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Defying official censorship orders, Brown and RISD students hold Nakba discussion inside Hillel

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The following was sent to us by Sophie Kasakove, a student at Brown University, who along with two other Jewish students, Eital Schattner-Elmaleh and Ben Williams, organized an event to discuss the Nabka at the the Brown/RISD Hillel.

On Wednesday, May 11, in the midst of final exams, over 70 Brown University students in the Brown/RISD Hillel community gathered in the Hillel building to watch three short films about the Palestinian Nakba, produced by the Israeli NGO, Zochrot. As members of the Hillel community, we came together to watch these films on the eve of Yom HaAtzmaut, eager to make a space for Jewish students to learn about a history often excluded from mainstream Jewish discourse. In the post-screening discussion, students from diverse political backgrounds reflected on the thought-provoking films and unpacked their relationship to the Nakba as American Jews.

The Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe) refers to the expulsion and displacement of approximately 700,000 Palestinians and the demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes in 1948, as well as the ongoing violence committed against Palestinians by the state of Israel. This narrative is not often discussed within the Jewish community. In Israel, a law (referred to as the Nakba law, passed in 2011) authorizes the Finance minister to reduce funding and support for any organization that commemorates the Nakba. In the United States, American Jewish institutions, from AIPAC to Birthright, privilege an exclusionary Zionist narrative of 1948 that ignores the injustices carried out during the creation of the state. By failing to acknowledge this history, these institutions maintain their complicity in the ongoing Nakba, from the displacement of Bedouin communities in the Naqab/Negev to settlement construction in the West Bank. Zochrot (the female form of “remembering” in Hebrew), founded in 2002, promotes acknowledgement and accountability for the Nakba, thus seeking to confront Israeli society with a history that challenges the dominant Jewish narrative of 1948.

Over the past five months, we worked to build a broad-based coalition of Jewish Brown University students interested in pushing the boundaries of the discourse allowed within our Hillel. Institutional frameworks, along with external pressures on Brown RISD Hillel, made the process of planning and executing the “Nakba Film Screening and Discussion” difficult and drawn-out. Throughout this process, the Brown/RISD Hillel staff and student leadership were very supportive of our efforts to achieve greater openness in our community.

However, two days before the screening, one of our co-sponsoring groups, Brown Students for Israel, withdrew support for the event. Without unanimous student group support for the event, our Hillel could no longer endorse the event in an official capacity. Then, after a student leaked information about the event to right-wing pro-Israel publications, security concerns made the gathering at the planned time and place unfeasible. The Hillel building was locked on the day of the event at 7pm due to these concerns.

This event was too important to cancel and we decided to meet informally as a group of students three hours before the planned time of the event to watch and discuss these films. Given the last minute nature of the time-change, we were inspired and thrilled by the large turn-out.

We gathered last night to watch these films and discuss them at Hillel, despite the lack of official Hillel sponsorship. We gathered as Jewish students in the space designated for Jewish life on campus, actively creating the pluralistic community together that we want to see realized in the American Jewish institutions that claim to represent us.

This event was a success not only because it demonstrated the openness of the students in our community, but also because it challenged Brown RISD Hillel to reflect on its ability to facilitate and provide space for this openness. Ultimately, the process of planning this event forced our Hillel to recognize its own lack of openness and to begin reworking its guidelines on Israel/Palestine programming. These guidelines will not be in keeping with the guidelines published and enforced by Hillel International’s in their ‘Standards of Partnership,’ which have been used time and again to silence critical Jewish voices on Israel/Palestine. In order for Hillel to maintain its integrity as a pluralistic Jewish space, the community must embrace Jews who currently feel excluded from mainstream Jewish discourse and who seek to question dominant narratives about Israel.

And the following is a press release from the organization Open Hillel, titled, “Open Hillel Applauds Brown RISD Hillel Students for Open Conversation on the Nakba in Brown RISD Hillel”

May 12, 2016

Open Hillel applauds the over seventy students who gathered inside Brown RISD Hillel to watch and discuss three short films about the Palestinian Nakba produced by the Israeli NGO Zochrot. These students came together to learn about and grapple with perspectives on the events of 1948 that are rarely examined in the American Jewish community.

For the past five months, Jewish students at Brown built a broadbased coalition in support of this event. As of early this week, Israel-related student groups from across the political spectrum were set to cosponsor the film screening. Both the Brown RISD Hillel Student Board and the Brown RISD Hillel Board of Trustees supported it.

Then, several days ago, in response to external and internal pressures, Brown RISD Hillel officially cancelled the event. This cancellation comes in the shadow of a long line of instances in which Hillel International and local Jewish Federations have pressured local Hillels to cancel events deemed to break Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership for Israel Actor challenge the establishment consensus on Israel.

But Brown RISD Jewish students remained steadfast in their commitment to open discourse. Disavowing Hillel International’s exclusionary Standards, on Wednesday evening, over seventy Jewish students of all backgrounds held the film screening in Hillel, the Center for Jewish Life on Campus. Open Hillel is deeply heartened to see so many Jewish students at a major university taking a stand and creating inside Hillel the pluralistic Jewish community that they want to see.

