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Israeli-Palestinian Clash Incites MIT Activism

By Michelle L. Povinelli


“It’s important for a lot of people to come out and show their support for Israel, particularly now.”

-- Isaac E. Moses ’02

“Jewish people ... have to look at the families in Bethlehem and Ramallah, who are just trying to lead a normal life.”

--Julia K. Steinberger G

MIT students take sharply divergent views on the controversial issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the past weekend, members of the MIT community participated in two very different events: a march on Saturday to “protest Israeli military aggression,” and a rally on Sunday to “support Israel and its right to defend itself against terror.”

On Saturday, protesters wound through downtown Boston from Government Center to the Israeli Consulate, chanting “Hey, hey; ho, ho; the occupation’s got to go,” among other slogans. The organizers’ flyers condemned “the escalated use of military force by the Israeli army against Palestinian civilians.”

Basel Y. Al-Naffouri ’02, a Saudi national, said, “This is the least I can do for the people who are dying in Palestine.”

“We’re making a case to the people who saw us,” said Omar T. Abdala ’03. “Most people are completely unaware of the facts of the situation. If we cause more people to look into the situation themselves, they will see the truth of the situation.”

“You make one person aware and it will spread,” said Nasser S. Demir ’04, who grew up in Kuwait.

On Sunday, supporters gathered at Faneuil Hall for a rally entitled “Stand with Israel,” organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council. Tamar Tepper, a postdoctoral researcher from Israel, said that the organizers “tried to communicate some message to the U.S. government that terrorists are terrorists wherever they are and should be handled as such.” In her opinion, the rally was “mainly addressing the public in Israel” who need to know “that someone supports them somewhere else.”

“The reason I went is because I’m an Israeli citizen, and I’m supporting my country as well as my family and friends,” said Nava Ariel G. “Signs [that people displayed at the rally] were against terror and for peace ... I support that ... No one talked about exactly how to do it, they just said that Israel has the right to defend itself.”

Students take differing views

Supporters of the Palestinian cause tend to draw attention to what they view as the unacceptable conditions of life under Israeli occupation of and settlement in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Supporters of Israel tend to emphasize Israel’s need for self-defense and what they see as their neighbors’ refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. This difference in emphasis is accompanied by sharp differences in opinion, particularly over such divisive issues as suicide bombing and the actions of the Israeli military.

Protesters supporting the Palestinian cause at the Saturday march contended with a small, but vocal opposition. One female passerby called out, “bunch of murderers.”

Brice C. Smith G was one of the participants in the march. “I know I’m not in a position to understand [suicide bombers’] motivations,” he said, “but I don’t think that indiscriminate suicide bombings are a legitimate way to target combatants.”

Suicide bombing “has been blown out of proportion by the Israeli side,” said Julia K. Steinberger G. “To say that suicide bombing is worse than launching missiles into refugee camps, I don’t see how these two are different ... I think that if all attacks against civilians are being condemned, [the Israelis] should be condemning the actions of their own military more.”

Amir D. Rasowsky ’02, disagrees with this characterization of the Israeli military. “The types of violence that are occurring are completely different from one side to the next,” he said. While Palestinian violence against Israelis is “unpredictable... causing terror [and] fear of violence for every individual,” Israeli violence is pinpointed against “people who are armed, and trying to eliminate Jewish lives.”

According to Isaac E. Moses ’02, “The problem ... is that terrorists don’t go around in uniforms and make themselves conveniently separable from civilian populations. It creates an incredibly difficult position for the Israeli military. I’d be surprised if anyone could come up with a better solution than Israel has tried.”

Holy land home for some at MIT

For some students, commitment to action is linked to a personal connection to the region. Moses said, “I spent a year there [in Israel] studying Jewish studies, and I have family there, and I intend to live there ... but all of those are symptoms of something deeper. As a Jew, I feel a deep connection to the land which has been historically the homeland of the Jews.”

For Tepper, such a connection is crucial. “I’m not sure that it’s too healthy for people to interfere in conflicts that they’re not experiencing first hand ... It’s very troublesome for me to see people telling others what to do or not do, especially people who have never experienced such things.”

While Aimee L. Smith G does not have a personal connection to the region, she feels that, as an American, she has a responsibility to act. “The fact that my government is involved means I’m forced to become aware of the issues and advocate the best policy I can envision.”

Steinberger, who also attended Saturday’s protest in support of the Palestinian cause, has relatives who died in Auschwitz, and her father fled Germany as a teenage boy in 1934. “It’s not a very good way to protect yourself from persecution, by persecuting other people and making life difficult for them,” she said. “If Jewish people are going to be faithful to their history, they have to look at the families in Bethlehem, Ramallah ... who are just trying to live a normal life.”

Hope for a peaceful resolution

Despite the intensity of the conflict, the hope for peace persists. Martin A. Hunter, an MIT postdoctoral researcher from Argentina, played drum throughout Saturday’s march. “I’ve always been interested in peace ... Sept. 11 moved me to work harder toward it,” he said.

Rasowsky was not at the Sunday rally; he was teaching at a Hebrew school. “Protesting is not the only way of dealing with the situation,” he said. “The solution to the conflict ... is that bridges have to be built between people, which can only take place in a situation where people feel comfortable with each other.”