Tensions sparked at an International Affairs Society forum on the crisis in the Middle East Tuesday night, as students argued back and forth about violence affecting the region. The forum reflected the discord among some Muslim and Jewish students on campus that has developed in the weeks following the outbreak of violence in the Middle East.
While most students who gathered for the forum said they supported peace in the region, few could agree on a way to achieve it.
“Emotions ran high,” IAS President Daniel Loren said. “There was a good deal of rhetoric, but also a lot of resistance to rhetoric.”
Loren said a majority of the attendees supported creating an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
The Zionist movement, which supports the establishment of a Jewish homeland, was a hotly debated issue at the forum.
Several participants at the forum said Zionism is racist.
“The key is that people who profess to be a Zionist should really study the philosophical and intellectual basis for the Zionist movements,” Muslim Student Association President Faisal Matadar said. “If they’re honest with themselves, it has very little to do with true Judaism.”
Jewish Student Association President Samuel Caplan, who said Zionism is not racist, said discussion about the issue hurts progress made between the two sides.
“This is not about Zionism; this is about a land that a great many people have felt passionate for 4,000 years and to discuss Zionism is to discuss nothing more than a sound bite to rustle emotion and to turn it into something it’s not,” Caplan said.
“As the MSA, we support peace,” said MSA Vice President Layla El-Wafi. “However Islam is also a very just religion . calling for what’s fair and what’s just.”
El-Wafi said she feels that most people have failed to look beyond the “30-second blurbs on TV.”
Caplan said the climate of student opinion on campus has remained relatively calm.
“I had a meeting with 12 students from local campuses at the Israeli Embassy and we shared experiences,” Caplan said. “In terms of what’s going on with other campuses, what we’re experiencing is mild.”
Caplan said other campuses have attempted to unify Muslim and Jewish students with events similar to a student-organized peace vigil last week.
Members of the Muslim Student Association, Arab Student Association and Jewish Student Association took part in a that vigil at Kogan Plaza last week to commemorate the deaths of victims of Middle East violence.
“Most campuses have tried to put together some unifying program like we did,” he said. “Basically what’s been wonderful here is that individual students . got together and put together that vigil.”
But some students said student comments and graphic materials blaming Israelis for Middle East bloodshed at last week’s vigil did not promote the fundamental theme of peace.
“Basically (the material) does nothing but incite violence . it’s purely an appeal to emotion,” Caplan said. “We’re not going to get into a propaganda war.”
Havi Arbeter, chairperson of the GW Friends of Israel, said some messages expressed at the vigil upset her.
“I felt we had come there (for peace),” she said. “I feel it was (tainted) at the end.”
Both El-Wafi and Matadar said the information was necessary to understand the situation.
“It’s making sure that people have an understanding of the issue,” Matadar said.
El-Wafi said the fliers helped inform students about “the reality of what’s going on.”
Mike Plostock, who organized the vigil with ASA member Rafid Fadul, said he felt controversy over graphic fliers and posters did not dominate the vigil.
“I’d like to think the message of the vigil was stronger than the fliers people passed out,” Plostock said.
One of the fliers handed out at Tuesday’s IAS meeting questions U.S. aid to Israel, displaying a picture of the 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot by Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip.
Matadar said that although the MSA did not produce the material, it was distributed by members of the MSA and is consistent with the organization’s goals.
Both Caplan and Matadar said they hoped the two organizations could work together.
“I spoke with Faisal for the first time at the vigil and I would like to challenge the MSA to really come to the table and put together some opportunities for Muslim and Jewish students,” Caplan said. “We have such a strong common bond that a lot of people look past . There’s a lot of potential for dialogue.”
But Caplan said he is unsure of whether the MSA is interested in his proposal.
“I don’t see that it’s not possible, it just depends,” Matadar said. “I definitely think education should work between the two organizations . We are both religious organizations and not political organizations.”
Several students said they felt Tuesday’s forum was successful.
“I think we heard some perspectives we usually don’t hear, especially things you don’t hear in the media,” said senior Tarek Elgawhary, treasurer of the MSA and president of the D.C. Council of the MSA of the United States and Canada. “It’s dangerous if you don’t have knowledge of the history and forces at play.”
El-Wafi said the biggest obstacle to establishing a common understanding is the perception of some Jewish students that the conflict started in 1948, the year the state of Israel was established in the British mandate of Palestine.
“In 1948 when one country was born another died . a lot of people don’t see it from that perspective,” El-Wafi said.
Lindsay Miller, vice president of Seeds of Peace – a group that promotes peace among Israeli and Palestinian teenagers through its camps in Jerusalem and Maine – said focusing on history does not help the prospects for peace. Miller gave the keynote address at the forum.
“Retracing history . and then based on that trying to place blame is counterproductive,” Miller said after Tuesday’s meeting. “The bottom line is they’re going to have to figure out how to be neighbors.”
Stuart Fleishman, an ESIA senior who has worked and studied in Israel, said he came to the forum because he believes in peace.
“I met with the mayors and I saw people who wanted to make peace. Young students would e-mail each other, Muslims and Jews,” he said. “I came to talk about cooperation, and I think it only alienates people when they raise their voices and blame people.”
Bud Koramie, an Arab Christian and a doctoral student with an interest in the Middle East, said that although he was generally in support of the Palestinians, he did not think the presentation of the issue as a zero-sum game is helpful.
“This is a conflict that’s 10 percent political and 90 percent religious, and not just an issue of sovereignty,” Caplan said. “Every injustice that occurs to one party . there’s an equal and similar injustice to the other party.”
El-Wafi said somebody wrote obscene messages on a poster she placed on her residence hall door depicting the importance of the issue. She said she reported the incident to UPD.
Even with high campus tensions, Loren said the IAS event was not as tense as a World Bank forum last spring.
“I think people understand that things aren’t black and white and they’re really a lot greyer,” Loren said.
-Rich Murphy contributed to this report.