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Q&A: Controversial film on Israeli-Palestinian conflict discussed

(Jessica Picard/ Daily Collegian)

Leila Aruri is a senior public health major and the current president of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Massachusetts.

Rachel Ellis is a freshman political science major, a member of Student Allied for Israel [SAFI] and has interned at the Lappin Foundation for three years, a non-profit whose mission, according to their website, is to enhance “Jewish identity across generations.”

On Nov. 5, the Marbleheaders for Progressive Change hosted a screening of “The Occupation of the American Mind,” co-directed by UMass Communication Professor Sut Jhally, which drew protests supported by the Lappin Foundation. These two student activists shared their perspectives.

Rebecca Duke Wiesenberg: This November, the Daily Hampshire Gazette published an article about what they called a “virulent” protest supported by the Lappin Foundation of the screening of the film. What was the value of the protests? 

Leila Aruri: A lot of what you see in the United States — and “The Occupation of the American Mind” speaks to this — is that the conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism [is] used as a tool to shut down any criticism of Israeli policy. So a lot of times — and we see this on campus for SJP — there’s this blanket labeling of all of our events as ‘anti-Semitic.’ It’s used as a very powerful and effective tool of shutting down events that are designed to criticize Israeli policy, because no one wants to be labeled as ‘anti-Semitic.’ Ever.

Rachel Ellis: To me, I think it was just an organization of the community coming together and being able to voice that this movie that had made false claims about Israel was being projected to the people, and they were really coming together to just enforce that this is not what we live. We cannot live in an anti-Semitic society, and we cannot be devaluing certain people in certain groups in response to this video, and I think coming together really showed how people organize.

RDW: How well-informed do you think students at UMass are about this issue?

LA: Oh, very ill-informed. It’s not even a question…If you ask [most students] where Palestine is, they don’t know that it’s a place on a map.

RE: I completely agree. At college campuses, there are students on every end. You have Students for Justice in Palestine, you have Students Allied for Israel. So there are students that are informed, but in the middle, there’s this huge chunk that is so apathetic to the cause and really doesn’t understand what is going on either side, and has no opinion and really no knowledge on the topic.

RDW: Do you think it’s worth it to show this film at UMass? What do you think the result would be? Do you think it’d garner the same reaction as in Marblehead?

LA: I don’t know that it would garner exactly the same reaction, but I would say something very similar, as I can 100 percent guarantee that there would be an accusation of anti-Semitism in relation to the film. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that a film like this should be shown at UMass. It covers everything from how the Israeli government has formed itself to dictate media coverage in the United States by funneling gross amounts of time and money into how Israel is perceived, and this conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

RE: I want to voice that the professor [Sut Jhally], who directed and produced this film, does show it in his class each semester, so it is technically being shown on campus, but not to a wide audience. Personally, I do not believe that this film should be shown on campus or in schools anywhere, and this is why it [caused] such an uproar in Marblehead. I do not believe that it would have the same reaction that it did in Marblehead. I do believe that there would be some accusations on both sides about the film, but I don’t believe that it would garner protest, and I think that’s because if this film was shown on campus, I don’t know how many students, realistically, would attend it.

RDW: The film discusses the role of media in the conflict, especially the difference in the United States’ and Europe’s coverage and choice of pundits. How do you think media coverage of this issue has impacted your own perception and viewpoints? 

