The interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict has entered its latest round, and with it have come the now-familiar demonstrations around the world generally condemning—but occasionally supporting—Israel’s decision to go to war in Gaza. Earlier this month, Stanford saw a combination of the two, first with a vigil the night of January 8 and then a protest the afternoon of January 9, both organized by Students Confronting Apartheid by Israel (SCAI). Emotions ran high at times, but as a whole, both events ran relatively smoothly.
The vigil on Thursday night began with a “prayer for peace” by campus minister Geoff Browning. In it, he asked “The Holy One” for, among other things, “the gift of anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation.” After that, a contingent of the Raging Grannies (a so-called “activist organization” similar to Code Pink) led the group in obnoxious song, chanting that peace cannot come while Israel continues to bomb Gaza. Fadi Quran ’10, president of SCAI and a native of the West Bank, then invited everyone present to grab a candle and stand together in two minutes of silence for the victims on both sides of the conflict.
Unfortunately, the following purported information session proved to be far from objective. Two out of three of the speakers were anti-Israel Jews who used the platform to proclaim their support for Hamas and spout conspiracy theories. Anti-Israel Professor Joel Beinin was due to make an appearance, but illness prevented him from attending. In his place was the first presenter of the night, Professor Hilton Zimmerman, who identified himself as “an American Jew whose family was murdered by the Nazis.” Despite this background, he nonetheless felt compelled to publicly castigate the Jewish state. Zimmerman spoke for several minutes about the humanitarian issues in the current crisis before ending with the insightful comment that the last time he visited Gaza, it was “not a very happy place.”
Next up was the keynote speaker of the night, Professor Khalil Barhoum, coordinator of Stanford’s program of Middle Eastern and African Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. Barhoum gave a cookie-cutter anti-Israel presentation, decrying the “atrocious” and “inhumane” treatment of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis without once mentioning the thousands of rockets that have been terrorizing southern Israel since 2005. He dismissed the notion that Israel was acting in self-defense, stating that it was, on the contrary, engaging in deliberate “delegitimization of the Palestinian leadership” and “dehumanization of the Palestinian people” in an “exact replay” of what it did to Yasser Arafat’s PLO in Lebanon in 1982. Barhoum concluded with more criticism of Israel’s past policies before ceding the stage to the most colorful figure of the evening.
The final speaker, local reporter Eduardo Cohen, was so radical that he made the other speakers look almost Zionist in comparison. This ‘self-hating Jew’ explained that his anti-Israel feelings began with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and have steadily grown ever since. He then launched into a long-winded rant claiming that the entire situation in Gaza today was created by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Cohen claimed that Sharon orchestrated Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with the express purpose of igniting a Palestinian Civil War and thereby gaining an excuse to re-invade and kill as many Palestinians as possible. Despite this somewhat unorthodox point of view, he still managed to garner applause from the crowd at several points in his speech, especially when he praised Al Jazeera TV as “a more objective news network than all those in America put together.”
The vigil ended with short speeches by an Israeli community member and a Palestinian student, but the excitement continued with a rally in White Plaza at 1 PM the following day. Approximately fifty pro-Palestinian demonstrators and forty pro-Israel counter-demonstrators showed up, with the former carrying signs provided by the ANSWER Coalition declaring “The Real Terrorists U.S.-Israel” and “End the Massacre in Gaza.” The pro-Israel demonstrators held up homemade placards with statements such as “Let Israel Exist!” and “Ceasefire Now!” The Stanford Israel Alliance was also on hand distributing fliers presenting their side of the issue. One demonstrator, apparently aiming to be neutral, stood in between the crowds with a sign that stated, “The offensive is legal, but its conduct is highly problematic.”
Fadi Quran, who led and organized the Thursday night vigil, did the same for the protest. He began with an unorthodox move: asking the protesters from both sides to come together, shake hands, and hug. Both sides reluctantly complied, with the exception of several Israelis who refused to shake hands with Hamas supporters. Quran then gave a short speech about the crisis, briefly mentioning the rockets continuously fired at Israel by Hamas, and subsequently left the protesters to their own devices. The pro-Palestinian side began chants of “Free, free Palestine!” and “Free Gaza!” to which the pro-Israel side responded, “Free Gaza from Hamas!” This went on for roughly twenty minutes, interspersed with long interludes of relative silence, after which the two sides began to disperse.
Overall, the two events were nothing out of the ordinary for an American college campus in the current political climate. In fact, the events’ lack of blatant anti-Semitism or calls for genocide (as was the case at UC Irvine, for example, the same day as the Stanford protest) left them looking comparatively calm and even moderate. Despite this, it was still disappointing that the events presented such a one-sided view of the situation and mentioned the ongoing rocket attacks on southern Israel only once, and in passing. Perhaps some day it will be possible for both sides to take a step back and put the facts ahead of their emotions.