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.