UCLA Activists: Take My Mother's Advice

by Steven L. Spiegel, Director of the UCLA Center for Middle East Development; Professor of Political Science at UCLA

It’s been a bad week.  Everywhere I went, people interested in or associated with the Middle East were calling each other names.  At UCLA Tuesday night a 12 hour meeting that began at 7:00 in the early evening and ended at 7:00 in the morning was held to determine whether the student council would adopt a resolution recommending divestment from several companies that do business in the West Bank.  It was a gesture that could not be implemented because the University Regents had already declared they would not divest, but that didn’t stop the 600 or so students present from engaging in a bitter debate filled with vituperative and vicious name-calling, accusations filled with Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.  When it was all over, the anti-divestment forces had won in a close 7-5 vote, but even the exhausted students were stunned by the virulence of the acrimony and the hostility.  As student after student asked to see me to try to understand what had happened, I was stunned that placid UCLA in sunny southern California was suddenly afire with vitriol, hatred, and frustration such as had not been seen on campus since the Vietnam War.  It will take a long time to recover from the depressing marathon.

My mother used to tell us growing up over and over again: “If you can’t say something constructive, don’t say it.”  Until this week, I hadn’t thought about that phrase for years, though I’d like to say I follow it subconsciously, or try to.  It’s very wise advice.  The Middle East would be far better off if the saying was followed more often. 

 Some people may not like each other, and they may deeply disagree, which is understandable.  But people shouldn't call each other (or the parties their opponents are defending) names and accuse them of all sorts of false and untrue crimes.  As many UCLA students learned this week, when serious dialogue and interchange is replaced by chaotic screaming, no problems can be solved and no useful discussion can occur. To my utter consternation, the kind of confrontations I've avoided in my 25 years of mediating Middle East dialogue were creeping into the discourse.  We shouldn’t and can’t have that; it will destroy and dishearten everyone engaged.  It is what so defeated both sides in the UCLA student debate this week.

Rain finally came to drought-stricken Los Angeles this week; even the skies seemed to be in tears.  I hope the rain washes away the bitterness and resentment, and I hope our little community keeps up a focus on positive resolutions and recommendations to make the region a better place.  Odious comparisons and epithets hurled at others will only make matters worse.  That’s not what we're here to accomplish, and that’s not what we want to do in the future.  I hope you agree.