LA: I’m going to speak really personally. I am Palestinian-Lebanese. I’m one-fourth Palestinian; my grandfather was born in East Jerusalem. I grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, which is a very affluent community…a very white community… and a very Jewish community. I did not know what it meant to be Palestinian growing up, but I did not want to be affiliated with it at all. I had heard the word; I didn’t understand ethnicity or nationality or things like that at that time in my life, but I knew that the United States did not support Palestinians and I wanted to be supportive of the country I was born in, so I decided that I would not tell people that I was Palestinian. Of course, I had a lot of experiences in school where Israel was mentioned, and my assumption was that, ‘OK, all of these things must be true. The Palestinians are bad. This must be how it is.’ So I don’t think I ever told anyone I was Palestinian until my senior year of high school, even though it was a big part of my family history in the way that it influenced my family’s life, [mainly] in terms of my grandfather. A big part of that [personal perception] was that Arabs in general being portrayed [negatively] in media. I mean, they’re portrayed as terrorists 95 percent of the time. That was a big thing for me growing up, and I don’t think it was until I started to do my own reading — my own research — that I realized that there’s a lot more here than I had ever given myself a chance to understand. There is a lot of internalized racism that I’ve projected onto myself because of the way the media covers Palestinians and Arabs and the Middle East in general. Talking about Palestine and Arabs and the Middle East are very different things. There’s obviously some very explicit connections, but each people have their own history and their own culture. I don’t think that it’s appropriate to blanket…the Middle East when, actually, you’re talking about Palestinians. That’s done in the media a lot, and that’s done in public perception a lot also. Yeah, it’s had a huge impact on my life.

RE: In the U.S. media coverage, I have seen that Arabs are portrayed as terrorists — I think that’s something that’s absolutely wrong, something that needs to be combated and terminated. But, looking at the media coverage of Israel, my education growing up and going through schooling, I didn’t know about Israel at all. The first time I ever even thought about it wasn’t even because of my Jewish heritage, but was because I went to Israel on a trip in 2015 with the Lappin Foundation — that completely changed my view. I honestly did not know what to expect at all. I hadn’t heard of anything. When I went through my history classes, I took world history and American history and foreign history, and I had not heard a word about it; it’s a chapter — Palestine and Israel — that teachers tend to skip over, which I think is an extreme problem. I think it’s something students need to be educated on so they are able to form their opinions and form their voice on campuses, such as UMass. But, I think — with the younger generation especially — it is resonating that ‘Israel is this evil country in the Middle East, Israel has done so much wrong,’ and that is very problematic for myself because I am a huge supporter of Israel. While…no country is perfect, I am a huge supporter of the country and seeing these warped perceptions and misconceptions students have about the country and what’s going on in Israel has been really hard for me to be able to stand up and say, ‘No, this is what’s going on’ without having experienced it, because they haven’t been to Israel. [Other students] don’t know what’s exactly going on there, especially with the media coverage today.

RDW: [Co-director Jeremy] Earp also stated that the screening of the film “didn’t engage in the issue of Palestinian rights like [the filmmakers] should.” How do you think students on campus could engage better with this issue?

 LA: [SJP] had an event titled, “The Exploitation of Anti-Semitism” and…I was really happy to see a lot of pro-Israel people there because I don’t think we’ve had an event where the pro-Israel side has felt the need to engage with us. But I want to be careful about engaging people on college campuses because, often times, when you’re engaging the oppressor, the oppressor’s narrative becomes the only thing that dominates the conversation. You can’t really have that conversation on campus without it being dominated by a pro-Israel perspective.

RE: Talking about the student body, we are college students, and I think that it is necessary that we explore all of these concepts and what is going on in this area of the world. There should absolutely be representation of both sides because, right now, we are becoming so divided. So I think it’s important for our community, as college students, to really take time to understand each other’s point of view and come together and have that dialogue — speak in a manner [where] we can hear each other out and feed off of the education from each other. Ultimately, we can start a peaceful revolution here in the U.S. I say that it is completely legitimate to criticize Israel. I think that I can do that myself; I think that others can criticize Israel and Israeli policy, but not delegitimize Israel and say that it doesn’t have the right to exist. It is so hard to be able to understand what’s truly going on in Israel here because of warped media. I think it’s important to be able to host events, have a basis for education on this campus about what is going on in Israel and Palestine and that there are classes that do focus on both sides of the issue. We have student groups on campus, like SAFI, who try to engage and educate students on what is going on in Israel and who Israel is, and I think that’s incredibly important. Definitely both voices need to be heard — I think it’s necessary for this campus to function properly and educate its students properly.

RDW: The Lappin Foundations viewed the film as “anti-Semitic,” yet Jhally and Earp “rejected the notion.” Do you think that there is a misunderstanding on what anti-Semitism is? 

