Gaza Violence Incites Discussion

By Isabelle Stillman

J Street U Midd held a student-led discussion on the recent Gaza-Israel violence on Monday, Nov. 19. J Street U Midd is the Middlebury chapter of J Street U, a student organization for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.

Sam Kaufman ’13, president of J Street U Midd, moderated the discussion for approximately 20 students and one professor.

Part of Kaufman’s reasoning for holding the discussion was concern that many students have been informed about the recent violence through Facebook posts. Several students present also expressed concern regarding students’ reliance on biased news sources.

“This is a really loaded topic for so many people,” said Harry Zieve-Cohen ’15, who participated in the discussion. “You have to know what’s going on and what’s happened in the past to comment on it intelligently.”

Zieve-Cohen also believed the conversation needed to be opened up based on what he perceives to be a prevalent anti-Israel sentiment on campus.

“I think there are students on this campus, specifically Jewish students, but not exclusively, that feel uncomfortable with the rhetoric that they hear,” he said. “I think that’s why the tension and anger are coming out in this conversation.”

Kaufman opened the discussion with all participants introducing themselves and describing in one word how the recent Gaza conflict made them feel. “Scared,” “sad,” “helpless,” “disturbed” and “not surprised” were common sentiments voiced in the room, setting the tone for a serious and emotional conversation.

The single professor in attendance, Instructor in Arabic Ahmad Almallah, then opened up about his views on the controversy. Almallah identifies as Palestinian and currently has family members living in the contested region. He expressed severe frustration with the American perspective on the conflict, and said that the media neglects to acknowledge Palestinian lives, and added that the general language surrounding the violence greatly disturbs him.

Almallah left the discussion soon after his statement.

Amid some tension in the room, Kaufman attempted to put boundaries on conversational etiquette to encourage respect.

“The point of this conversation is to open up conversation,” Kaufman told the group. Together, the participants agreed to focus on respect, assume good intentions in others’ comments and use “I statements” — avoiding generalizations such as “we,” “they” or “you.”

The group then viewed a timeline of the recent violence published in an article from The Atlantic. Breaking off into groups of two or three, participants discussed the inception of the violence. Many students believed the timeline was essentially pointless; regardless of who started the attacks, several students agreed that the continuing violence must be stopped.

However, certain students did express strong feelings that one side or the other was more to blame for the current state of the dispute.

Turning the discussion toward U.S. involvement in the conflict, the group read from the U.S. Department of State statement on Gaza Rocket Attacks, which includes the statement, “We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid citizen casualties.”

One student believed that the U.S.’s focus on Israel might be inflaming the issue; the U.S. is not playing the role of peacemaker if American policy unilaterally supports one side, he argued.

A number of students agreed that the U.S. has noted Hamas as the aggressor, but the implications is that Palestinians as a whole must bear the brunt of the punishment.

Arguments arose over the nature of Hamas’ charter, which was read aloud during the conversation. Some students believed it contained terrorist and anti-Semitic ideologies. Others contested this reading, saying the language frames the issue so negatively that to hold a real discussion one must look past wording and consider the facts.

Kaufman voiced opposition to a ground operation and a desire to raise awareness for diplomatic pressure.

Prompted by this discussion, one student raised the issue of the power dynamic in the room during the conversation, imploring peers to consider the history of the situation, namely the 45-year-long occupation of Gaza. When another participant asked for his permission to pose a question, this student communicated fear that the question would influence his answer. Tensions rose and Kaufman asked the group to remember the initial ground rules.

Emotions and tensions rose once more as the matter of justification for the recent killings surfaced. Some students denied that there is any justification for killing civilians, while others believed killings were justified out of desperation and defense.

At several points throughout this discussion, Kaufman reined in emotional commotion by recognizing the rising frustrations in the room and reminding participants to remember others’ good intentions.

Discussion then turned to the place of history in the issue, when some students advocated for the focus to concentrate only on the present, while other students argued that history and the present situation could not be separated.

“People come into these things with all different sorts of facts,” said Zieve-Cohen. “Everyone here who said anything is speaking based on their own reading of history.”

When the term “concentration camp” was used by one student to describe the occupation of Gaza, several participants spoke out fervently, asking him to rephrase with less offensive wording.

The discussion ended with the question of whether the issue is at gridlock or whether something can be done. Kaufman used the opportunity to describe J Street U’s online petition for President Obama to call for a cease-fire.

Though Kaufman formally concluded the event, almost every student stayed to continue conversation with others.

“I’m hoping that more conversation like this can challenge this two-sided issue,” said Kaufman. “I think it’s non-productive to make it an issue of sides.”

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