By: David Mehl  | 

Israel Taboo at Einstein?

In September of last year, a university (with longstanding connections to Israel) transferred control of a medical school (named for a renowned scientist who was publicly pro-Israel) to a medical center (which carries the name of a philanthropist who was one of the earliest supporters of Jewish settlement in Israel).

In other words, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine is one place where you wouldn’t expect celebrating Israel to be a taboo activity.

At the beginning of each year at Einstein, second-year students organize an event they call Around the World, in which multiple apartments host simultaneous parties, each in the style of a different world culture. Partygoers go from one apartment to the next, and the event is, and always has been, completely apolitical. This year, as in previous years, one room’s theme was scheduled to be ‘Israel.’

Last week, however, with the party a few days away, several students lodged a protest. They complained that it was simply too offensive to have parties with themes like ‘Hawaii’ and ‘African Jungle.’ The organizers acquiesced, and the room titles were changed to ‘Island Paradise’ and ‘Jungle,’ respectively, to accommodate the aggrieved students.

Then the same students objected to the apartment labeled Israel, and the organizers again agreed, and demanded that the student who was preparing the Israel room change its theme to something less offensive or be barred from hosting a party as a part of the event. The student declined the suggestions, and was accordingly excluded from the event. (Because of the student’s part-Syrian background, one of the suggested alternatives was Syria – a country which has seen hundreds of thousands of deaths from civil war in recent years is somehow less objectionable as a party theme than is the state of Israel.)

Later, because excluding only one country was seen as unfair, all countries were replaced with non-national themes like ‘Atlantis’ and ‘Under the Sea.’ Many students, however, remain upset. They object to Israel’s exclusion, and they don’t want even apolitical expressions of Israeli cultural pride to become taboo under the ever-widening umbrella of allegedly offensive speech.

In many ways, this is an event with little practical bearing on the wider questions of Israeli affairs. This is certainly the opinion of several in the wider pro-Israel activist community, who eschew most cultural fronts of Israel’s public relations wars for the minutiae of political fights. Yet if the unlikely election of 2016 is teaching us anything – and it should, for it has upended much of what everyone thought they knew about politics – it should remind us of to just what degree politics can become a battlefield of a cultural war. The considerable extent to which ‘political incorrectness’ has been a part of Trump’s appeal is not because Trump has proposed or would pass any law on the matter, but because the fact of his success is seen as a rebuke to the forces that would censor him and others. Cultural issues are more easily understood, more deeply felt, and more quickly acted upon than questions of policy, and are therefore able to gain an audience and an enthusiasm that can overwhelm armies of politicians and consultants. Friends of Israel who – unlike the pro-Israel students at Einstein – abandon the cultural battlefields are helping to build a cultural wave that may turn political. If bags of Bamba and decorations in blue and white are established as an offense, what hope for acceptance does the political argument have?