Campaign hashtag ignores realities of Jewish students’ experiences

Elizabeth Klingen/Staff

A word is not solely defined by what is written in the dictionary. Stating its denotation does not diminish the undeniable weight that the word’s history carries. This was the case when protesters chanted, “We support the intifada!” at an anti-Israel rally last September, and this continues to hold true with the word’s reappearance in a campaign announcement. Free speech does not exempt anyone from using tolerant language, and ignoring the connotations behind words with double entendres is not a loophole for their use.

Bears for Israel does not endorse the inflammatory, off-campus reactions that have deepened the divide over “#dintifada,” and I want this dialogue to be free of hateful remarks and harassment. I would be happy to work hand in hand with Sumayyah Din to create the “cross-cultural bridges” for a “cohesive and safe community for all” that she speaks of. For that reason, I find it necessary to highlight the issue that exists on this campus in addressing triggering language.

On March 8, the hashtag appeared on Facebook. Within minutes, my phone buzzed and lit up time and time again as I heard from countless students who felt hurt and confused. They had very specific associations with the word that glared at them from the hashtag.

For students whose families and friends were affected by violent conflicts of the same name in 1987-1993 and 2000-2005, what came to mind was not the word’s mere translation. What came to mind was bloodshed and pain. What came to mind was scenes of innocent civilians — Israelis, Palestinians and Americans included — running for their lives in fear of destruction.

Their associations with this word were not rooted in disdain for another group’s struggle. Rather, they were rooted in the scars and wounds from a struggle of their own. Their reactions were no attempt at “delegitimizing the reality Palestinians go through”; instead, they bore recognition of that reality. Such recognition is in no way mutually exclusive with the reality that any other groups face. The realities that many Palestinians associate with their history, culture and daily lives do not excuse anyone from using language that takes other groups’ realities into consideration. This standard applies to all groups, and it takes the history of a loaded word into account.

In order to create a cohesive community, it is imperative that our campus recognize that no group can decide for another what is or is not triggering. It is critical to recognize that for some students, “intifada” does not just mean resistance.

My concern is about the right of all students to feel safe on campus. That includes those students who took issue with the appearance of last week’s hashtag. It is unfortunate that a seemingly innocuous word is frequently associated with specific instances of violence, yet this association is a reality that should not and cannot be ignored. To brush off the shock that a student might feel at seeing that word in a campaign announcement is to refuse to recognize that student’s right to feel comfortable on this campus. Mislabeling and misunderstanding the negative reactions to “#dintifada” sends a message to many students that their voices, their views and the collective memories of their identities are not valued. In effect, this silences members of the community on campus, and that is simply unacceptable.

In order to truly have a campuswide dialogue, to truly have cohesion and coexistence and to truly build cross-cultural bridges, no group or individual can invalidate the pain felt by another. Those Jewish students who were affected by the casual appearance of “intifada” on their newsfeeds have the right to be upset and unsettled, regardless of any other interpretation of that word. To tell those students that they are wrong is to neutralize and disrespect the wounds of their pasts and of their heritages.

As Jews and members of UC Berkeley’s community, those who have expressed concern this past week have a basic right to self-determination and strength, as do all other groups. When harmful language hinders that right, it is my obligation, along with the Bears for Israel board and the entire campus community, to speak out. The students of UC Berkeley must recognize the importance of being open to and understanding of the variety of voices that exist on this campus. The voices behind this piece are no exception.

Becca Berman is a UC Berkeley student and the president of Bears for Israel.

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