Panel, demonstrations strike nerve

By Tim Michaels

A controversial panel discussion and theater production against the construction of a security barrier along Israel and in the adjacent occupied territories resulted in heated debate over the delicate subject.

History Ph.D. candidate Daniel Barnard, the moderator for Thursday evening’s discussion, urged participants to keep the discourse civil and polite, stressing that the panel was not intended to represent all viewpoints on the barrier.

The panel included Norman Finkelstein, professor of political science at DePaul University; Derek Jinks, visiting professor of law at the U of C Law School; Roxane Assaf, professor of adult education at Truman College; and Ali Abunimah, vice president of the Arab American Action Network.

Finkelstein, an outspoken critic of the construction of the barrier, spoke first, addressing the reasons why the barrier has caused so much controversy. Citing several moral, political, and ideological factors, he claimed that while the history of both the conflict and of the barrier is seeminlgy uncontroversial, disagreement has arisen from different political and moral standpoints.

Abunimah next addressed the problems of creating a two-state solution, claiming that both Palestinians and Israelis could live together if both sides are open to the idea of living together as one state. He cited several recent historical examples, such as South Africa, which provide hope for such a solution. “Both sides must not succumb to the pressures of avoiding dialogue,” Abunimah said.

Jinks provided a legal perspective, framing the issues of the barrier’s validity in the context of international and human rights law. Jinks encouraged the use of international law as a forum that Palestinians can use to address their concerns and accomplish a resolution.

Lastly, Assaf discussed the use of diction and rhetoric in current news coverage of the barrier, claiming that the Palestinian perspective is lacking mainstream news coverage. Assaf claimed that news coverage of the barrier has failed to present the suffering of Palestinians and has biased viewers towards a pro-Israel perspective.

The build-up to the panel and theater events included intense criticism from pro-Israel student organizations, including Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI) and members of the AEPi, a Jewish fraternity. They voiced concerns over the possibility that offensive and biased perspectives would be presented, driving the events’ organizers to work harder to present their viewpoints in accordance with University policy.

Pro-Israel students felt that both events had implications beyond what was advertised. “I, and other pro-Israel students on campus, feel that these events are not particularly protesting the wall, but moreover protesting the existence of Israel,” said Daniel Levy, a fourth-year in the College and member of AEPi.

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a recently formed student group that strongly opposes the barrier’s construction, received criticism for their street theater performance, which was designed to serve as a promotion for the evening discussion.

“The street theater is an incitement to hatred and violence. The only purpose of this event is to give community members a negative and false image of what an Israeli is and to give passers by a pretext for hate speech and ethnic discrimination elsewhere on campus,” said Adam Weissman, president of CFI.

Members of SJP, however, stressed the importance of presenting their perspective. “The ‘Apartheid Wall’ display and theatrical demonstration was planned for the purpose of building awareness about the illegality and severe human rights violations that the wall creates,” said Suzanne Adely, a member of SJP.

She added that the street theater would only use SJP members at the University. But in an e-mail to the Chicago chapter of Al-Awda, an organization calling for the right of return for Palestinians, Adely solicited outside support.

In the spring of 2002, the Israeli government began construction on the 200-mile “wall,” a small segment of which is concrete wall and the majority of which is razor-wire fence, ditch, and other non-permanent materials. The structure, which Israel says is intended to keep Palestinian terrorists out of the Jewish state, cuts off 67 Palestinian villages from access to resources in Israel.

Many students actively protested this display, e-mailing the Office of Student Affairs in an effort to cancel the event.

Some of the criticism of the street theater arose from a misconception of the event’s content. “Someone…reported that we had planned to build a mock checkpoint to prevent the mobility of the student body in order to demonstrate the reality of the wall. This is not true,” Adely clarified.

The Office for Student Affairs worked with both sides to make sure that the events ran smoothly and according to guidelines. “We must take a strong position on protecting the rights of all of our student groups to host events such as those planned by the Students for Justice in Palestine for this week” said Bill Michel, assistant vice president for student life.

While in recent years there has been growing concern over presentations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Michel emphasized that, in general, students have handled potentially confrontational situations very well. “When concern is raised over a particular event, we encourage the hosting student organization to provide an appropriate question-and-answer period, have a member of the dean of students’ staff present at the event and set up a space for discussion right after the event,” Michel said.

After the panel discussion, Rabbi David Rosenberg, executive director of the Hillel Center, held a meeting for students wishing to talk after the panel. SJP, meanwhile, was able to perform its “Apartheid Wall,” as well as present informative handouts, without disruption.

While most objections were centered on the street theater, many people were also concerend that the viewpoints presented at the panel would present audience members with an uneven perspective on issues concerning the wall. “Those who attend will clearly see for themselves the problems inherent in such a biased and un-academic panel,” Weissman said.

The controversy focused on distinguishing between the use of free speech in University forums, and what some described as hate speech. “While I believe that free speech is of utmost necessity in the university setting, I believe that it should not occur when it is hate speech,” Levy said.

In her closing remarks concerning news references to the barrier, Assaf stressed, “Words are important.”