Israel-Palestine Conflict Hits Claremont
December 1, 2011
Are we any different than the politicians?
At the Claremont Colleges, many of us pride ourselves on being model progressive college students: analytical, engaged, and involved. Clubs like Claremont Students for Israel (CSI) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) should be well received in this tolerant environment. But this is not always the case. Leaders of both clubs feel negative pressures from the Claremont community and many students who have strong investments in Israeli-Palestinian affairs have abstained from affiliating with the groups. Heated arguments occur over mass emails and protesters show up at club events. Claremont is a microcosm that reflects the larger tensions characteristic of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
On Sept. 23, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked the United Nations to recognize Palestinian statehood. Israel and the U.S. firmly oppose the Palestinian statehood bid, primarily because they think negotiations need to occur between Palestine and Israel rather than the UN at large.
Abbas delivered a passionate speech to the UN General Assembly. “Let us build the bridges of dialogue instead of checkpoints and walls of separation, and build cooperative relations based on parity and equity between two neighboring states – Palestine and Israel – instead of policies of occupation, settlement, war and eliminating the other,” he declared. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replied with customary arguments over Israeli security, concluding that “the Palestinians should first make peace with Israel and then get their state.” The UN Security Council has yet to make a decision, but the U.S. resolves to block the proposal.
With the Palestinian statehood debate dominating the media, 5C students have eagerly followed the issue and developed their own opinions. Mayse Jarbawi PZ ‘14, an international student from Palestine, regularly sends emails with Palestinian news to the Pitzer student body. She explained to the Port Side, “I send emails out for information, not to push my opinion. If people are bored and want to scan the news I want them to see articles from another side that they wouldn’t normally see.”
Though Jarbawi describes her articles as innocent, they generally spiral into vicious email wars. “I frequently receive antagonistic emails telling me to stop,” said Jarbawi. “I don’t understand why they keep taking the offensive when I’m just trying to send out information. I feel personally attacked.”
Jarbawi is not the only student who feels anxious when sharing her perspective. Leah Soffer SC ‘14, president of Claremont Students for Israel, also feels the pressure. “I just never know when I can talk about my political beliefs and I don’t like having to hide something about myself,” Soffer told the Port Side. “I feel uncomfortable talking about the issue because I am pro-Israel. Also, I recognize that the colleges are more liberal and in my experience the liberal-leaning side tends to support the underdog. Israel is not the underdog in this situation.”
Apparently, neither Palestinian nor Israeli advocates feel comfortable discussing their beliefs. This anxiety ultimately affects the membership of both clubs.
Eve Havivi PZ ‘14 has strong feelings about the Israel-Palestine conflict, but does not think either group represents her view. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed into any one opinion. I feel a loyalty to Israel as a Jew and because I have family and friends there,” she explained. “But I’m not going to deny the fact that many Palestinian civil rights have been taken away. Then again, I’m not going to say that I support Palestinian leadership because I don’t. I have a lot of diverse opinions and a lot of the time they contradict each other. That’s why I don’t want to say that I’m in a club that just supports Israel or just supports Palestine. I would rather be in a club that called itself something like Claremont Students for Middle Eastern Discussion.”
Jarbawi shares Havivi’s desire to avoid labels. Like Havivi, she has also refrained from joining a particular club. “I feel like I’m already labeled at Pitzer because I am Palestinian. People call me ‘the girl who sends out the emails.’ I don’t want to be labeled as being in a club too. I just want people to know me as me. I don’t want people thinking of me as an enemy,” Jarbawi said.
In light of these apprehensions, leaders from SJP and CSI are working to reduce student tensions.
Lowell Reade HMC ‘12, President of Students for Justice in Palestine, told the Port Side why he started the club. “I figured that there must be students who feel the way I do and are just too timid to come out and say it. I hoped that by creating this club other people would start springing up who were no longer afraid to share their opinion. I think that’s starting to happen.”
Sonia Mehrmand SC ‘13, another leader of SJP, continued, saying, “We emphasize that our club is open to the public if they are looking for a respectful discussion. We are trying to create a comfortable space where everyone feels like they can speak up.”
Creating a safe environment for discussion is the first step towards fostering less hostile student confrontations. The next step is intermingling the clubs to create mutual regard and encourage respectful debate. Both clubs are potentially interested in holding joint events, though the relative newness of the groups has resulted in a lack of communication and planning.
“I have gone to one of their meetings and the president of SJP comes to our events too, so that’s really nice to have that kind of discourse,” Soffer said. “The only way to agree on anything is to talk.” She also explained the importance of separating politics from religion, a particularly significant point for CSI this year.
Recently, the group declared itself independent of Hillel and is working more closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a non-religious political organization. “Separating the political advocacy from the religious aspects of the issue has been really helpful for me because I can talk about the issue in a really grounded way and never feel offended on religious grounds,” Soffer explained.
CSI has hosted one event so far this semester, the “Less Hamas, More Hummus” campaign. “There’s an organization called the Palestinian Media Watch that takes Palestinian news and translates it into English. So we got a bunch of videos from them that were specifically put on the TV programs by Hamas and we showed them, then had discussions,” Soffer said. The club gave out tank tops with the campaign logo at the event.
While many were amused by the slogan’s wordplay, this event did not receive entirely positive feedback. One anonymous student said, “I thought the title was offensive. They are over-generalizing Hamas to represent all of Palestine and this is not the case.”
SJP has not hosted any events this semester because they are focusing on internal club education and discussion. However, Lowell explained that their goal next semester is to have several events to educate the larger Claremont community.
Creating comfortable club spaces, planning joint events, and de-emphasizing the role of religion are all important steps towards opening the discussion of Israeli-Palestinian affairs at the 5Cs. In the meantime, many students are still filled with apprehension when it comes to discussing their opinions and showing support for either side. The intensity of the issue in Claremont is just a small taste of the passionate tensions that dominate Middle Eastern politics. As we watch Palestine’s progress toward statehood unfold, it should be our duty as analytical students to respectfully discuss the issue and think about unifying solutions rather than hostile dichotomies.