Forum on Middle East crisis addresses issues of community and broader conflict

In response to growing tensions among members of the Williams community over Israel’s recent incursion into the West Bank, College Council (CC), the Minority Coalition (MinCo) and the Dean’s Office held a forum on Thursday that allowed students to voice their opinions in a structured setting. Although the forum focused on the actual events occurring in the West Bank, some students also referred to events on campus that have caused anger and frustration among both Jewish and Muslim students.

The forum was moderated by Evan Sandhaus ’02, programming chair of the Williams College Jewish Association (WCJA) and Austin Duncan ’02. Sandhaus said he was selected to moderate the discussion in part because of his involvement in helping to resolve the Mad Cow issues that arose last year and early this year. The forum was made up of two parts. For the first 45 minutes, students could stand in front of the collective audience and voice their thoughts uninterrupted. The second half of the forum consisted of discussion among the various students. Audience members included both students and faculty.

Sandhaus said that one of the principles behind organizing the forum was to try and bring students together to discuss the conflict and disseminate information. “At Williams, it is difficult to engage other students in principled arguments about the issues surrounding Israel and Palestine because individuals on both sides of the debate suffer from a serious lack of information and perspective,” Sandhaus said. “A lot of folks on both sides of this issue are clamoring for peace, but everybody is so busy bickering that this critical fact gets lost in the mess. . .The forum[’s purpose was] to help provide our community with information, perspective and [to give everyone] a clearer understanding of our mutual desire for peace.”

Before the forum began, Duncan and Sandhaus established a set of guidelines to keep the discussion under control. Sandhaus encouraged people to “shy away from making centralizing [blanket] statements” that were meant to reflect the position of all Israelis or all Palestinians.

Issues discussed included opinions on whether or not Israel is a terrorist state; how Israel’s response to terrorist attacks is similar or different to the United States’ response to the Sept. 11 attacks and alleged human rights violations during the incursion.

But some speakers also alluded to a rift that has developed among students at the College as the issue becomes increasingly divisive. In particular, unsolicited e-mails sent over the Jewish Association’s “Jewonthis” listserver two weekends ago had explicit racial overtones. In a letter published in last week’s Record, the Jewish Association’s board condemned the statements, calling them “racist, un-Jewish and immoral.”

Speakers who supported Israel’s response to the suicide bombings countered the claims that Israel is a terrorist state. “Sharon is not a terrorist [and] Israel is not a terrorist state,” said Daniel Gross ’05. “Hamas will stop at nothing to make sure Israel does not exist.”

“The [Israeli] government’s response right now is rational,” said Davida Kutscher ’03, adding that often more moderate voices on both sides of the conflict are not heard, while radical opinions dominate the press. “There’s a tremendous moderate voice in Israel and Palestine that is not heard often,” she said.

“We all want Palestinians to be happy and have a homeland. But we need trust first,” Kutscher said. She explained that part of establishing trust included abandoning some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and working towards strengthening diplomacy instead of violence.

Speakers who focused on the experience of Palestinians in the conflict pointed to a medley of facts and reports that have surfaced about Israel’s conduct during the current military action.

Shenil Saya ’02 detailed the treatment of Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel. “There’s always been this perennial fear in Israel that Palestinian Arabs. . .cannot be trusted,” even though they comprise about 20 percent of Israel’s population. Despite this fact, Saya explained, Israeli Arabs are not allowed to serve in the Israeli Army. “The fact that Israeli Arabs have been barred from military service from the beginning. . .[seems to say] that Arabs are somehow different from Israelis,” Saya said. In addition, Israeli-Arab representation in the Knesset does not reflect the 20 percent of the Israeli population that is Arab. All these facts combined, Saya asserted, only reinforce the idea that Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel are second-class citizens.

Shomik Dutta ’05 recounted the origins of the continuing violence, saying that a Israel’s preemptive attack in 1967 began the Palestinian refugee problem.

“You have Palestinians being denied political, social and economic rights,” Dutta said. “[The situation] is worse than apartheid,” because Palestinians have expectations about getting a country, Dutta said.“You have to look at which Palestinians are doing the killing and why. This isn’t a hatred of Jewish people, necessarily. This is a people with no hope,” said Dutta.

Jen Sawaya ’02 addressed human rights violations occurring during the Israeli exercise. “If you wonder why Palestinian people go blow themselves up, it’s because they feel they are under attack,” she said.

She also read excerpts from newspaper articles detailing the events occurring in the West Bank. Sawaya focused especially on the treatment that Palestinians receive at Israeli security checkpoints and the limited access that Israel allowed ambulances trying to pick up wounded Palestinians in the West Bank.

“I feel horrible for Israeli citizens,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to live in fear. But you have to ask yourself, ‘is what the Israeli Army’s doing okay?’ I don’t think so.”

Lowell Jacobson ’03 countered Sawaya’s point about ambulances not being allowed to reach injured Palestinians. He explained that searches of ambulances have revealed hidden explosives that were being smuggled into the West Bank.

Differing opinions about whether ambulances should be allowed to enter the West Bank highlighted just one of a number of differences that arose at the forum.

However, two speakers, Shehru Qureshi ’04 and Rory Kramer ’03, spoke about tensions developing on campus and the need for a strong community despite the emotions people might be facing.

“One of the most harmful things someone can do is when political tensions are high is to polarize the two sides,” Qureshi said in reference to the emails sent to “Jewonthis.” “If freedom of speech is a right, you have a certain responsibility [with that right].”

Not only can a statement arouse feelings, it can also cause greater reactions, including physical retaliation, Qureshi said. “Please be careful with what you say. What matters is what I read in an e-mail, what other people read. It’s not what you mean, it’s what you say [and how that is interpreted,]” Qureshi said. “All I’m saying is yes, there’s
a conflict going on outside, but we are here now. When politics and emotions make people feel insecure or threatened, that’s wrong.”

After the forum, Qureshi elaborated on the feelings of discomfort that Muslim students have felt in the wake of Sept. 11 as well as the current tensions in the Middle East. He recalled seven or eight distinctive cases of verbal attacks against Muslim students in the ten weeks after Sept. 11. The comments were often made by students under the influence of alcohol, he said, but were nonetheless unacceptable. In addition, Qureshi said that some Muslim students would call him and ask if he could accompany them to Spring St. and other locations because they did not feel comfortable walking alone. “We get carried away with the ‘it’s a small town, everyone loves one another’” mantra, Qureshi said. He also said that he would have liked to see a stronger statement from the College’s administration that explicitly called for recognition that not all Muslims supported the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rory Kramer ’03, MinCo co-chair, spoke last, encouraging those present to think about community. “I want us to think about the word community,” he said. “I get an image of debate and friendship. But [community] is also the most fragile thing we have at Williams. I don’t feel in the past week that we’ve acted as equals, [or] been treated as equals. This forum was about recreating that sense of community.”

The discussion consisted of open dialogue among the various audience members. Students focused on the issue of Yasser Arafat’s refusal to sign the Israeli peace proposal presented by Ehud Barak. As the peace plan was discussed, the conversation shifted to the issue of Palestinian refugees’ right of return. Remaining members of the audience engaged in a heated debate over various facts and issues revolving around both Jewish and Palestinian refugees. The moderators had to restrain the group from getting too excited; at one point, Sandhaus declared the issue finished and encouraged people to move on to different subjects. However, the forum ended with the issue of refugees still under discussion.