Imagine, for a moment, a seminar convened by some innocuously named student group: Bruins for Saving the Planet, or some-such. Imagine that at the front of the hall, speaking as guests and experts, are the CEOs of Exxon, BP and Chevron. Imagine that they give exactly the lecture one would expect: blithely dismissing the academic consensus that their industry’s activities are leading to massive climate change; asserting their industry is harmless; dismissing whatever “small problems” there may be, but insisting they’ve got them under control.
Such an event would rightly be dismissed as propaganda. The judgment would be near-unanimous.
Shift the mind back to reality; one need not imagine. When the topic at hand is the oppression of Palestinians, such events are not only commonplace at UCLA and other universities, but they can even go unchallenged.
Twice in the past two weeks, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law has invited Israeli soldiers to speak as experts and honored guests. The Israeli army administers the world’s longest-standing military occupation; it perpetrates a brutal and illegal siege of Gaza; and it is repeatedly condemned by the international community for egregious human rights abuses. No matter – the Brandeis Center and its campus partners see fit to host soldiers of that army as lecturers and forum-leaders. Such events distort the political discourse around Palestine by promoting a propagandized version of past and present – one that holds Palestinian rights and persons in contempt. But these events do individual harm as well: They are a form of intimidation against those students who have personally suffered, or whose families have suffered, at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces.
The human facts of the Israeli occupation are not in dispute. Since 2008, the IDF has subjected Gaza to periodic bombings; the most recent, in 2014, left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead (among them 538 children) and about 11,000 injured. Thirteen public and 17 private hospitals were destroyed or damaged; Amnesty International found that Israel deliberately targeted medical facilities. The IDF shelled U.N.-operated schools and shelters. All major human rights organizations – Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – have alleged that the IDF committed war crimes. It will take decades for Gaza to rebuild – Israel controls the borders, strictly regulating the importation of food and raw materials. Meanwhile, in the occupied West Bank, Israel pursues a path of colonial settlement, displacing Palestinian farmers from their land and carrying out regular reprisals against the population. Tear gas, rubber-coated metal bullets and random arrest are the daily reality in the West Bank; since the beginning of October, soldiers and police have killed 64 Palestinians, injuring many more.
This history is not easy to defend. Instead, soldier-guests seek to deny and distract. The Brandeis Center’s most recent soldier-led seminar presented an IDF that exists only in the imagination. While the guests spoke anecdotally about their professional lives in the IDF, none attempted to ground their claims in fact. Those claims – that the IDF is “the most moral army in the world” and “puts life first” – would seem laughably unhinged were they not so pernicious. But their goal is serious: to deny the present and history of the occupation, exchanging facts for a narrative favorable to the IDF. That narrative, however, is inevitably racist at its foundation. The logic goes like this: If the IDF is the “most moral army in the world,” then the bulk of its actions must be ethical. Violence against the Palestinians, then, must be justified by denigrating their rights and character; the ethical army does not treat them as human, and therefore they must be lesser. This racism was quick to expose itself at the Brandeis Center, with one soldier-medic readily admitting his belief that the protection of Israel required the violation of Palestinian rights.
Soldier-led seminars defraud the truth and spread racism among their audiences. They create a dangerous atmosphere for Palestinian students, discouraging them from participating in campus discourse at all. For the purpose of honest, egalitarian discourse, they are an intellectual disaster. So we are only left to wonder: Why is the Brandeis Center so desperate to justify Israel’s apartheid regime and war crimes that they invite apologists of the worst kind to our campus?