Representing Your Enemies

The Dangers of Rhetorical Caricatures

By Conrad Jacober

Kenyon has once again been enthralled in a bitter debate about the Israel–Palestine conflict. Such fiery discussion on the issue has become a norm since the founding of Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine (KSJP) and the subsequent creation of Kenyon Students for Israel. However, there are some elements of this discussion that should not become the norm, which concern how we construe and represent our opponents. Although some continually lament how debate leans towards a meta-critique of discourse, such discussion is necessary, especially in light of comments made during the recent debate.

During last Monday’s forum hosted by KSJP, Siwar Al-Quraan ‘17 noted that, “we’re not a threat to the Israeli government.” This point needs to be taken into consideration. Contrary to what some have implicated, KSJP is not seeking the destruction of Israel; rather, KSJP is critiquing the actions of the Israeli state and raising awareness of those actions towards that critique. As far removed as we are here at Kenyon, KSJP poses little to no threat to the Israeli state, and our opponents should rest easy knowing this.

If KSJP’s existence is so immaterial to the Israeli state, what is its purpose on campus? Why raise awareness about the issue of Israeli Apartheid? The concern is that the United States is the Israeli government’s greatest international supporter, proving diplomatic, monetary, and military support to the state of Israel. Thus, next to only the Israeli government itself, the United States is the most implicated in the crime of apartheid – as defined by international law – that is being committed against Palestinians.

Public opinion and social movements play a significant role in the United States; they can even affect U.S. foreign policy at critical moments. In light of this, KSJP’s goal is to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians that is funded by the United States, so as to help turn the tide of public opinion against the blind support and blank checks given to the Israeli state. This necessitates engaging the campus through a multitude of mediums, from art installations to discussion.

Not only do such actions work towards KSJP’s political ends – no matter how small of a part they play in the greater struggle – but also they exercise our purpose here, to be a learning community that fosters critical thinking. As President Decatur said in his April 23 blog post, “A campus free of provocations results only in a sterile and comfortable environment that would run counter to our educational mission.” In this sense, the purpose of KSJP’s wall installation on Middle Path was to raise awareness of the uncomfortable reality that is Palestinian daily life. This sort of awareness of the world is Kenyon’s mission.

Given the importance of discussion and dialogue in this mission to raise awareness, we need to deal with impediments to such discussions, as they work to impede the very mission of the College. In this most recent debate, the greatest impediment has been the vicious representations of members of KSJP by people who consider us the enemy. KSJP did not make personal attacks on people with opposing views, choosing instead to raise awareness on the issue alone; even Hillel director Marc Bragin said in his April 20 allstu email that, “We appreciate their effort in trying not to use hateful language in their criticism of the State of Israel.” Unfortunately, such hateful language is exactly what KSJP faced in return, which has served only to stifle critical discussions.

Professor Adler states in his April 20 allstu email, “As for the treatment of Palestinians in Israel, I agree that in many respects it is ugly. But if they don’t want to be treated like dangerous terrorists, they should simply stop acting like dangerous terrorists.” Beyond the plain and simple victim blaming of an oppressed people, Adler essentializes all Palestinians as terrorists. Such a representation is demonizing, and it dehumanizes Palestinian students at Kenyon and demeans members of KSJP as supporters of terrorism.

KSJP’s goal is to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians that is funded by the United States, so as to help turn the tide of public opinion against the blind support and blank checks given to the Israeli state. This necessitates engaging the campus through a multitude of mediums, from art installations to discussion.

Professor Baumann makes even more explicit this demeaning representation of KSJP as supporters of terrorism, as he states of KSJP in his April 20 allstu email, “Are they most concerned with the difficulties Palestinians suffer in living their lives?… Or are they really just concerned that the fence makes it so hard for terrorists to murder Jews?” Such dehumanizing rhetorical caricatures are dangerous, as they not only lend themselves to the use of violence in some situations, but also they insinuate that their target’s voice can be ignored or even silenced.

The attempt to silence KSJP through rhetorical caricatures is made obvious by Adam Egelman ‘16, who states in his April 23 allstu email, “Your email, and your wall, are like a child throwing a temper tantrum. No one, besides your members, want you on campus.” Egelman makes explicit the implicit purpose of rhetorical caricatures – whether of terrorists or unreasonable children – to silence those who you deem your enemy, to convince others to ignore your enemy. He states in conclusion, “no one’s listening to you anymore.” While far from the truth – given the discussions that KSJP’s installation stirred – Egelman certainly wants it to be true, and by representing KSJP members as temperamental children, he’s working toward making it true.

These caricatures are dangerous. They seek to end discussion, to delegitimize their targets, and to silence dissent. They harshly affect Palestinian students, who are dehumanized as terrorists, and they demean members of KSJP, who are represented as either supporters of terrorism or irrational children. These effects are felt personally by these students; prior to the KSJP forum, Professor Baumann said to me in regards to my membership in KSJP that, “you’re a mass murderer,” which he then tempered to, “you’re a nice guy, but you’re in the business of murder.” In regards to my previous article for the Observer – ironically enough, on the topic of silencing the dissent of pro-Palestinians – Professor Baumann said to me, “you’re fucking ignorant, that, or you’re dishonest.” Such vitriolic caricatures are detrimental to the mission of the College. They seek to end discussion and critical thinking rather than foster it.

