Middle East tensions spread to University students

Elizabeth Dunbar

It’s the 1930s, and Sari Nusseibeh’s grandfather is working in his field when a parachuter drops onto him. The man in the parachute could be Ami Ayalon’s father, who is fleeing Europe in search of a safe haven for Jews in the land that is now Israel.

Both men are scared, so they grab guns and start shooting at each other.

“Neither man, neither side, understands why the other person is shooting,” said Nusseibeh, a Palestinian who – along with Ayalon, a former Israeli security director – described the situation and presented a vision of peace in the Middle East at a conference at Macalester College last Thursday.

“We have been shooting at each other ever since,” Nusseibeh said.

As violence among Palestinians and Israelis continues in the Middle East, incidents between groups of people supporting either side have surfaced at the University and campuses across the country.

A misunderstanding between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli individuals in Blegen Hall last month was one such incident.

Jess Sundin, a member of the community-based Anti-War Committee, said three women who had returned from a visit to the Palestinian territories were invited to present their experiences at the committee’s event.

Koby Nahmias, a member of Friends of Israel, said although the members of his group would probably disagree with what the speakers had to say, he and others attended the event to hand out flyers and learn more about the other side of the issue.

Sundin said the presenters felt threatened by the fliers – which linked Palestinians to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks – and the individuals handing them out.

“What was happening is that it was an extremely hostile environment,” Sundin said. “(The speakers) had just come back from an intense and traumatic experience and they felt it would be hard to speak under those circumstances.”

Omri Fine, chairman of Friends of Israel, said some of the event’s organizers blocked the door before the event started and wouldn’t allow members of his group to enter the room.

Nahmias said he felt discriminated against because events held on campus are open to everyone.

“To me this was the beginning of segregation on campus,” Nahmias said.

After being prevented from entering the room, Nahmias and other members of the group called the University police.

When police arrived, the groups established an agreement that the members of Friends of Israel could enter the event as long as they weren’t disruptive and disrespectful toward the panelists.

Erika Zurawski, a University sophomore and member of Students for Justice in Palestine and the Anti-War Committee, said she believes the decision to not allow the individuals to enter was a good one.

“Our goal is to keep our events safe and to keep our speakers safe,” Zurawski said. “I know it was the best judgment because of the harassment and intimidation in the past.”

Since the incident, both groups said they have made strides in preventing similar incidents from recurring.

Nahmias said members of his group have talked with the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and the Student Activities Office to explain why they felt the incident was a case of discrimination.

Zurawski said members of Students for Justice in Palestine now contact University police about their events ahead of time to request that an officer be in the area in case a problem arises.

The incident wasn’t the first time the groups have clashed, nor is it unique in the scheme of altercations occurring on other university campuses in the past six months.

An e-mail containing anti-Israeli sentiments was sent to faculty at the University of Michigan last week and sparked an investigation into the origin of the message.

Police at the University of Colorado broke up a clash between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli protesters last month after a former spokeswoman for Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat spoke at the university.

In Minneapolis last April, two independent efforts – one sponsored by the Arab Student Association and Anti-War Committee and the other sponsored by the Hillel Jewish student center – ended in arguing and finger-pointing between the groups on Northrop mall.

Ayalon and Nusseibeh both said peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East will come with mutual recognition of each other and of a desire for peace.

“When you talk about recognition, you are not simply signing a piece of paper,” Nusseibeh said. “Recognition really has to be deeply felt by both sides.”

Ayalon said violence has caused the groups to lose faith.

“The overwhelming feeling on both sides is of pain, despair and confusion,” Ayalon said. “Each believes the other understands only the language of violence and power.”

Both groups say the tensions on campus and subsequent incidents are related to strategies the groups use to deliver their respective messages.

“There are some individuals that have a history of showing up at our events to disrupt them,” Zurawski said, citing the incident in April as well as an educational event sponsored by the Arab Student Association last spring.

“It seems like when we try to do an educational event, there are always a few people there to try to distort things,” said Ayman Balshe, Arab Student Association president.

Both Zurawski and Balshe said the disruptions came from individuals and not from the Friends of Israel group as a whole.

Nahmias and Fine said they think the tensions surface when certain kinds of groups are involved.

“These people are not willing to listen to what the other side has to say,” Nahmias said, referring to the Anti-War Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine.

“There are plenty of people who fight for the same cause and do it differently,” he said.

Julie Sweitzer, director of the Office for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, said tensions throughout the world affect relations between student groups.

“I think the international situation in general is heightening sensitivity as well as the potential for incidents,” Sweitzer said. “We have to be attentive to maintain positive relations between groups on campus.”

Harry Boyte, codirector of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Humphrey Institute, said he thinks groups on both sides of the issue have fallen into a new conception of politics.

“There’s a deeper problem, which is seeing politics in terms of winners and losers,” Boyte said. “In solving problems there’s not one simple truth, and that’s especially true in the case of the Middle East.”

Boyte said this problem is related to a diminishing concept of public space for people with different views to interact and solve problems.

“There’s been a movement of different groups toward their own subcultures,” Boyte said. “Working on this problem is working on one of the biggest problems in our world in providing spaces where people learn to deal with other kinds of people.”

Learning to deal with one another and recognize each other’s suffering are initiatives Nusseibeh said Israelis and Palestinians must take if they want a peaceful future.

“I think it is enough time that we have not dealt with the problems, that we have tried to hide the problems under the carpet,” Nusseibeh said. “We have suffered enough. And there is no reason, no reason on earth, why we should go on suffering.”


Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]