Since the 1960’s, the American university has often been less a free marketplace of ideas than a combat zone where partisan groups forcefully and sometimes fiercely argue their positions on national and world affairs. In recent years, no issue has been more contentious than the conflict in the Middle East.
"Campus Battleground," a special in the "America at a Crossroads" series, focuses on the University of California-Berkeley and Columbia University in New York where, in the spring of 2006, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students struggle over the competing claims of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, over what history teaches, and whether absolute demands can ever lead to honorable compromise. This seemingly intractable conflict half a world away has forced these students to think about allegiances to family, ethnicity and religion, and above all about the need to take a stand that will define them and their ideals. The one-hour documentary airs nationally on PBS Monday, November 26 at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings).
"Campus Battleground" is one of the wide array of documentaries commissioned as part of the celebrated "America at a Crossroads" series. This initiative, created by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and produced under the aegis of WETA Washington, D.C., was designed to create an in-depth, provocative series of films exploring the challenges confronting the world post-9/11. The first 11 films in the series aired on PBS April 15-20, generating a strong audience response and critical acclaim.
"Campus Battleground" is reflective of the wider Middle East conflict on a smaller, non-violent but no less passionate scale. At Berkeley, with a history of pro-Palestinian sentiment on campus, the issues are framed by committed students on both sides. Their activism includes setting up mock Israeli checkpoints to “detain” Palestinian students, as well as Israel Day, to mark the founding of the country in 1948. Even a celebratory event such as this sparks reaction on campus. One Muslim student says that when she sees the Jewish students dancing to honor Israel’s founding, “we see it as they are dancing on our graves.”
Meanwhile, at Columbia, where a two-year student movement has protested what they see as an anti-Israeli bias among faculty and where the Muslim student population is small, common ground proves equally hard to find. The pro-Palestinian students invite Professor Norman Finkelstein of DePaul University to speak. Finkelstein, a controversial figure who opposes Israeli policy, stokes the fires more when he tells an audience of students that, while Palestinian groups may talk about the destruction of the Jewish state, Israel is “in practice . . . dismembering the Palestinian state.”
The pro-Israeli students at Columbia respond by inviting their own academic: Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard, one of America’s strongest defenders of Israel. In a public lecture, Dershowitz challenges the beliefs of the pro-Palestinian students present. The temperature was rising on campuses on both coasts.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a mix of many factors: religion, politics, ethnicity and land. Of course, at its heart it is a very human story, full of personal introspection, reflection and torment. Likewise, "Campus Battleground" is a very human tale, rife with bright, eloquent, committed students, whose concerns go well beyond that of a “typical” American college student.
At Columbia, we meet Bari Weiss. Born in Pittsburgh, Weiss once was a leader of a group defending academic freedom at Columbia. She is the daughter of activists, and has clearly inherited their faith in political action. Weiss criticizes many Israeli government policies. But her dedication to the Israeli cause led her to become, in her junior year, editor of "Current: A Journal of Contemporary Politics, Culture and Jewish Affairs."
Her opposite is Khadijah Abdul Nabi. Raised in the Bronx, she is the daughter of an Iraqi father and Tunisian mother, and serves as president of Turath, the Arab cultural organization at Columbia. She lived a secular life as a child, but the anti-Muslim fervor across the country post-9/11 led her to embrace her faith, even to wear the hijab. In her role with Turath, Khadijah adds an element of protest as part of the university’s annual Arab Culture Week.
On the other side of America, students at Cal-Berkeley are just as engaged -- and engaging. Yaman Salahi was born in Los Angeles to Syrian parents, and is an active member of Students for Justice in Palestine. As a young man he was an atheist, but he too studied Islam and become more devout as he matured. The international incident and widespread violence that grew out of the publications of Danish cartoons lampooning the prophet Mohammed cause him to reconsider his faith.
On the opposite side of the divide at the Berkeley campus is Itamar Haritan. A key member of the Israel Action Committee on campus, he was born in Israel, moving to California with his family when he was nine. He and Yaman eventually meet and discuss Israeli-Palestinian issues. While they have satisfying conversations, they realize, in Itamar’s words, “all the problems won’t be solved in the world if we take all the responsibility on ourselves.” This is their conclusion, despite the fact that Itamar says the pair differ “infinitesimally.”
Perhaps one of the most intriguing and complex figures in "Campus Battleground" is Avi Criden. Criden grew up in Israel, serving two years in the Israeli Army. His military service included manning checkpoints along the disputed West Bank, often the flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. He takes a course at Berkeley on the history of Palestine, taught by Professor Beshara Doumani. At the beginning of the semester, Criden asks the plaintive question at the heart of the conflict: “Is there hope?” As the term ends, Criden’s reaction to his academic studies is surprising.
"Campus Battleground" provides a fascinating glimpse into how world events affect two distinct academic communities, as well as an illuminating study of the intellectual and emotional responses of some very engaged students. While resolution may prove elusive, dialogues open up on both campuses, with mixed results. But students on both sides, at both schools, are determined to remain engaged for as Yaman says, to do other wise would “be like giving up on humanity.”
CPB developed the initial concept for "America at a Crossroads" in 2004 with an open call for film projects. More than 400 proposals were submitted from public television stations and independent documentary filmmakers around the world. In 2006, CPB named WETA the producing station to oversee all films throughout production. The series has a major interactive Web presence at www.pbs.org/crossroads. Funding for the series was provided by CPB.
"Campus Battleground" is a production of Quest/Argus/Free Productions, under the aegis of WETA Washington, D.C. The producer/director is Bill Jersey. Executive producers are William Free and Peter Collier. The executive producers of "America at a Crossroads" are Jeff Bieber and Dalton Delan. Series producer is Leo Eaton. Funding for "Campus Battleground" was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
WETA is the third-largest producing station in the public television system and the flagship public broadcaster in the nation’s capital. WETA productions and co-productions include "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," "Washington Week with Gwen Ifill and National Journal," "Avoiding Armageddon," "American Valor," "Reporting America at War" and documentaries by filmmaker Ken Burns, including "The War." Sharon Percy Rockefeller is president and CEO of WETA. For more information on WETA and its programs, visit the Web site at www.weta.org.