UCCS Palestine-Israel teach-in provides more insight into ongoing conflict

On Feb. 8, UCCS hosted a second Palestine-Israel Teach-In, expanding upon the event from last November.

Associate professor G. Carole Woodall coordinated the event and introduced four panelists who provided their perspectives on the conflict between Palestine and Israel. Woodall said the purpose of this second teach-in was to focus on history, human rights and global perspectives.

Liora Halperin — professor of international studies and history, distinguished endowed chair of Jewish studies at University of Washington

Halperin spoke on themes of Zionism, nationalism and settler colonialism throughout history.

According to Halperin, the state of Israel was founded by Zionism, which she said serves two purposes: “Zionism is and was both a project of ethnic national revival, [as well as] a bid for much needed collective safety and a project effectuated through the mechanisms and processes of settler colonialism,” Halperin said.

Halperin said that Zionism has its origins amidst the collapse of the Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires during World War I. She said Eastern European Jews in particular were facing rising economic instability.

Halperin added that by the late nineteenth century the largest concentration of the Jewish population was in Eastern Europe, but essential communities were established in Western Europe, the Middle East and North Africa as well.

She said that Zionism emerged as Jewish people looked for a safe environment to live in, leading to the idea of modern nationalism.

“There was one fundamental wrench in the Zionist ethnonational concept, which is that Palestine, or the land of Israel, at that time only had a very small community of Jews. They were about 5% of the population,” Halperin said.

According to Halperin, settler colonialism emerged soon after. “Settler colonialism is a term that was defined to help scholars understand places … built through forms of colonization that didn’t fit standard Imperial paradigms,” she said. “It is a strategy that has been used historically by a variety of groups in the modern era, with the goal of resolving and crucially escaping economic, cultural or political problems in their places of origin.”

Halperin thinks that this initiative may have been encouraged by wealthier countries who wanted to encourage a ‘destabilizing population’ to move out of their country, saying, “[because] Jewish settlers in Palestine were victimized in their place of origin, they aspired to create a new model society that did not represent the empire that they came from.”

Halperin also said that this is a case of settler colonialism because they had no place to return to. The British Empire went on to capture Palestine in World War I and encouraged the formation of a Jewish ethnonational state there.

“For Zionists, this seemed like the perfect convergence,” Halperin said. “It was an opportunity to revive a scattered national community in their historic homeland, to escape the problem of antisemitism to be agents of modernization.”

As time marched on, the pressure to settle only increased. “Come the 1930s, more and more Jews were in positions of crisis and they were looking to leave … and so for them, the imperative to protect, and defend and expand their settlement by and for Jews only increased because it seemed to them that there was no choice but to settle,” Halperin said.

Eventually, Zionists secured 75% of Palestine and established the Israeli state. “In 1967, Israel conquered the West Bank, and Gaza held these territories under military occupation-civilian settlement. Again, the project of national return was coupled with a settler colonial vision of creating a better life through control of territory,” Halperin said.

Halperin described the framework behind settler colonialism as a tool, emphasizing that it should not be treated as weaponry.

“The framework of settler colonialism is not a bludgeon against Israelis, or at least I think it shouldn’t be. It’s an explanatory tool,” Halperin said. “This framework can help us understand the slow grind of displacement, dispossession, surveillance and second-class citizenship over many years. It can also help us see why and how most Israeli Jews can’t even see and often deny that it’s taking place.”

Halperin thinks it is important to recognize internal hierarchies because they affect Israeli Jews living on the social periphery. “Many Israelis are profoundly victimized and marginalized, even if they are, unlike most Palestinians, afforded some of the benefits of an exclusionary set of laws,” she said.

Sa’ed Atshan — chair of peace and conflict studies and anthropology at Swarthmore College

Atshan identifies as Palestinian and grew up in the West Bank, which is a Palestinian territory. He focused on ten subtopics during his speech.

  1. Academic freedom

Atshan mentioned the banning of those speaking in support of Israel and Palestine from college campuses across the country. “Academic freedom is under assault. It’s under assault on all sides of the political spectrum,” he said.

He thinks that these speakers should not be de-platformed, even if he does not personally agree with them. “If we believe in freedom of speech, then maybe the best ideas prevail. All ideas should be heard, and all ideas should be debated,” Atshan said.

2. Critical analysis of media sources

Atshan encouraged those present to diversify the media sources they look at and consider perspectives they do not necessarily agree with: “It doesn’t mean I have to agree with the other perspective, but being open to other perspectives allows us to refine our own perspectives when we consider arguments.”

3. International humanitarian law and human rights.

Atshan emphasized the importance of turning to the United Nations and human rights watch organizations to get accurate information on the treatment of Israeli and Palestinian citizens. “I trust them, they have integrity; I trust their reports; I trust their analysis,” Atshan said.

4. The conflict should not be reduced to religious terms

Atshan thinks the conflict is related to settler colonialism, indigeneity, land, environment and human rights, saying it is not just a matter of religion. He also thinks reducing the situation to a conflict between Jewish people and Muslims is oversimplified.

5. Asymmetrical power

Atshan disagrees with the narrative that the conflict is between two equal military powers.

“In reality, one is the state and one is a stateless population. One is the occupier, and one is the occupied. One has the full backing of the United States — the superpower of the world with nuclear weapons — and one is a largely defenseless population with some non-state armed groups,” Atshan said.

6. Hegemonic discourse on violence

Atshan thinks there is a double standard that exists when talking about violence committed by Palestinians as opposed to Israelis. He then provided some examples of the double standards that he has noticed.

