February 6, 2004

Events explore Middle East controversy

In the constant discussion and debate to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, two upcoming events hope to bring attention to Israel's construction of a population barrier on Palestinian lands. The two events, a panel discussion and a street theater production, have evoked concerns about the perspectives that will be presented.

The panel discussion, scheduled for February 12 and entitled "Perspectives on the Wall," is being sponsored by the Middle East Studies Student Association, and co-sponsored by the Global Voices Program of the International House. The discussion will cover a general overview of the Middle East conflict, how the conflict has been portrayed in the media, and what legal questions arise when considering the proposed construction of a wall as a barrier.

DePaul political scientist Norman Finkelstein, an outspoken critic of the construction of the barrier, has been invited to present his views. Other panelists include Derek Jinks, visiting professor of law, and Roxane Assaf, professor of adult education at Truman College. The final panelist has yet to be announced.

The Middle East Studies Student Association (MESSA) hopes that the panel will be a resource for those who have a strong interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wish to know more about the construction of a barrier in the West Bank. It is also designed as a tool for students on campus doing research on the topic.

"If you look at the impact of the construction of physical barriers between peoples in recent history and the human consequences of this ongoing struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, I think the importance of the academic community addressing this issue is pretty clear," said James Gustafson, the co-chair, Special Events Committee for MESSA.

But the discussion has received a great deal of criticism for presenting a biased perspective about the wall construction. "The event is completely ideologically unbalanced:  all the speakers are radical leftists or far-left liberals, and all will present an anti-fence/anti-Israel perspective, which means that the audience won't be able to hear the many opposing [pro-barrier] arguments," said Blythe Dorn, a member of the Student Committee on the Middle East.

MESSA claims that the purpose of the discussion is to present as many views as possible. "We put together this panel with multi-disciplinary analysis and students' academic interests in mind first, and as a result I think its appeal to the University community should be even greater than politically oriented events on similar subjects," Gustafson said.

Others are concerned that the discussion will not be sponsored by any pro-Israel campus organizations. "No campus group or outside group that is known to be supportive of Israel was extended an invitation to cosponsor," said Rabbi David Rosenberg of the Newberger Hillel Center, adding that the perspectives reflected in the choice of panelists are not balanced.

"No speaker has been chosen who will articulate why Israel might have chosen to build a fence, much as several other nations have done to protect their citizens," Rosenberg said. "As a result, the program as currently formulated will do little to contribute to a meaningful dialogue on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Rosenberg said.

No indication has been made as to what perspective the fourth panelist will present.

A recently formed pro-Palestinian group, the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), will perform a street theater production against the wall at the Reynolds Club on February 12, serving as a promotion for the panel later that evening. While the SJP hopes the performance will increase attendance at the panel discussion, the two events were organized separately, and the two organizations, SJP and MESSA, promote different objectives.

"SJP represents a very specific perspective about Israel/Palestine from my knowledge of the organization," Gustafson said, "while MESSA tries to represent the interests of a very broad group of students and a similarly broad range of interpretations and opinions on these issues."

While discussion continues on how to present the most balanced approach to such a controversial topic, MESSA hopes that the discussion will bring about more debate about issues often overlooked when discussing conflicts in the Middle East.