By Sharon Rosen Leib
Etiquette dictates that one should never discuss politics or religion in polite company. To do so runs the risk of offending people one wants to get along with and/or impress. As a left-leaning-Berkeley-post-hippie type (yes, I wear lots of tie-dye and sandals), I’m generally not a big stickler on the finer points of etiquette. However, the wisdom of the no politics and religion bromide hit home when Oldest Daughter and I toured Bard, a small, well-regarded liberal arts college in New York.
Someone in our parent/prospective college student tour group of 20 asked our student guide Will, an earnest, bearded, brown-corduroy-wearing, junior philosophy major from Vermont, “What kind of student groups or clubs are big on campus?”
“The Students for a Just Peace in Israel-Palestine is really big now,” Will said.
His semantics, particularly his use of the “P” word, set off mental alarm bells. What did he mean by Palestine? Was he referring to the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Was he implying the existence of a Palestinian nation-state? Was Bard a strident, anti-Israel kind of place?
“Is there a politically correct mindset here? Do students tolerate each others’ opinions and politics?” I asked.
“We respect opposing views and challenge each other’s assumptions in a civilized way,” he said. I breathed a sigh of relief. But his use of the word Palestine still rankled me. Wasn’t he making the assumption that Palestine is a legitimate political entity? How can he consider Palestine legit when Hamas, the ruling party in the Gaza Strip, operates as a terrorist organization continually lobbing rockets at Israel and refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist?
I’m all for a peaceful two-state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. But first, ALL Palestinians must recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce terrorism.
I resolved to keep an open mind and listen to what Will said about Bard’s academic programs, small class sizes and dorm life. I focused on the aesthetic beauty of this park-like campus, replete with rolling grassy fields and patches of forest — a majestic setting far removed from the gritty complexities of Middle Eastern politics. How could students in this most ivory of towers really know about the hard realities of Israeli life? Did they realize Israelis their age must serve in the military to defend their country’s right to exist?
Will guided us into a classroom and ushered us into seats around a long oak conference table. “This is how we conduct most of our classes — discussion style with the professor asking questions to encourage student participation.” The intimacy of this method of learning impressed me. At small liberal arts colleges, professors actually teach and get to know their students.
I was jolted out of my isn’t-this-wonderful reverie when a prospective student asked Will, “What type of study abroad opportunities does Bard offer?”
“Not too many students go abroad. But we do have a great new program at Al-Quds University in Palestine,” Will said. Oh no, not the P word again! I couldn’t take it.
“By Palestine do you mean the West Bank?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, we’d never send anyone to Gaza. It’s too unstable and dangerous.”
This irked me again. Will bandied the term Palestine about as if every one knows that Palestine exists as a legitimate political entity. By doing so, he ran the risk of offending parents and prospective students with different viewpoints on the Israeli/Palestinian peace process.
I knew that Will, a well-meaning, somewhat naive college student, didn’t intend to alienate anyone by talking about Palestine. He didn’t realize that references to Palestine might turn people off. But if this troubled me, how might it affect my most vociferous pro-Israel friends? For some people, Will’s casual allusions to Palestine would be a deal-breaker. They wouldn’t want their kid to attend a school where the tour guide took the legitimate existence of Palestine as a given.
So I decided to call Will’s unfortunate references to the attention of an admission’s officer. She explained to me that Bard’s president is Jewish and that Bard is proud of its efforts to promote peace in the Middle East by building bridges and helping improve the quality of education for Palestinians. I’m all for these noble goals and told her so. But I also told her that semantics and context matter. One has to be careful about using the “P” word in polite company. Especially when this company is considering where to send its precious sons and daughters bearing high-priced tuition payments.
(Later, I did a little research on Bard’s partnership with Al-Quds University. Bard’s official visitor’s guide refers to Al-Quds University as located in East Jerusalem, and NOT Palestine. Thank goodness for that!)