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Letter: SJP event on Palestine history unhelpful and misleading

What is the best way to promote peace in the Middle East? Though the answer is not clear, it is certainly not spewing incorrect and anti-Semitic rhetoric to students on campus. On April 2, UMN’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine hosted an event titled “Palestine 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Palestine.” Based on the title and description, I thought the event’s aim was to educate students on Palestinian politics, history and culture. I was wrong.

The speaker, Russ Waletski, spent the first half of his lecture misrepresenting and attempting to debunk the Torah, the holiest book to the Jewish people, by cherry-picking quotes to disparage the values of Judaism. It was clear that his aim was to convince the audience that Jews have no connection to the land of Israel and that Zionism is antithetical to Judaism. Not only is this proclamation blatantly offensive and deeply hurtful to me and other Jewish students, but it is simply incorrect and ignores over 3,000 years of Jewish history. Zionism is not a new concept for American Jews. 

The origins of modern Zionism date back to 1897 when Theodor Herzl founded the World Zionist Organization with the vision of securing a Jewish homeland in Israel. Furthermore, the notion that the land was given to the Jewish people after the Holocaust is demonstrably false; the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was the first official document in modern history that recognized the Jewish right to the land of Israel and predates the Holocaust. Jewish people have an indigenous status in this land and when speaking about Jewish history, this must be recognized. 

An additional disturbing statement made by Waletski was his gross misrepresentation of Zionism. He claimed that Zionism is a new concept and that Jews returning to the land of Israel is a new phenomenon. This is a particularly insensitive statement. For 2,000 years of exile, Jews pray three times a day while facing Jerusalem, hoping for a return to the land of Israel. This is simple proof that Jews and Judaism have a deep connection to and desire for this land. It is inappropriate to have a person inaccurately speak about Jewish history who is not a Jewish person or Jewish scholar in any sense. Just as our campus community should not accept such co-opting of another community’s history and identity, our campus should refuse to accept this bigotry toward the Jewish community.

Let me be clear: the Jewish people have and will always have a strong, undeniable connection to the land of Israel. SJP refuses to have dialogue and conversation with Jewish students on campus but continues to hold events that are factually inaccurate and misrepresent Judaism and the Jewish people. UMN SJP, I urge you to host events that focus on your community, history and culture rather than speaking for mine. If you truly care about the Palestinian struggle, this should be your top priority. Instead, the student group plans events led by biased, misinformed individuals who spew anti-Semitic rhetoric. 

It is disappointing that there was no mention of any path to peace or improvement of Palestinian conditions during the two-hour lecture, but rather a clear intention to target my people by declaring that “Jews introduced terror to Palestine, not Christians and Muslims.” This blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric does not open discussion. Instead, it drives our communities further apart. I reached out via email to SJP asking for an opportunity to voice my concerns about this event and received no response.

This letter has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Maya Strohm is a junior at the University of Minnesota studying neuroscience. Shay Gilbert Burke is a sophomore studying management information systems.

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