Guest Editorial: COFI Does Disservice to Middle East

Abed Khatib and Agustin Manzanares

We’ve lately seen fliers posted around campus by the Campus Organization for Israel (COFI), a group that claims to be “devoted to building support and appreciation for the State of Israel” and to aim to “make Israel relevant by adoption of a solution oriented, collaborative approach with other organizations and individuals”. We write now because we believe that despite its mission statement, the COFI has in practice adopted a hurtful, divisive, and intellectually dishonest approach to building support for Israel, and that the group has done a real disservice to those who truly care about the situation in the Middle East.
The COFI posters pose as informative documents about Israeli cultural and academic achievement, but they actually advocate a specific political agenda. Leaving aside for the moment the question of what it might mean, in the language of the mission statement, to “make Israel relevant,” we beg leave to point out that since the COFI, in quest of support, has all over campus pasted praise for the State of Israel, and since their praise has been both effusive and unleavened by criticism, we are given to understand that COFI fully endorses Israeli policy. Even though the COFI has never to our knowledge explicitly stated support for Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians, by failing to voice any criticism at all and by having invited to campus Nonie Darwish, a speaker rather anti-Palestinian than pro-Israeli, the group has shown by its actions that it supports Israeli policies regarding the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
There may very well be many good reasons to support the policies of the State of Israel; surely, though, the second reason given on the COFI Facebook page, that Israel “is home to more museums per capita than any other nation,” is not one of them. The rest of the COFI’s reasons, as articulated on the COFI posters and on the COFI Facebook page, are equally specious.
The COFI’s single seemingly substantial argument for the support of Israeli policy, that Israel is a liberal democracy, turns out to be a mirage: Even if Israel is, as the COFI claims, “a liberal democracy, the only one in the Middle East,” to claim, as the COFI seems to, that the policies of the Israeli government therefore deserve unreserved support is to conflate popular election with divine right. Israel may be a liberal democracy, but the structure of its political system cannot vindicate policies of repression and flagrant violations of human dignity.
It also seems somewhat strange, here in the U.S. under a government of enumerated and strictly limited powers, to assert that a foreign government, one that forcibly denies to an entire population such rights as travel and self-determination, rights fundamental to the classical conception of liberty, can be called “liberal.” The Israeli policy of restricting Palestinians from traveling between Palestinian cities within recognized Palestinian territory, a policy of confining individuals, for the unforgivable error of having been born Palestinian, to areas smaller than the city of Appleton, can scarcely be called liberal: There are some 400 military checkpoints in the West Bank alone, an area no bigger than Delaware, and at every one is a Palestinian liable to be humiliatingly searched and arbitrarily detained. Even emergency services attempting to move within the occupied territories are delayed at checkpoints: Avoidable deaths have been caused by the delays at checkpoints; infants have been delivered at checkpoints while their mothers were delayed en route to the hospital. Is this what the COFI means to support?
The COFI further claims that the State of “Israel is dedicated to freedom, education, and peace in a multi-cultured, pluralist environment.” The state of Israel can undoubtedly be said to be committed to all of these things for a certain population, but to claim that Israel’s common uses in the occupied territories reflect such commitments is to give voice to a crass and offensive stupidity. Palestinians in the occupied territories are denied basic civil liberties on a massive scale. Where the citizens of Israel continue to live a semi-normal life, Palestinian civil society is restricted almost out of existence. Where Palestinians are denied the right to travel unmolested from city to city, Israelis can travel unimpeded over the whole extent of the territory. Where Israelis have the right not to be detained without being charged and can appeal to a Western-style judicial apparatus if they are arrested, most Palestinians arrested are held as political prisoners and need not be charged. Palestinians under the Israeli occupation are denied any presumption of innocence; at checkpoints and in other dealings with Israeli authorities, they are presumed to be militants or terrorists and treated as such. Of the Palestinians arrested, few have been implicated in acts of armed resistance. Most have been political leaders, activists, and participants in peaceful demonstrations.
Israel, in a flagrant breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention and international law, maintains settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. To make way for settlements, the state displaces existing Palestinian neighborhoods. By encouraging settlements, which are illegal colonies under international law, the state of Israel actively antagonizes the inhabitants of the occupied territories; the settlements themselves, besides being illegal under international law, are so located as to divide Palestinian population centers from one another and from periphery villages, limit the horizontal spread of the main West Bank cities, allow for Israeli control over prime agricultural land and groundwater resources in the West Bank, and allow Israeli settlers to control over two-thirds of the West Bank. Even last summer’s much-publicized Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza settlements was managed with an eye to consolidating Israeli control of the West Bank: Evacuating 8,000 settlers from Gaza, the State of Israel made room for some 30,000 more in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. If this, the forcible removal of individuals from their homes to make way for armed and aggressive zealots who believe that they have a God-given right to the land, is the commitment to “freedom . and peace in a multi-cultured, pluralist environment” for which the COFI claims that Israel should be supported, we may perhaps be forgiven our skepticism of the organization’s claims.
That four Palestinians have been killed under the Israeli occupation for every Israeli killed during the same period may not logically compel support for the Palestinian cause, but it is at least relevant to the issue at hand. The COFI claims that we should support the state of Israel not because the government of Israel is justified in its course of action, but for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with the conduct of the state of Israel. Neither cultural nor academic achievement can justify, as the COFI posters implicitly claim, the repression of an entire population.
We respect the right of the members of the COFI to assert and to attempt to defend their views; we suggest, though, that they would perhaps better serve their cause by finding substantive arguments for Israeli policy than they thus far have with mindless advocacy based on trivia such as the number of museums in Tel Aviv. By inviting a speaker to demonize the Palestinians and by posting irrelevant and misleading, if not incorrect, information, the COFI has only muddied the waters and made serious dialogue about the issues even more difficult. Such intellectual dishonesty has no place in any serious discourse about the grave issues confronting the citizens of both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. These questions are not jokes; these problems are not games; at issue are the lives of human beings, so we ask the members of COFI seriously to consider what their organization stands for. Having read the group’s mission statement, we beg leave respectfully to doubt whether the members of the group, many of whom we have long known and admired as colleagues and whose active participation in campus life we vigorously applaud, have carefully considered their association with an organization so patently divisive and poorly constituted. If the COFI is a cultural group, we ask that its members take care in the future not to invite a speaker with an agenda so overtly political and palpably offensive. If, however, the COFI is indeed a group for those who politically support the State of Israel, we ask that they attempt more constructively than they have thus far done to search, as their mission statement claims that they intend, for cooperative solutions to the problems of that state.