We applaud the Brown RISD Jewish students for making it clear that their Jewish community supports pluralism and open dialogue. We hope that this event will be the start of important, student driven conversations at Brown RISD Hillel about pluralism and open discourse within their Jewish community.

Moreover, we hope that this event will set a precedent for pluralism and open discourse in Hillel chapters across the country. We call upon Hillel International to rescind its Standards of Partnership so as to enable Jewish students on campus to engage in difficult and important conversations, rather than trying to stop them from doing so.

Mondoweiss Editors

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8 Responses

  1. amigo on May 12, 2016, 5:17 pm

    I wonder when the French Gov will make it an offense to use the term Nakba .Needless to say , the Israeli “diplomats” have been paying visits to all the EU states to demand that they obey instructions from the King of the Jews and arrest any person uttering this antisemitic blood libel against Jews.

  2. just on May 12, 2016, 6:51 pm

    Good for these students. Thanks for the report.

  3. Misterioso on May 13, 2016, 10:36 am

    For the record:

    The repeated assertion by Israeli leaders and other Zionists that Palestinians fled their homes and properties because they were told to do so by Arab leaders to make way for incoming Arab armies has long-since been debunked. To quote John H. Davis, who served as Commission-General of UNRWA at the time: “An exhaustive examination of the minutes, resolutions, and press releases of the Arab League, of the files of leading Arabic newspapers, of day-to-day monitoring of broadcasts from Arab capitals and secret Arab radio stations, failed to reveal a single reference, direct or indirect, to an order given to the Arabs of Palestine to leave. All the evidence is to the contrary; that the Arab authorities continuously exhorted the Palestinian Arabs not to leave the country…. Panic and bewilderment played decisive parts in the flight. But the extent to which the refugees were savagely driven out by the Israelis as part of a deliberate master-plan has been insufficiently recognized.” (John H. Davis, The Evasive Peace, London: Murray, 1968)

    Mr. Davis’s observations are confirmed by the IDF Intelligence Branch Report dated 30 June 1948, entitled “The Arab Exodus from Palestine in the Period 1 December 1947 to 1 June 1948.” After studying the document, Israeli Jewish historian Benny Morris stated that “the Intelligence Branch report…goes out of its way to stress that the [Palestinian] exodus was contrary to the political-strategic desires of both the Arab Higher Committee and the governments of the neighboring Arab states. These, according to the report, struggled against the exodus – threatening, cajoling, and imposing punishments, all to no avail.” (Benny Morris, “The Causes and Character of the Arab Exodus from Palestine: The Israel Defense Force Intelligence Board Analysis of June 1948: Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. XXII, no. 1, January 1986)

  4. Boo on May 13, 2016, 11:28 am

    Bravo! As I noted in a comment several days ago related to the recent SFSU events, when civil discourse is stifled, confrontation is a predictable result. It’s terrific that these Brown students were clever enough to pursue a third path by “working around” the official cancellation and devising a strategy that allowed them to hold their long-planned event. Congrats to them for outfoxing the outside, third-party opposition!

  5. Ossinev on May 13, 2016, 4:25 pm

    Kudos to these brave and determined young Jewish students who put their elders in their communities to shame. Perhaps BDS and other activists organisations should be focusing the attention of countries in the West on the absurd hypocrisy and double standards of their Denial of the Holocaust laws whilst turning a blind eye to Israel`s seven decades long Denial of the Nakba

  6. Nevada Ned on May 13, 2016, 8:02 pm

    It’s great that these youngsters showed the documentary films, defying the censorship efforts of official Hillel big shots.

    What’s the next step? If the Brown/RISD students want to do something really radical, what about inviting a outside speaker who is an expert on the Nakba? Or more than one speaker?

    My impression is that there’s now agreement among academic specialists about the basic facts about the Nakba.

    There is controversy, but It’s only controversial if you include non scholarly propaganda (eg., “the land was empty when we got here”, etc).

    For decades the Palestinians have been burning to get their story out. They are starting to succeed.

    This is a rare piece of good news!!

  7. JWalters on May 15, 2016, 8:47 pm

    I too thank these students for their courage, and for their focus on the Nakba. It’s been my experience that when people find out about the Nakba it’s a game-changer. It is simply not possible to reconcile the Nakba with the standard Zionist story about Israel. And the Nakba is indisputably true.

    I also thank the editors for using the term “ongoing Nakba” in the article.

    The Nakba has been obliterated from corporate media discussions, partly on the ground that it is ancient history, and partly on the ground that it is wrapped in the U.N. partition. It is argued that “re-litigating” this ancient history is “not helpful”.

    (Zionist selected ancient history, however, can be re-litigated with guns and precision guided missiles.)

    The term “occupation” is allowed into the discussion a little bit, although with intense objections. Ehud Barak once ranted at Charlie Rose, “The problem is not occupation! It is terrorism, terrorism, terrorism!”

    In factual history, the Occupation is a direct continuation of the Nakba. It is a slow-motion extension of the Nakba, with the same goals, and similar deadly methods.

    Recognizing this relation will help bring the beginning of the Nakba into the public discussions on the present status of Occupation.

    (Some of these points were also posted at a related article.)

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