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Teach-in highlights sharp divides over Gaza

Panel addresses political context behind violence in Gaza, draws some criticism from audience

A teach-in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew tense Wednesday evening as opinions clashed in a MacMillan 117 filled to capacity.

The event, entitled “Why Gaza Matters: The War and its Consequences,” featured a panel of five speakers followed by a question-and-answer session that continued nearly an hour over the planned time frame.

The panel was moderated by Beshara Doumani P’17, director of Middle East studies and professor of history, who encouraged students to ask tough questions and voiced his hope to “bridge the gap between public discourse and academic knowledge on the issue.”

Panel speakers addressed the historical, political and international dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Professor of History Omer Bartov said the conflict is a “deadlock” that stems from the fundamental idea that it is better to gain territory than to gain peace. On both sides, “no leader has been produced who has had the courage and sense to make the sacrifices that are called for,” he said.

“This conflict is very personal to me,” said Sa’ed Atshan, postdoctoral fellow in international studies, who is from Palestine. “My family and friends are there,” he said, adding that a few of his friends’ family members had died in the conflict. Atshan showed a presentation to the audience, including slides with photos of relatives of friends who had lost their lives.

Many describe Gaza as an “open-air prison” where people are “trapped in a brutal siege with nowhere to go for safety,” Atshan said, adding that those living in Gaza are being “denied the basic rights.”

Atshan also addressed how the American media treats the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said the mainstream media in this country assumes that Israel and Palestine are “symmetrical in terms of the power they yield” despite an actual imbalance. He described Israel as an occupying force with nuclear weaponry, while he characterized Palestine as “a colonized, occupied, stateless population.”

Melani Cammett, professor of political science, highlighted the political dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Conflict and violence empower extremists,” she said, adding that support for Hamas was bolstered during periods of heightened tension, such as when the Israeli blockade began to take effect in 2008.

Cammett said data has shown a “lower level of self-reported economic security” for Palestinians who are unaffiliated with or opponents of Hamas, which she said was likely due to “discretionary access” for Hamas supporters in the Gaza. “The blockade disproportionally hurts people who were less supportive of Hamas,” she added.

“It’s tragic how extremes on both sides are feeding and legitimizing each other to produce no solution other than more and more violence,” Bartov said.

Cammett highlighted the recent decrease in global public approval of Israel, with the United States emerging as an exception. There has been “strong and consistent support” for Israel in the United States, she said, including higher public support for Israel among Republicans than among Democrats, a characterization that raised a question during the question-and-answer session about Cammett’s motivation behind associating support with Israel with conservative opinions at Brown. Cammett responded to the question by saying she had no objectives behind the characterization other than the available data.

Nina Tannenwald, director of the international relations program and senior lecturer in political science, said the concept of human rights is central to the conflict, and there is no prospect of a stable solution without addressing the “grievances” on both sides.

Violation of international law on one side does not justify the violation by the other, Tannenwald said. Though Israel has the right to self-defense and Palestinians have the right to resist occupation, there are limits to both parties’ actions, she added.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, Adam Bennett ’16 said the panel lacked representation of and support for Israel, garnering claps and shouts from the audience, some of whom yelled that the panel was biased. Bennett also questioned whether the role of the panel was to foster “an objective conversation” about the conflict or to serve as a forum for the Middle East Studies program.

When the panel members moved on to address the next question, some audience members  said the panel was “a stacked deck.” Doumani reiterated that the panel would only address four questions at a time, prompting two audience members to exit the room.

Nancy Khalek, assistant professor of religious studies, expressed her disappointment over some community members' "angry departure" of the teach-in before it had concluded.

"The value of a teach-in comes from actually listening to each other," Khalek said, calling for people to discuss the situation in Gaza with "a slightly more open mind and a little more empathy for each other."

In response to Bennett’s question, Atshan asked audience members to consider“why don’t we have anyone who supports Hamas” in the auditorium. Atshan urged the audience “not to impose our own labels” and to “listen empathetically to what others have to say,” which led to snaps of approval among some audience members.

Matt Dang ’16 said he was “surprised, to say the least” at the abrupt change in tone during the question-and-answer session. It was interesting to see the clear divide in strong opinions in the auditorium, as the open discussion became more of an argument, he said.

Jonathan Tollefson ’15.5 said he was surprised at the lengths to which audience members went to try to defend Israel.

Carly West ’16 said she saw the panel as an “interesting mix of constructive, insightful people with civil questions and sharp, emotive reactions.”


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Nancy Khalek apologized for students’ “angry departure” from the teach-in. In fact, she expressed that it was unfortunate that audience members left in anger and was referring to the exit of some community members, not students, from the teach-in. The Herald regrets the error.



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