Last week, The Israel-Palestine Programming Committee (IPPC) kicked off its first event on the relationship between Israel and Palestine with a panel of five Jewish students who shared stories about their personal relationships with Israel.
“We wanted to start with people, from the personal end of things,” said Joshua Wolfsun ’16, chair of the IPPC. “Hopefully we get to conversations that are more overtly political.”
Abby Holtzman ’16, a member of Swarthmore Hillel, led the discussion. She had been contacted by the IPPC because of her prior experience with storytelling events around campus.
“[The stories were] incredibly … nuanced,” said Holtzman. She hoped that the event was “an empathy-building exercise for everyone involved, storytellers and audience members alike.”
The five student speakers sat on pillows and were interspersed with the audience as they told stories that touched upon their relationships with family and religion. The speakers’ stories touched upon a variety of topics, including childhood, friends in the Israeli army, summer camps, and personal visits to Israel. The speakers’ views were dynamic and non-uniform, with some expressing a conflicted love for Israel, at least one expressing disenchantment, and at least one other expressing strong support.
Their political views, ages, and personal experiences all differed greatly. One speaker spoke about the moment when she realized that the house her grandparents live in was previously owned by Palestinians who were kicked out. Another speaker had recently returned from Israel and described her experiences conversing with the soldiers who accompanied her tour group.
“Hillel invited Jewish students to share their experiences in a public and supportive Jewish setting, which is something I had been hoping for,” said Rachel Flaherman ’16, one of the student speakers.
Many of the speakers discussed having difficulties in forming their own views and opinions on Israel and Palestine while growing up in Jewish households, especially when those views differed from their family members’. They frequently described memorable events that expanded their views of the conflict. One speaker recounted a cafeteria discussion with her best friend when she became aware of differing views on the conflict. Another described what it was like growing up in a household and realizing that there was a rift between what they were told to believe about Israel and what they felt. Many of the speakers were upset as they saw their friends and family join the Israeli armed forces.
At other moments, the speakers expressed more positive feelings towards Israel. One speaker recounted feeling a deeper connection and gratification to her grandfather during a trip to Israel with him as he was brought to tears by a radio broadcast from 1948, when Israel declared its independence.
The event was open to everyone and drew a large crowd, filling the main room in Bond Hall. A few Palestinian students were deliberately absent in a show of protest towards the event. Jamal Dillman-Hasso ’15 is the president of Munazamat al-Amal, Swarthmore’s student organization on Syria and Palestine, which advocates for a one-state union of Israel and Palestine. According to Dillman-Hasso, the event’s advertisement was deceptive in that it described it as an “Israel-Palestine Dialogue,” which seemed to present a comprehensive view of the conflict where all sides would be shared and discussed.
Dillman-Hasso said that he expressed these concerns to Hillel before the event, and that the organization apologized and agreed to revise its opening statement to reflect that the panel represented an internal dialogue. In his revised introduction to the event, Wolfsun said, “We cannot hope to, nor would we attempt to, represent the views and experiences of Palestinians without having any on our panel.”
In December 2013, Swarthmore Hillel declared itself an “Open Hillel”, which strained its relationship with the International Hillel organization. The group subsequently planned events around the topic of Israel and Palestine where views could be expressed that went against International Hillel’s strictly pro-Israel framework. Swarthmore Hillel created the Israel-Palestine Programming Committee in order to organize events around these controversial topics.
The IPPC announced at the panel that more events on the topic of social justice in Israel and Palestine would take place beginning on March 4.
Correction March 11: The version of this article that appeared in March 4th’s edition of the Phoenix incorrectly stated that Swarthmore Hillel is no longer affiliated with International Hillel. In December of 2013, Swarthmore Hillel stated that it would not abide by all of Hillel International’s standards of partnership, but remains an affiliate of both Hillel International and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. The Phoenix apologizes for this error.