“The Israeli violence is rational. The Palestinian violence is irrational. The Israeli violence is for security and self-defense. The Palestinian violence is terrorism,” Atshan said, illustrating ideas held by a lot of people.

Atshan also said he sees the media perpetuating these double standards. “When Israelis are killed, there’s an active voice, the perpetrators are named. When Palestinians are killed, it’s often passive voice. The perpetrators are not named. I encourage us to think critically about that [and] move beyond that,” Atshan said.

7. How people categorize civilians

Atshan said that both sides were targeting and devaluing the lives of civilians on the other side. He said “not all Israelis are settler colonialists, and Palestinians do not deserve the senseless slaughter of civilians occurring in Gaza.”

8. Maintain moral consistency

Atshan emphasized the importance of establishing morals that apply to any groups involved.

He said he believes the crimes and victims of crimes from either side need to be evaluated, “We should name war crimes, regardless of who the perpetrator is, and regardless of who the victim is, in a morally consistent fashion,” Atshan said.

9. The role of gender

Atshan spoke about the disproportionate political violence against women and children, but emphasized the erasure of men as victims of violence.“I also invite us to consider the dehumanization of Palestinian men. The number of men [killed] is erased, as if they’re all Hamas militants, as if they all deserve to be killed as if they all deserve to die,” he said.

10. Centering humanization

Atshan spoke about the importance of compassion and considering human emotion when seeking justice.

“Radical humanization in all of our discourse, being deeply committed to justice, but ensuring that that commitment to justice is grounded in an ethic of peace of love and compassion, empathy, and seeing the humanity of all,” Atshan said.

Sara Awartani — assistant professor of American culture, Latina/o studies, Arab and Muslim American studies at the University of Michigan

Awartani compared the history of Puerto Ricans to Palestinians and emphasized the solidarity between the two.

Awartani described the recent clamor among journalists to explain the parallels between Puerto Rico and Palestine. “Puerto Rico, like Palestine, faces a similar struggle against colonialism. There is a situation of humanitarian crisis and genocide.”

“Israel’s violence against Gaza caused us to uncover not just historic parallels between Puerto Rico and Palestine, but to also uncover the long history of Puerto Rican solidarities with Palestine. These solidarities were birthed in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and were rooted in a broader politics of anti-imperialism and left internationalism,” Awartani said.

Awartani thinks that solidarity is strongly rooted in militant politics and the utilization — of armed struggles to achieve decolonization by any means necessary.

She said there has also been a consistent history of both Puerto Ricans and Palestinians living in Chicago facing the same oppression. “In the 1970s, both Puerto Rican and Palestinian Chicago found themselves consistently monitored by local and federal authorities. The former as part of a broader federal investigation into the Puerto Rican independence movement, and the latter in response to Palestinian terrorism,” Awartani said.

Awartani credited this as planting the seeds of solidarity. “It was these mutual experiences of state surveillance and political repression that brought Puerto Ricans and Palestinians in Chicago together, especially among student activists at the University of Illinois at Chicago.”

Awartani thinks there has been a long history of delegitimizing Palestinian and Puerto Rican resistance movements as terrorist organizations.

“Yet, the long history of Puerto Rican solidarities with Palestine cannot be divorced from these radical protest traditions,” Awartani said. “And that’s because the story of Puerto Rican solidarity with Palestine, much like the story of Puerto Rican Chicago, is also a story of the United States’ unrelenting efforts to cast the independence movement as a terrorist and therefore a legitimate political menace.”

Jonathan Sciarcon — associate professor of history and Judaic studies, center for Judaic studies and gender and women’s studies at University of Denver

Sciarcon gave his perspective as an associate professor and what he feels his responsibilities are in the classroom. “The main questions I am constantly considering, are what is my responsibility as a teacher to my students, and what is my responsibility as a teacher to society,” Sciarcon said.

He spoke on how education plays a role in expanding worldview. “Over the years, I adapted my syllabi, I created new courses, I did my best to try to reach every student to diversify my syllabus in terms of the kinds of voices I was having students read and I really put a lot of effort into it,” Sciarcon said.

In the past, Sciarcon has had trouble making sure both Jewish and Muslim students in his class feel comfortable with the course material. “I really struggled with this because it’s, I just, I just wanted everyone to learn, and I wanted everyone to be exposed to important material,” he said.

Sciarcon thinks the most ethical thing he can do is continue to teach uncomfortable histories. “Teach the topics, double down on insisting that students have to grapple with uncomfortable ideas, histories and debates. Some of them may not like it; it may make them uncomfortable, but I truly believe that students need to be exposed to these things.”

“I am a firm supporter of free speech, and of academic freedom, and I do not believe that people should be penalized for taking political positions publicly,” he said.

Sciarcon emphasized the Jewish right to self-determination. “I don’t deny that Zionism is a legitimate nationalist organization nationalist movement, but I have no problem with people who do. They have every right to do so. I also share anti-Zionist primary sources in my class, including from within the Jewish communities, because those existed,” Sciarcon said.

Sciarcon repeatedly mentioned the importance of free speech and academic research, regardless of whether someone agrees with the speaker or not. He thinks it is an attack on people’s rights to limit what they are able to discuss in an academic setting.

Left to right: Carole Woodall, Liora Halperin, Sa’ed Atshan, Sara Awartani, and Jonathan Sciarcon. Photo by Meghan Germain.