Students respond to Gaza, at home and abroad

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Twenty-five students on the Brown/RISD Hillel’s Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel returned to Providence Tuesday after 10 days of travel. Missing from their number were 15 other students who had signed up for the trip, but backed out after war broke out between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The three-week conflict in Gaza, despite occurring in the middle of winter break and half a world away, nevertheless reached members of the Brown community in a variety of ways – whether they were traveling abroad or debating the conflict from home. A cease-fire to the conflict was announced over the weekend, by Israel on Saturday and Hamas on Sunday.

Lindsay Babbitt ’11 canceled her plans to go on the Birthright trip after waiting “as long as possible” to see if the situation would change, she said.”I was really excited about it,” she said. “I was hoping things would calm down a little bit, but they didn’t and they just kept escalating.” She traveled to New Orleans to build houses for a week in lieu of her Israel plans.

Gili Kliger ’12, who did go on the Birthright trip, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that she felt the situation in Gaza did not negatively influence the trip. “If anything, I think it was more interesting to go at this time because the issues that surround the situation felt more relevant,” she wrote.”There were people digging graves that very day for soldiers just recently killed.”

Alexander Ortiz ’09 spent winter break in Egypt, where he was only “about four or five hours away from Gaza,” but he said he did not observe much of an effect on the country he was staying in. “It was a very interesting and hard experience to be so close to what was going on and yet to sort of witness that normalcy with which most people went about their lives,” he said.

Eliana Greenberg ’13 chose to travel abroad to Israel before even beginning her time at Brown. She is taking a gap year working as a volunteer on ambulances in two different cities in Israel near the Gaza Strip. After the conflict began, she started working full time in Yavneh, one of the cities being hit with rockets from Gaza, she wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

“Luckily no rockets in the area I was working in hit any structures or caused any injuries, but we had several occasions in which the warning siren went off,” she wrote. “When we heard the siren, everyone in the station went to the bomb shelter to wait out the rocket – we had about two minutes from the time we heard the siren until we heard the boom of the rocket falling.”

Despite her proximity to the Gaza Strip, Greenberg wrote that she never felt unsafe, though the noise from the rockets “made the situation seem much more real.”

Initial Responses

Though the situation in Gaza may have seemed a world away for those who didn’t spend their vacation in the Middle East, many students and professors took roles as activists and commentators on the events.

A Providence organization called What Queer?! organized a mock funeral procession Jan. 9 as a show of solidarity with Gazans. Several members of Brown Students for a Democratic Society participated in the event, Chantal Tape ’09 said. The procession stopped at five sites in downtown Providence, where activists spoke against state violence and other forms of state-sponsored oppression, she said.

SDS feels strongly about the situation in Gaza and hopes to plan events or actions this semester related to the situation, Tape said. “We’re looking forward to hopefully reaching out to other groups on campus and hopefully doing some sort of action related to Gaza solidarity and keeping awareness up,” she said.

Students who spent the break outside Providence stayed involved as well. Jesse Soodalter ’94 MD’09, who is currently working on an independent study project in London, participated in three demonstrations in London against Israel’s actions in Gaza. The largest of these demonstrations “comprised easily 100,000 people,” Soodalter wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

Professor of Economics Glenn Loury debated the conflict in Gaza with Professor Ann Althouse of the University of Wisconsin Law School in a “diavlog,” or a dialogue conducted on video chat, for the Web site on Jan. 7.

Loury, a Bloggingheads regular, referred to past violence in the Middle East as “ethnic cleansing,” then went on to say, “I try to think through these things the best way I can. I am not anti-Semitic. I am not against the state of Israel’s project. I am just overwhelmed by the historical force of what’s going on and the sort of moral questions involved.”

Loury told The Herald that he received many e-mails in response to the term “ethnic cleansing,” which he said he used in reference to the title of a book by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe.

Sam Lehman-Wilzig, visiting professor of Judaic studies, gave three talks to communities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida after the conflict began. Born in America and having lived in Israel for 31 years, Lehman-Wilzing said he identifies as more of an Israeli than an American when approaching the current situation. His goal when speaking in America about Gaza is to provide “more honest, balanced analysis,” he said.

“I’m an academic at heart, which means truth is more important than anything else,” he said. “And I think if you present the truth in a balanced fashion, people will be convinced much more than if you just hit them with one side and ignore the other side.”

Lehman-Wilzig said he was told before coming to Brown that it tends to be a liberal, anti-Israel campus but that he “found absolutely none of that in the first semester.” Since the conflict broke out over vacation, he said, it will be “interesting to me to see whether there’s a lot more anti-Israel sentiment coming out.”

Upcoming Events

The student group Common Ground has organized a teach-in for Jan. 29 called “Gaza – Implications and Reconceptualizations,” featuring a panel of faculty and alumni presenting various perspectives on the situation in Gaza and the international response, according to Ortiz.

“This will be the first event that we have coming back, but I hope it will be the first of many in response to the bombardment and attacks and the terrific amount of human suffering that’s currently present in Gaza,” Ortiz said.

Harry Reis ’11, president of Brown Students for Israel, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald Jan. 16 that the conflict in Gaza “will certainly be one of the issues we will be discussing” in relation to upcoming BSI events.

M’kol haKivunim, a student group started this year aiming to advocate peace and justice in Israel and Palestine, has been in discussion with the Brown/RISD Hillel’s Israel committee about holding a combined open forum with BSI on the conflict sometime soon, Sophia Manuel ’11 said.