LA: There’s not a misunderstanding or miscommunication of what anti-Semitism is; there’s an explicit and intentional use of anti-Semitism to shut down criticism of Israeli policy. That is done everywhere. People know what anti-Semitism is. Jewish people experience anti-Semitism every day. The president of our country is anti-Semitic. It’s a really powerful tool in order to shut down criticism of Israeli policy that actually would be OK in other cases. The exact definition of anti-Semitism is so detached from the political project of Zionism and criticizing a political government, but the issue…is that, when Israel was established, it was inherently and intentionally connected to the religion. I wouldn’t say that there’s a misunderstanding because I think that — and I can only speak for myself, I’m not Jewish—there’s a long history of anti-Semitism around the world. There’s currently anti-Semitism that people experience every day, so I would urge people who label us as a group as anti-Semitic — our events as anti-Semitic — to really understand the implications of that and to understand that when you call someone “anti-Semitic” — and there is legitimate criticism and there are legitimate claims of anti-Semitism and that is something that is taken seriously — [SJP]  never is. I would urge people to think about how that is perpetuated in a sense that gets people, instead of talking about Palestinians, to talk about Israelis or Israeli-Jewish folks.

RE:  I believe that students know what anti-Semitism is. I’ve experienced it throughout my life and I know that it has been experienced in the past and in the present. I know that it’s a thing on college campuses — it’s a thing around the world. I think people understand what anti-Semitism is, I think they know it’s hatred against the Jewish religion. I think, in regard to anti-Semitism and the word “anti-Semitism,” when it comes to understanding anti-Semitism, it is correlated with anti-Zionist movements. In my opinion, not giving the Jewish people the right to a Jewish state is saying, “You don’t deserve the protection because you are a different culture, a different ethnicity that we don’t want.” I don’t think that is valid; I don’t think anyone should say something like that, and that is why I believe that, in my heart, that that is anti-Semitic.

RDW: How can we foster civil conversations between different viewpoints on campus? 

LA: Fostering an understanding between very opposite groups needs to not be understood in terms of, “I care about my people and you care about your people and that’s it.” I have never really thought of people my age affiliated with pro-Israel groups to be people that I don’t share understanding and interests with, but I think part of it is that it’s really hard for me to come to the table and have a debate or a ‘dialogue’ about Palestine and Israel, because this one side has enormous power that’s implicated in so many levels and the Palestinians have nothing.  My understanding of SJP is that it’s very intersectional and very embedded in human rights, but also in institutions of power that dominate certain narratives and conversations, and I think that’s part of the film.

RE: First of all, I never want to pit SJP against SAFI. I don’t think that it is something in which they are on one side, we are on another; I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think this massive amount of hostility…should ever be happening on any campus. But, I think it is important that we interact as much as we can. I know that, on other college campuses, they are very much pitted against each other, and I don’t think that’s right. I think we both stand for human rights. I know that we all care about people, and I think that is so important.

Rebecca Duke Wiesenberg can be reached at rdukewiesenb@umass.edu.

Comments
2 Responses to “Q&A: Controversial film on Israeli-Palestinian conflict discussed”
  1. NITZAKHON says:

    The Arabs could have had peace many times over, the latest time in 2008 when Israel offered Gaza (which had already been handed back), the West Bank, and provisions for a corridor between them.

    But in Islam, “take back what they took from you” is a command from Allah. I.e., any lands that were once held by Islam must be taken back. It’s a divine command; it’s not land, it’s religion.

    What do you think “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free” really means? It means a destroyed Israel.

    (Also, the “useful idiot” Jews who take the Arab side? You need to look up the history of sacred deception, e.g., taquiyya, tawriya, etc. A Muslim can look you square in the eye and lie to you about wanting peace; also, check out “Treaty of Hudaibiya” in which Mohammed signed a peace treaty with the Meccans only to abrogate it when it was convenient – since he is the Perfect Man, his model is emulated.)

  2. Ally says:

    Totally agree, Nitzakhon

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