When walking into meetings discussing the conflict in the Gaza strip, it easy to initially forget that violence between Israelis and Palestinians overseas has only recently stopped. The individuals seated are typical MSU students — they chat with each other, laugh at a joke or two, or maybe text on a cell phone, all patiently waiting for the speeches to start. However, when the meetings begin and the lines are drawn, strong feelings and vast differences emerge. At one particular meeting sponsored by the Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions (OCAT) and attended by members of SAFE, a Palestinian student organization, and Hillel, a Jewish student organization, the calm was replaced almost immediately by tension and anger.
Still, it turns out that the perception on both sides of the issue is that the Peacemaker event was relatively successful because it brought both sides to the same room and fostered discussion on the issues. Despite some hostility, David Mindell, a senior at MSU and president of the Jewish Student Union, found reason to have hope. [waltzer]
“It’s tough for either side to sit there and hear a one-sided presentation, which is what we were hoping to get over by having the Peacemaker thing,” Mindell said. “I thought it was successful in the fact that we brought both groups together and talked about some things we can agree on.”
Conflict Reaches Campus
This positive outlook on the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians isn’t reflected everywhere. With the large divisions in ideas and perceptions about such a complex issue, there are bound to be conflicts, even on our relatively peaceful campus. Despite what Mindell said about the Peacemaker’s meeting, he said that events on campus surrounding the conflict in Gaza tend to take one side or the other. “It’s definitely making divisions. It’s definitely making it harder for the Palestinian groups and Israeli groups to come together. They’re trying to protest against Israel. We’re trying to set the facts straight and explain what’s going on. It definitely makes it difficult,” he said.
The shortcomings of these meetings lies in their biased natures. Different facts are going to be emphasized at an event sponsored by the Jewish Student Union than one held by SAFE. Groups also differ on how they carry out activism.
A lot of lectures and structured informational meetings have been held by Jewish groups while Palestinian groups have been noticed for using more creative methods to organize. Adam Zeidan, an American Palestinian with family in the West Bank, attended many different events sponsored by numerous groups in both the Jewish and Palestinian communities on campus. He said the Palestinian organizations use more original tactics to spread their message. “There’s been teach-in’s and die-in’s, where people pretend to be dead to raise awareness. They’ve been pretty active against the whole Gaza thing,” Zeidan said.
Zeidan said he thinks the MSU community has been very involved and interested in the conflict. That showed on a cold day in January when about 40 students of various religions and affiliations gathered on the corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue to support the Palestinian cause. “We got a lot of honks in support,” Zeidan said.
Such ugly language might seem to be a precursor to something larger. Outside the confines of East Lansing and MSU’s campus, numerous acts of violence against Jews, including the bombing of synagogues and physical assaults have been reported. Most attacks against Palestinians have been centralized in the Gaza Strip.
Jewish Studies professor Kenneth Waltzer says tense protests and campus meetings are more reason to continue talking about this conflict. “People have to hold each other to honest standards of debate and articulation,” Waltzer said. “If people on this campus can’t talk about a solution, how are people in the Middle East going to talk about a solution? There ought to be dialogue about how to find peace. It may be hard at this moment because of the conflict, but on the other hand, if we can’t find a way to peace, how can we expect them to find a way to peace?”
Walls of Division
In order to talk about the conflict, it is important to understand what the two sides are fighting for. For those who defend the military actions of Israel, Waltzer said, it is necessary to comprehend the effect of seeing missiles threaten civilians while the international community rejects any recourse to defensive action.
“How many casualties are enough? Every human life is worthwhile, and it’s an appropriate responsibility of (Israel) to defend its citizens and respond to those attacks,” Waltzer said.
This feeling is echoed by many supporters of Israel, who bristle at the common argument that there is such a thing as a “low” number of casualties. Their argument is that any number is too high, and defensive measures are justified after the loss of any life.
However, it is precisely this position with which Palestinian supporters take issue. The number certainly matters, the Palestinian supporters argue, because of how disproportionate the death toll was on the Palestinian side. Zeidan commented upon this as well, mentioning that the weapons launched at Israel were not extremely deadly, as well as the fact that Israel chose to strike questionable targets, such as schools and United Nations storehouses.
“The thing is, those missiles are homemade and pretty crappy; they don’t kill anybody. There were about 22 Israelis dead. There were 1,300 Gazans dead, and most of them were civilians, including women and children. How many of the men were civilians, too, and not Hamas militants, for example? I’m not saying Hamas is justified. But the thing is, the Israelis weren’t minimizing civilian casualties,” Zeidan said. [zeidan]
Palestinian groups on campus want to convey to students that Israel could have done much more to prevent unnecessary civilian deaths. They also want to discuss how the U.S.’s involvement changes the conflict and what our appropriate course of action is. They showed their frustration by protesting in front of Sen. Carl Levin’s office at the end of January, but Zeidan said he didn’t see the point. “I don’t see him really listening to the Palestinians who are protesting outside,” Zeidan said. “He’s a swell guy but I don’t think it affected his opinion.”
There is certainly the frustration among those who support Palestine that, in addition to the disproportionate use of force on behalf of Israel, there is a nearly insurmountable bias in the U.S. government toward Israel. These ideas are the driving force behind the pro-Palestinian movement on campus.
Despite their various differences, such diametrically opposed forces as the pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis do have something in common. What MSU students on both sides want more than anything is peace.
Even though the Peacemakers meeting was often loaded with tension and the occasional outburst of anger, what mattered at the end of the night was that both sides had gathered to discuss with each other, not just with themselves. All could take comfort in the example of a student who stood, pointed to his acquaintance and said, “I’m very pro-Palestinian, and this is my very pro-Israeli friend.”
This is an example of the MSU community coming together to understand the conflict, not add to it. “People always go into the blame game. The blame game doesn’t work; it just sets you back,” Mindell said. “Let’s come together for peace.”