Last week, members of Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine (SPJP) set up a wall in front of Parish Hall, meant to resemble the one in the Israeli West Bank. The project provided SPJP members with the opportunity to take on the role of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers who guard checkpoints, and, according to Razi Shaban ’16, raise awareness about the daily difficulties for Palestinians travelling across borders.
For SPJP, the purpose of the project was to raise awareness about a less discussed aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ahmad Ammous ’13, a member of SPJP, elaborated on the importance of the project.
“When most people think of the conflict, they think of war, bombings and killings,” he said. “Most people don’t know about the daily obstacles and struggles the conflict brings into citizen’s lives. The project aimed to introduce the campus to the reality of everyday life for most Palestinians, and I thought it did a good job at delivering that message.”
For Ammous, the issues surrounding the wall are not simply political, they are also rooted in personal experience. When living in the West Bank, he used to experience the checkpoints on a daily basis, and his father still has to cross a checkpoint every morning on his way to work.
“I was excited for a project that would be able to communicate the reality of that situation to my fellow Swatties,” he said. “Judging from the reaction of most students I talked to, they were grateful about what they learned for the project.”
Shaban, who was also integrally involved in the project, said that his personal goal was to try to get people to pause and think about what it’s like to not be able to get where you want to go, and to be blocked on a regular basis.
“In June I went through Kalandia, the largest and most difficult checkpoint of them all,” he said. “As American citizens, my family and I were allowed relatively breezy entry, though we were still hassled, because the guards knew we were Palestinian. I walked by hundreds of people on their way to work, to prayer, to life, stuck in the traffic. Some people had been waiting for hours; most had a few hours wait to see if they would be let through, and many would not.”
Shaban cited a particular conversation with Jewish Student Advisor Kelilah Miller as influential and important for explaining why he was so devoted to the cause.
“She asked, ‘With what understanding do you base your simulation of an IDF soldier at a checkpoint?’ Primarily, I try to use my own experience and those experiences of my family and friends. I supplement this with another source, the views of the soldiers themselves.”
A few months ago J Street [the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans fighting for the future of Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people] managed to bring Oded Naaman, a former IDF soldier, to speak to speak at Swarthmore about of his experiences.
“He described to us the psychology of the checkpoint, saying essentially that ‘you can do whatever you want, whatever you feel like doing,’” Shaban said. “‘If you feel there’s a problem with what [a Palestinian has] done, if you feel something’s wrong, even the slightest thing, you can detain him for as long as you want.’”
Miller was impressed with Shaban and others for the transparency and provocativeness of the project. She also thought that the SPJP was very communicative about their plans for their week of events.
For her, the wall installation and the surrounding events represented the opportunity to raise profound issues of identity and community, issues that have particular significance to the Jewish community at Swarthmore and Jewish communities worldwide.
“The installation generated energy among students coming from a variety of backgrounds and political perspectives, including students who do not typically engage with questions of Jewish self-determination and self-sovereignty, personal Jewish identity, Jewish values and ethical responsibilities, and global Jewish community,” she said.
Miller, though, believes that SPJP, as an advocacy organization, has a different obligation than she does. For her, their obligation is to present the Palestinian cause in as persuasive a way as possible, sharply and convincingly. She, however, views the project as a somewhat narrow interpretation of a series of very complex issues, and would have personally presented them in a different manner.
“From my perspective as a Jew and in my role as a religious adviser, I would naturally present the issues in a different frame, and in a different style,” she said. “Were I telling the story of the separation barrier, I would have both the inclination and the obligation to broaden the lens to the larger context, including different Israeli experiences of the conflict, and different understandings of the impact that the barrier has had on the lives of Israelis who are faced with choices that are hard to comprehend from where we sit in North America. I would talk about my time in Israel and in Palestine, and the variety of (often paradoxical) perspectives that I encountered there.”
Not all students were convinced by the motives of the protest, or moved positively.
Izzy Kornblatt ’16 pointed to the demonstration’s lack of explanation for the wall’s aptitude as a defense mechanism for Israelis from Palestinian suicide bombers.
“A criticism of the wall, such as this protest, ignores the wall’s success in stopping suicide bombings,” he said. “The issue deserves better treatment than this. It deserves real arguments that take all factors into account, not just an emotional appeal to how cruel barriers feel.”
Kornblatt also cited an article written by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic in a February 15th edition of the publication. In it, Wieseliter asserts that critics of the checkpoints do not take into account what he believes would happen otherwise.
“A wall between peoples is an ugly thing,” Wieseliter wrote. But he says the alternative is worse. “A massacre—and a strategy of massacre—is even uglier.”
With the campus abuzz on these topics, a discussion was held on Friday, April 26th to discuss the wall, and various other Israeli-Palestinian issues. The meeting was facilitated by Director of the Intercultural Center Alina Wong and Professor of Religion Elliot Ratzman. Miller, the Jewish faith advisor, who was unable to attend the discussion, believes that the dialogue that has taken place in response to the wall has generally been productive, and that students ought to voice their opinions freely.
“It is up to those students who wish to advocate for other positions regarding Israel and Palestine to present their narratives passionately and respectfully,” she said. “In good faith and without apology.”