Edward Said, the late Columbia professor and advocate of Palestinian rights, gave a talk in 1991 South Africa about the state of Western academia, declaring that "the world we live in is made up of numerous identities interacting, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes antithetically. Not to deal with that whole ... is not to have academic freedom." In college, it is imperative that students leave their comfort zones and cultural milieus in favor of new and challenging ideals and discourses.
Over the past several weeks, I have had the great opportunity to see several excellent events covering the Middle East and spanning Columbia's and Barnard's campuses. Because I come from the ranks of Hillel's Israel programming, I am normally involved in Middle East programming within the Jewish community. However, some of the recent events I attended were not run by Hillel but by other groups around campus.
For example, in early February, I attended a talk called "My Jerusalem: Tense Politics of the Everyday" by the esteemed Israeli professor Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian. Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian discussed, among other things, the traumatic experiences of children who grow up under the constant threat of war. These children have to deal with the daily hardships of passing through checkpoints and, in some cases, security fences and walls that separate the West Bank from Israel. Last spring, while abroad in Israel, I had the opportunity to meet several individuals and families in the three Bethlehem, West Bank refugee camps, as well as villagers outside of Bethlehem whose homes are right next to a security wall. Every single Bethlehemite that I talked to had very legitimate complaints about the security wall. Beyond any doubt, it often makes life miserable for the average Palestinian. I was not there to speak my narrative and try to explain why many Israelis, after years of terror and homicide bombers, insist that a protective barrier is necessary. I was there to listen.
Similarly, when Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian relayed stories from her various research interviews and discussed sensitive issues, I listened. And then I asked, "How are you working to make things better?" Her response was not overly optimistic, but it was truthful and, just as important, it was constructive. She said that she works with non-governmental organizations and research institutes in Israel to put her issues on the map. As a legal scholar, she fights the Israeli courts, using the system's legal terminology to prove her points. Finally, she speaks out and spreads her knowledge through lectures. Never did she call for a boycott or divestment as other audience members did, perhaps because she knew that doing so would put her and the other million-and-a-half Palestinian-Israeli citizens out of jobs. Although I did not agree with everything said in the room during the talk, I learned a lot about an important issue in the Middle East today.
As a devoted 21 century Zionist, I apply Professor Said's quote to Middle Eastern politics. In order to step out of my comfort zone and really learn what is out there, I read Khalidi next to Jabotinsky. Al-Bayati's poetry rests beside Amichai's, and Nusseibeh's memoirs are across from Ben-Gurion's. But more than that, there is a constant attempt to provide the community in Hillel—with all of its different internal goals, agendas, political leanings, and missions—with meaningful programming that helps everybody think outside the box. This is why I write to you now. For the week of March 1-7, the four Israel groups in Hillel, namely the Israel Committee, LionPAC, Just Peace, and Garin Lavi, have joined together to present events that we feel are in the interest of both Israeli and Palestinian peace, hence the name for our initiative, Peace Week for Israelis and Palestinians.
Much of our programming directly relates to issues surrounding both Palestinians and Israelis. Tonight, one of our groups is sponsoring an event that highlights the myriad grass roots movements in Israel that work to push the Israeli government toward peace with its Palestinian neighbors. Many of the groups whose information will be spread are either based in or work with Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. These include B'Tselem, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the Jenin Freedom Theatre, and OneVoice. Thursday's program, "Soldiers Speak Out," will feature former Israeli soldiers giving their personal testimonies on how they dealt with moral and ethical issues while serving in Gaza and the West Bank. Our groups are attempting to engage with anyone and everyone interested in peace in the way we believe is most appropriate: through events that encourage constructive dialogue and not hatred and slander. This is the mission of our week, and we hope in earnest to see you there.
The author is a student in the School of General Studies and a junior in the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is majoring in MEALAC and modern Jewish studies. He is the Hillel Israel Coordinator and a representative on the Student Governing Board.