What is worse about this grievous and violent discourse is that people do listen to and support it. In response to Professor Adler’s allstu email generalizing all Palestinians as terrorists, both Professor Edwards and Professor Rutkoff voiced agreement and support. On the student end, there have been a number of Yik Yaks calling KSJP members terrorists and supporters of Hamas. So these rhetorical caricatures are more than harmless allstu emails, they garner real supporters to silence and personally attack students.

The absolute worst part of these demeaning caricatures, however, has been the muted response of the Kenyon community to these attacks on Kenyon students. Compared to the response of the College to the caustic remarks made about members of Crozier last semester, the scarcity of reactions to the denigration of Kenyon students as terrorists, supporters of terrorism, and unreasonable children is remarkable. The comparisons could go on endlessly: what if black students were called terrorists? Has it become such a norm that calling Palestinian students terrorists is accepted, and even supported? What if the members of Unity House were called tantrum-throwing children that no one wants on campus because of their beliefs? I can only imagine the response.

Indeed, the response I imagined to the grotesque portrayal of pro-Palestinian Kenyon students has remained in the imagination. The noxious caricatures of KSJP members have become so normalized that they hardly evoke a response. For breaking the ranks of the silent and standing up for Kenyon students, I would like to thank Professors Schubel, Aydin, and McAdams, Matt Meyers, Lisa Swaim, and Ryan Stewart. These people are, regrettably, a minority.

To conclude and to be clear, I do not want anyone to apologize for what they believe in or to not speak their beliefs. I sincerely hope that Professor Adler continues to call all Palestinians terrorists, that Professor Baumann continues to implicate me and other members of KSJP in the “fucking ignorant” support of terrorism and mass murder, and that Egelman continues to call us unwanted and senseless children. If they believe it, they should speak it unforgivingly. My only wish is that people who think they are wrong say so, that they speak up, and that they not be complicit.

3 comments on “Representing Your Enemies”

  1. Professors Rutkoff and Edwards, plus others who agreed with my post privately, correctly understood that I neither said nor meant that all Palestinians are terrorists. I was merely trying to restate more concretely what I had said earlier, that Israel’s actions were self-defense — for example that the wall exists for a reason. That reason is Palestinian terrorism, and if that hadn’t existed, the wall wouldn’t exist. Simple cause and effect. To take offense at that statement is a childish attempt to deflect attention from the real argument. So I repeat: I neither said nor meant that all Palestinians are terrorists. That would have been an incredibly stupid statement, and I’m not that stupid. Maybe I’m just stupid enough to assume that my statement would have been understood in context with everything else I had said. In fact, as is clear from my two posts, I was trying to tone down the rhetoric on both sides, particularly words like anti-Semitism, racism, and apartheid, all of which were unnecessarily inflammatory.

  2. In the last issue of The Observer, I was featured in two pieces by Conrad Jacober. I won’t comment specifically on his Quest for Justice piece; students have the right to come to their own conclusions about a course they’ve taken.

    As for the one on the “apartheid” debate, I feel I do need to say something. He reports on a private conversation held right before the “Is Israel an apartheid state?” event. We discussed his defense, in a prior issue of the Observer, of a woman Palestinian terrorist.

    I noted that he had simply accepted the terrorist’s claim to have been tortured into a confession by the Israeli police, when, in the very video in which she claimed that, her own sister acknowledged that the terrorist’s participation in the bombing had been greater than even her own. His reply I will not forget: smiling, he told me that “well, you believe the sister; I believe her.” The fact that the terrorist had every reason to lie and that her sister had every reason to back up such a lie, but in fact contradicted it, ought, I thought, to have led him to consider that maybe there was doubt about her claim and that he should certainly have mentioned the difficulty in his article. The answer I got seemed a clear sign that all that mattered to him was to make a point for his side, without regard to probability or evidence. That bothered me.

    I, perhaps foolishly, tried to break through his apparent sense that this was just a game fought between two ideological sides, by emphasizing the stakes. I asked if he realized that “the one state solution” which he advocates would mean handing 6 million Jews over to their worst enemies and that the result would be mass murder. He replied with great coolness that “it just has to be handled right.” I was, I admit, angered by the uncomprehending arrogance of that remark (which I have sensed many times in others who give such cheerful assurances), the belief that somehow he or others could or would “handle it right,” and all that in the face of the mass murders of religious minorities occurring daily right outside Israel’s borders, and the obscene delight taken in Palestine about any news of dead Jews (candy is passed out to the children), and furthermore in the knowledge that, if things worked out rather differently from his hopes, he would not suffer in the least, and probably would not be in the least shaken in his beliefs. That is why I said to him (as I would to anyone who said that), that to hold that position, namely that all would be well if it were “done right,” had either to be a sign of ignorance or of deliberate deceit, and why I tried to bring home to him that this policy would involve him (as it does all those who talk glibly about a “one state solution”), in complicity in mass murder. In the process, I used a word that is simply inappropriate anywhere. For that choice of word, when I should have no doubt used “colossally,” or “thoroughly,” or possibly even “unforgivably,” I need to apologize. As for the rest of it, there is nothing to apologize for. The dogmatism of ideologues who, for the sake of their ideals or, perhaps more truthfully, their vanity about having those ideals, blithely engage in projects to overturn nations and worlds, is, to me, a particularly repulsive phenomenon. As they say, “in a war of ideas, people get killed.” But the ideologues usually live to engage in critique again. And true, he is a student (a graduating senior) and I am a professor. But I would have thought that students would value being taken seriously and as equals, even in the face of strong disagreement.

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