Last fall, Jeremy Garza ’14 spent his junior semester abroad in the Netherlands, collecting oral histories of queer individuals from the Middle East. The stories he heard inspired Garza to advocate for the rights and recognition of the Palestinian people when he returned to Vassar the following semester.
According to Garza, American media sources fail to inform the public about both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In an attempt to remedy this, Michael Prentice-Glasgow ’15 and Yasmine Hallab ’15 founded Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) last year.
Naomi Dann ‘14 explained what SJP hopes to accomplish on campus.
Dann explained, “In the short term, the main goal is to begin conversations and dialogues on campus around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the Palestinian struggle for human rights. In the long term, I believe the intention is to divest the college from corporations who profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.”
With both Prentice-Glasgow and Hallab are studying abroad in Palestine this semester, Nicole Massad now serves as interim SJP president. Massad believes that the topic of Israel and Palestine is seldom mentioned at Vassar.
She said, “Vassar prides itself on having a very socially conscious student body, so it was a shock for me to find that this issue is rarely talked about on campus.”
This is an aspect of college discussion that SJP is trying to change. Massad and Garza lead the group in discussing specific aspects of the situation and inviting all students, wherever they stand on the issue, to participate. Members are encouraged to listen, ask questions and challenge all the preconceptions they carried with them.
SJP has plans to invite guest speakers to meetings and host film screenings.
Massad said, “Students for Justice in Palestine is breaking the stigma of questioning the Israeli regime and our own government’s funding of its war crimes, while enunciating clearly that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.”
Open, honest conversation is going to be key in SJP’s work in the year. Dann said, “We will be facilitating spaces for dialogue on these issues, and working to raise awareness and engagement around these issues.”
This year the International Study Travel course will include a trip to Israel during spring break. The course, however, will study the region from the perspective of water resources and largely exclude information surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Garza argues that the conflict over water in the region is too important to ignore. Domestically, Palestinians use 70 liters of water daily whereas Israelis use 290 liters per day.
Failure to share water resources equally can be traced to continuing tensions in the region, according to Garza.
Massad knows firsthand how the water crisis relates to conflict in the region because her parents are immigrants from Lebanon.
“Lebanon has been home to almost a million Palestinian refugees since 1948 that live in camps that barely have running water,” she said.
Massad also regards the funding for the International Studies trip more as a means of supporting the Israel Ministry of Tourism than of fairly depicting the treatment and living conditions of the Palestinians. SJP has promised to hold a campus-wide meeting to discuss the implications of the course trip.
For many members of SJP, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a deeply personal issue.
Massad, for example, believes that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict shaped the lives of her family and homeland long before her parents were born.
“Having heard horror stories from my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents since I was born, I was outraged and disturbed by the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which included countless attacks on civilians,” said Massad.
This incident was a call to action for Massad. “That is when I knew I could not continue to live with myself, in a country whose government funds Israel’s slaughter and attempted eradication of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, unless I spoke out against it,” said Massad.
She added, “[I] could not accept that I was living comfortably in the States while the rest of my family relived their worst nightmare under missile attack and ground invasion.”
Naomi Dann is a Peace and Justice Studies major and joined SJP to deepen her understanding of both sides of the conflict.
Dann said, “I have studied the conflict for a long time, and though I feel that I can never fully understand everything, I feel that my complicity as an American, as a Jew and as a person concerned with issues of peace, justice and human rights compel me to take an active role in trying to grapple with these issues.”
With their varying backgrounds and goals for SJP, the members aspire to make an impact through initiating a campus-wide conversation about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Garza suggests that we cannot stop talking about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict until conditions improve for all parties. He explained, “When it comes to issues of oppression, the liberation of one cannot happen until the liberation of all.”