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Groups raise awareness on Israel-Palestine

Efforts seek to encourage discourse on campus, improve understanding of media reports

In the wake of a tumultuous summer of violence in Gaza, Brown community members are facilitating an array of events and actions to raise awareness on campus and to promote a spectrum of political stances on Israel and Palestine. Between long-standing student groups, burgeoning independent initiatives and faculty teach-ins, the conflict has once again emerged as a major topic of campus discourse.


Jews and Israel

J Street U Brown, the campus chapter of the national organization J Street U, is looking to incorporate different perspectives this fall into Brown’s dialogue on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“We straddle this interesting place,” said chapter president Shelby Centofanti ’15. J Street supports both a secure Israel and an independent Palestinian state, according to its website. The group’s actions at Brown this semester include “teaching about the issue ... teaching what J Street is (and) being aware that our teaching events come from a particular place as opposed to a purely academic” sphere, she said.

“Our view … is that although Israel finds itself in a rough neighborhood,” the nation has “options” in the conflict, said J Street U Brown Outreach Coordinator Harpo Jaeger ’14.5. “We put more of an emphasis on these questions of agency and of choices,” he added, noting the range of issues that American Jews must confront in light of the conflict.

The group’s biggest upcoming event will feature Maen Areikat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s ambassador to the United States, on campus Oct. 1, Centofanti said. “This isn’t a program that typically happens on college campuses. So we want to give students opportunities to learn as well as to reorganize some of their thoughts and opinions.”

Jason Ginsberg ’16, president of Brown Students for Israel, recalled the many opinions he saw in articles on his Facebook newsfeed this summer covering the violence in Gaza. “Officially, Brown Students for Israel does not take a position on events that happened this past summer,” he said in reference to the conflict in Gaza, noting the different viewpoints to account for. BSI “focuses on education on campus,” a goal that the group will continue to pursue with speakers, open discussions and film screenings, Ginsberg said.

The group often faces a “misperception” on campus about its mission, Ginsberg said. “People look at BSI and see it as a group that is just Brown students for Israel. But what we’re trying to do is create a group that is Brown students for exploring Israel, questioning Israel and really finding their own opinions on Israel.”


‘In the service of action’

Brown’s arm of Students for Justice in Palestine also sees its goals aligned with a larger group: the Palestinian people. “We are a Palestine solidarity group, and we are a student-based solidarity group,” said veteran member Mika Zacks ’15. “To me, that means that we as students are answering the call of Palestinians for international solidarity.”

SJP hopes to host a campus event with a group of Palestinian students who are touring nationally to spread awareness, Zacks said. “I think it’s awareness in the service of action,” Zacks said. “Not just to know what’s happening, but to become informed on how we as students based in the U.S. can actually work in solidarity with Palestine.”

SJP wanted to organize a commemoration of people who were killed in this summer’s conflict, said SJP member Peter Makhlouf ’16, adding that the group was inspired by the website “Humanize Palestine.”

Group members created posters each featuring the image of a single person or family killed in the Gaza fighting along with some information about when and how each died. The posters also included ages, interests and sometimes, in the case of young adults, the last tweets they sent.

“A big motivation for this came from the fact that the media tends to … play a numbers game, so we hear how many people died, but that doesn’t really mean anything,” Makhlouf said, adding that it can be tough to make an emotional connection with victims when the media just reports “catchy headlines with big numbers.”

“It’s the little things like that where you can start to draw some more concrete relations, and you can start to have a more real impact than just saying, ‘2,100 people died,’” Makhlouf said.

Sara Al-Salem ’17, who joined SJP last semester, described the importance of spreading information about the struggle in Palestine. “We know we’re just a student group, but the most important thing when it comes to Israel-Palestine is awareness,” Al-Salem said.


Expanding the discussion

Many campus leaders expressed a desire to foster open discussion with a focus on multiple perspectives. “Now more than ever, the Jewish community in particular (must) not back down from talking about this issue and retreat into our shells,” Jaeger said. While some may instinctively shy away from confronting the Israel-Palestine conflict, dissenting views are critical to keep the discussion alive, he added.

“There’s no good time to talk about this stuff, because it’s a scary issue,” Jaeger said. “But that just means we need to do it.”

Other student groups took the initiative this summer to connect their own priorities with the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Bluestockings Magazine, a feminist literary magazine on campus, published an online post entitled “Occupation is a Feminist Issue” spotlighting Palestinians’ struggles.

“There’s a teach-in on Ferguson, and a teach-in on Gaza,” Makhlouf noted. “I would like to organize something to look at how they are connected.”

Efforts to generate a shared experience fueled a new group recently formed on campus to create a space for open dialogue, said Eital Schattner-Elmaleh ’17.

Schattner-Elmaleh, an Israeli, met Tala Doumani ’17, a Palestinian, at an event in the Underground last semester spotlighting events in the Middle East.

After “talking about our shared experiences” throughout the spring and summer, the two decided to create a group with regular meetings that would provide “an open space for discussion for people of all different backgrounds,” Schattner-Elmaleh said. “People need a place to process this. We should process this together and learn from each other.”

Currently working under the name Students on Israel and Palestine — a title still subject to change — members are in the midst of planning the group’s first event. “It’s going to be a student panel of Israelis who were there this summer, Palestinians who were there this summer, and Americans who were affected” by the conflict, with group conversations afterward, Schattner-Elmaleh said.

The group, which has only met a few times, is more focused on promoting discourse than on taking a specific political stance on the conflict, Schattner-Elmaleh said.


Faculty participation

Brown faculty members have also shown interest in bringing the Gaza conversation to students on campus. Omer Bartov, professor of history and German studies, and Beshara Doumani P’17, director of Middle East studies and professor of history, both appeared at a teach-in Wednesday entitled “Why Gaza Matters” with other faculty members to address the ongoing events in the region.

“It’s very difficult and somewhat naive to think that a professor at Brown can have much of an effect on a situation,” Bartov told The Herald. “What you can do is try to use whatever forums at the University to talk about it … so we can talk about these things in a more rational, reasonable manner.”

The point of such educational, discussion-based panels  is to “try to look at events in the present and the past and try to understand them,” Bartov said. “From that, one can also hopefully reach some conclusion about potential ways of engaging with the events themselves.”

Beshara Doumani, who organized the Gaza teach-in, said Brown’s environment of thoughtful reflection was conducive to this particular conversation. “We happen to have great resources at this university with much expertise on this topic, a very curious student body,” he said. “It’s really not very difficult to have a conversation about a controversial issue that is substantive and open and frank. I think this campus is fully capable of having this kind of conversation.”


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