Israel-Palestine issue sparks discourse among students

As students from the Williams College Jewish Association (WCJA) served cake in Paresky last week to commemorate Israeli Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut in Hebrew, and a religious holiday for many Jews), members of the new group Students for Palestinian Awareness (SPA) observed the occasion with less fanfare at an opposite booth. “We would serve you cake if they had a country,” read a sheet pasted to the bottom of their baking dish, which sat empty beside fact sheets enumerating the often tragic results of the conflict for Palestinians, who term the day Nakba, or disaster.

While presenting a stark reminder that the conflict over the creation of Israel endures, 62 years after its independence, the presence of the opposing tables in Paresky also marked the first time in over two decades that the College has played host to public debate on the issue, according to Bill Darrow, professor of religion. On a campus where even the student Democrats club lies defunct, such a public show of disagreement on an issue fraught with political, ethnic and religious implications has raised questions about the proper manner for debate and discussion to unfold.

“I’m not going to say that we’re an activist group, but some of what we do might be seen that way,” said Abdullah Awad ’13, one of SPA’s cofounders. “We want to create awareness for a big problem that we see happening in the world right now that the Williams campus isn’t necessarily aware of.”

SPA’s efforts to portray and publicize a Palestinian narrative of the conflict, including a poster campaign, a film series and an op-ed in the Record (“Modern oppression,” April 14), in addition to last week’s tabling, have posed questions for WCJA, many of whose members have strong personal and emotional ties to the very state whose policies SPA opposes.

“[WCJA] is a religious and social organization, and we have no political consensus beyond our support of Israel’s existence,” said Leo Brown ’11, co-president of WCJA. Brown emphasized that WCJA neither has nor seeks political consensus on Israel or any other political issue, and said that members of the group hold a wide range of opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Still, WCJA has found it difficult to avoid engaging with the conflict in recent weeks as the Independence Day celebrations approached.

Awad and other SPA members sent an e-mail to WCJA’s leaders on April 13 explicitly asking the group to refrain from holding the annual event in Paresky, due to the event’s “insulting” effect on “members of the community whose families were directly affected by the events in 1948.” “While we understand that it is your right to celebrate in more private spaces, we ask that you do not hold campus-wide celebrations (e.g. offering cake in Paresky),” the e-mail stated.
According to Samim Abedi ’10, an SPA co-founder, students in the organization found the WCJA event problematic because it “imposed on them” a narrative that some experience as traumatic rather than celebratory.

“Our problem with it was that handing out cake in Paresky kind of trivializes the issue, and it paints a very black and white picture of what’s going on there,” Abedi said. “Yes, it signifies the formation of the state [of Israel], but the flip side of the coin is that it also spelled the expulsion of 750,000 people.”

SPA’s message solicited varied reactions from WCJA members, some of whom expressed concern, offense and confusion at being asked to move the celebrations behind closed doors. “In the most concrete sense we were being asked to cease and desist, but more expansively speaking it really wasn’t clear what we were being asked for,” said a member of the WCJA board, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“We think it’s possible to be celebratory and sensitive and respectful at the same time, and this is how we intended to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut,” Brown said. “To us, it is important to feel comfortable on campus celebrating a Jewish holiday publicly, because for much of our history as a people we have had no choice but to celebrate our holidays in secret.”

WCJA responded to the e-mail by requesting a meeting with students from SPA in order to clarify both groups’ concerns. The requested forum took place on April 18 and was moderated by CC co-president Ifiok Inyang ’11. In addition, leaders of both groups met separately with President Falk to discuss their positions.

Members of both groups characterized the forum as respectful.

“The conversation showed us that SPA was willing to talk with us about an issue that is important to all of us, and they’re willing talk with us about how our two groups can coexist respectfully on campus,” Brown said.

“It was great that we got them to realize that our purpose is not to threaten or make anyone feel uncomfortable,” Awad said, adding that SPA does not see itself in opposition to WCJA. “While many of their members are supporters of the Zionist cause, many of their members are not. It’s not that we’re opposing [WCJA] in any way, but we’re opposing Zionist ideology,” he said.

Abedi agreed. “They’re a religious group primarily, and there’s a distinction between a Jew, a Zionist and an Israeli,” he said. “Just to clump everybody in the category of being Jewish and necessarily in opposition to us, I think that’s misleading and not an accurate image of what’s going on here.”
Nevertheless, Abedi and Awad said that SPA has been accused by a few students of engaging in hate and anti-Semitism, and that many of its posters have been torn down or defaced. Awad said that the group hopes these incidents will decrease as students learn more about SPA and the Palestinian narrative that it aims to represent. “It would be exhausting for us to attempt to bring up all these issues or attempt to show the administration that we’re going through all these things,” he said. “Our point is not to create more tension, but to educate the campus.”
Moving forward

Members of both SPA and WCJA said that they look forward to working more closely together in the future and engaging in further discussions.
“I think that [SPA] should incorporate into their conversations the WCJA as much as it can if WCJA wants to,” Abedi said, adding that “in such a small community, being collaborative about things is the right way to go about it.”

According to Brown, he would not be surprised if some students from WCJA joined SPA to continue the discussion that has already been started, but said that the choice for Jewish students would have to be an individual one.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply personal to Williams students from a diverse array of backgrounds, and that’s something that can bring us together in conversation,” Brown said. In the future, he added, WCJA and SPA will have time to communicate in order for both groups to observe Israeli Independence Day in a comfortable manner.

Still, not everyone was so optimistic. “It’s too early in the conversation between these two groups for things not to be misconstrued and emotions and tensions to run too high,” said the unnamed WCJA board member. “I think there’s a good degree of understanding on both sides that this is a conversation that takes a long time.”

In addition to its weekly meetings, held Saturday afternoons at 1 p.m. in Paresky 220 and open to all students, SPA will host a talk next Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Griffin 3. The speaker, Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad, is both respected and controversial for his work on Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian nationalism. WCJA continues to welcome all students to its events, including, Friday night Shabbat dinners held at the Jewish Religious Center at 7 p.m.