At UCLA, the Power of Negative Emotions

The legitimacy of anger against Students for Justice in Palestine.

caReprinted from JewishJournal.com.

For several years now, a nasty anti-Israel group called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has bludgeoned Israel’s image on college campuses. They take no prisoners. They have little interest in polite and civil debate. They are lethal at manipulating the college bureaucracy to win Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) votes against Israel. They invite speakers linked to terrorists groups. They don’t even hide the fact that their beef with Israel goes much deeper than Israel’s disputed occupation of the West Bank.

It’s all of Israel they have a problem with.

When SJP talks about justice for Palestinians, they don’t mean justice for the millions of Palestinians living in misery in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. They’re only interested in Palestinians that are connected to Israel-- those living in the West Bank and Gaza—because only those Palestinians can accommodate SJP’s agenda to bash the Zionist enemy. Their contempt for Israel knows no bound. I challenge anyone to visit their Web sites, attend their demonstrations or read their literature and find one genuine gesture of recognition for Israel’s side of the story.

Meanwhile, if you’re a typical Jewish student on campus who hangs out at Hillel and loves Israel, you’re encouraged to be respectful in how you defend and support the Jewish state. You’re encouraged to stay civil, understand the other side, and recognize Israel’s faults. You’re encouraged to try to build bridges and find opportunities to engage in respectful debate.

The net result is an often pathetic spectacle of haters versus debaters. On one side you have a contemptuous group of hypocrites pretending to defend Palestinians while single-mindedly undermining the Jewish state, while on the other you have a group of disillusioned Jewish students dizzy and battered by an enemy that has no interest in civil debate.

It’s not a fair fight. One side embodies the unfettered release of negative emotions, while the other constantly tries to contain its own negative emotions. SJP is the human volcano spewing its vile anti-Israel lava on pro-Israel Jews who don’t know what hit them.

This imbalance is so ingrained that when a pro-Israel group tries to spew lava of its own, the mainstream Jewish groups immediately disassociate themselves from the “radicals” and even apologize for them.

Last week’s poster brouhaha at UCLA is a perfect example of this phenomenon. David Horowitz’s Freedom Center decided to take the gloves off and launch a poster campaign accusing SJP of being a hate group. The posters showed images of terrorist acts from groups like Hamas that SJP rarely, if ever, condemns. By blowing up the word “Justice” in the headline “Students for Justice in Palestine,” the poster tried to convey hypocrisy, while including the accusatory hashtag #Jewhaters.

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Now, you can argue that the posters went too far and were too graphic. Mainstream pro-Israel groups were strongly opposed and even offered to take them down. Personally, I would have added a couple of questions to the posters, such as: “Why won’t SJP condemn Hamas?" and "Why do they invite terrorists to speak?”

In any event, regardless of what you think of the posters, SJP got a dose of its own medicine.

How do we explain this explosion of negative emotion from the pro-Israel side? And does it have any redeeming value?

A fascinating essay by Mathew Hutson in this month’s Psychology Today, titled, “The Upside of Negative Emotions,” suggests that the pro-Israel camp shouldn’t be too hard on itself for the anti-SJP posters.

“We have the wrong idea about emotions,” Hutson writes. “They’re very rational; they’re means to help us achieve goals important to us, tools carved by eons of human experience that work beyond conscious awareness to direct us where we need to go.”

Even an emotion as explosive as anger can be productive. “Anger motivates an individual to take action,” writes Hutson. “Anger boosts confidence, optimism and risk-taking, necessary when the alternative is losing something important to you. Anger has reputational value, too: it signals to others that you have strength of resources and resolve. In fact, those who display anger are seen as higher in status, more competent, and more credible.”

I’m not suggesting that all pro-Israel students should start getting angry. What I’m suggesting is that when a pro-Israel group decides to display its anger, even if that display makes many people squirm, let’s give them a little space. They’re playing their own instrument, and who’s to say there’s no proper role for that instrument? After all, you can’t bring a ping-pong racket to a knife fight and hope to make any progress.

And while we're at it, here's a new instrument that is just begging to be played on college campuses and that would surely drive SJP nuts-- a new organization called Students for Justice in the Middle East. This is an activist group that would fight for justice for all the oppressed peoples of the Middle East, not just those in the West Bank and Gaza. It would target dictators and oppressors who make Israel look like Cinderella. And it would drive SJP nuts because it would expand the debate beyond Israel.

How did I think of the idea? I got angry.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at [email protected].

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