East
I walked past the mock wall between Newcomb Hall and Monroe Hall dozens of times the week of February 24, and on each occasion was both bothered by its obnoxious presence and was obliged to pick up a few of its ideas. I was surprised that a brightly painted piece of plywood activism stuck in my mind, compelling me to seek more information on Israeli Apartheid Week and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole.
I wasn’t alone. The wall’s power in its illicit feel of graffiti, accessibility, scale, symbolism of the “separation wall” and simplicity generated much interest for the Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine (SPJP). Many students thanked them for building it and joined their listserv. According to SPJP member and fourth-year Batten student Sara Almousa, it raised awareness among students generally deterred from learning about the conflict “because they feel they don’t know as much…and maybe are too shy to ask or don’t know what to ask.” It was notable enough for the Brody Jewish Center to promptly organize a panel in response. The Cavalier Daily news article covering it was listed as one of the popular stories on the website and has 46 comments; while often emotion-fueled and sarcastic, they are still useful to spark dialogue.
The wall’s inflammatory nature was effective rather than blindly antagonistic. Not all agreed. The same article reported on Hoos for Israel president and third-year College student Jeremy Conover’s disapproval of the wall, an unhappiness beyond simple dissent. He feared that the wall “misinform[ed] students” because it presented information “in a biased way” and did not use “any context.” Conover’s fear is unnecessary, but understandable because the wall served to inform students who may have known little about the conflict.
However, today’s college students are not new to receiving information from a “biased” perspective because of exposure to the “point of view” journalism of blogs and satirical “news” like The Colbert Report. In fact, a 2012 study html demonstrated that teenagers prefer the obvious stance of point-of-view journalism to “objective” news, finding it more genuine and trustworthy. Therefore, students who saw the board knew that it was pro-Palestinian and were capable of evaluating its information as such. The news article’s top comment asks, “Abdel-Qader [the president of SPJP] wants to show how the Palestinians live, but how can we ignore how Israelis live?” This reaction is both logical and useful: the same 2012 study showed that teenagers sought out different perspectives “à la carte” to achieve a clearer understanding of current events, which should be the goal of any group looking to raise awareness. For this reason, presenting information with a pro-Palestinian bias is neither untruthful nor uninformative.
Third-year College student Billy Baker, an intern for J Street, a liberal “pro-peace” organization, also criticized the wall for its use of the word “apartheid.” While he may be correct that the term “inflames emotions and…exacerbates the problems and the differences between the two sides,” the word is still useful for promoting discussion in the University setting. As the use of the term “apartheid” is not a verifiable fact, it forces SPJP to explain why they and other boycott, divestment and sanctions groups think it is applicable; it also enables students to question whether or not the situation replicates an apartheid policy like South Africa’s.
Likewise, the wall’s use of the word “apartheid” drove the Brody Center to explain why it finds its application inappropriate through their “Whatever It Is, It’s Not Apartheid” panel. Furthermore, this strong language demonstrates the differences between viewpoints on the conflict. Just as the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” monikers show the groups’ disagreement over whether abortion is an issue of life or women’s choice, so do the “apartheid wall” and “security fence” terms demonstrate the fundamental debate over whether the generically-termed “separation wall” is accurate or useful. These opportunities to learn should not be stymied for the sake of presenting a singular truth to students.
The wall was more than effective at accomplishing its goal. By displaying the Palestinian flag and cause, it let SPJP assert the Palestinian identity erased in the vandalizing of their Beta Bridge painting two years ago. According to Almousa, the wall acted as the “stepping stone that this group needed in order to awaken its creativity and activism,” as well as allowing future projects to be more successful as their mission is better understood. It forced Hoos for Israel to more actively teach its beliefs, and via SPJP attendance at the Brody Center’s panel, allowed for thoughtful discussion. Almousa also shared that SPJP and J Street may co-sponsor events in the future, a partnership which would have both great symbolic value and potential to facilitate a nuanced dialogue about the conflict. Because if college students cannot be hopeful about Middle Eastern peace, who can be?
Elaine Harrington is a Viewpoint writer.