International Conflict stirred up on campus

By Tyler Eagle

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict came to Columbia last week when a documentary detailing the life of people in a West Bank village under Israeli occupation was screened a month after a presentation from the Israeli perspective was

indefinitely postponed.

Several groups, including the International Student Organization and The Ellen Stone Belic Institute of Women & Gender in the Arts and Media, sponsored an April 23 screening of “5 Broken Cameras” at Film Row Cinema, 1104 S. Wabash Ave. The Oscar-nominated documentary by Israeli director Guy Davidi and Palestinian director Emad Burnat follows Burnat and his family as they nonviolently resist Israeli occupation. But in March, ISO postponed an event proposed by Columbia Hillel, a Jewish faith-based organization on campus that would have included a presentation by Israeli Defense Forces soldiers about what they face every day, according to Benjamin Cohen, junior film & video major and vice president of Columbia Hillel.

The “5 Broken Cameras” event concluded with a 40-minute panel discussion between Iymen Chehade, an adjunct professor in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department who teaches The

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict course, and Lynn Pollack, a member of

Jewish Voices for Peace, a national organization that, as stated on its website, “provides a voice for Jews and allies who believe that peace in the Middle East will be achieved through justice and full equality for both Palestinians and Israelis.” 

In a letter to Hillel, Chehade had turned down a request from Cohen that a third panelist representing the official Israeli point of view be included in the program.

The discussion at the event became a political dialogue, at which both panelists and many audience members declared their support for nonviolent Palestinian resistance of

Israeli occupation.

At one point, Chehade implied the Jewish state is perpetuating similar injustice done during World War II when entire ethnic groups were uprooted. He argued that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal under United Nation’s Security Council Resolution 465 (1980).

“You cannot take your own population, put them in an area you occupy and then displace the indigenous people,” Chehade contended. “This is something many countries did during World War II in Eastern Europe with Russians, Poles and Jews.”

Other remarks caused a number of people in the audience to walk out, such as when Pollack talked about her organization and its stances.

“Jewish Voices for Peace recommends ending U.S. military aid to Israel,” Pollack said. “That’s a position our organization stands behind strongly.” 

Her statement also drew audible applause from the audience.

Despite the pro-Palestinian tone of the discussion and the absence of a panelist to voice the official Israeli perspective, Chehade said afterwards that the program had been balanced.  

“It was a balanced discussion,” he said. “We didn’t speak from a Palestinian perspective and we didn’t speak from an Israeli perspective but looked to the international law perspective.”

Aldo Guzman, who as director of Student Engagement oversees campus events organized by students, said the IDF presentation was postponed because ISO feared the presentation would be one-sided. Because the soldiers were only in town for a short time, rescheduling the event for this semester was impossible, Guzman said.

“[ISO] was concerned that the views may be one-sided, and they wanted an event that would be more balanced, where both sides of the conflict could be represented,” Guzman said. “We wanted to make sure that the event really presented the entire spectrum of the issue, not just one side.”

Cohen said he was not upset that the “5 Broken Cameras” event happened, but that ISO postponed the IDF presentation while openly sponsoring an event he feared reflected only one side of the conflict. He also said he was concerned because he considers Jewish Voices for Peace a political group. 

“I don’t understand why there was a representative from a group with a political agenda,” he said.

Cohen said he approached the Ellen Stone Belic Institute about adding another panelist with a pro-Israel stance to the “5 Broken Cameras” discussion, but the proposal was declined. 

“If you’re really trying to promote peace, then why would you have someone from a highly active political group and a Palestinian man?” Cohen said.

Cohen said he received an email from the institute following his inquiry stating that there would only be the two panelists, but he was welcome to attend the event and present his opinion.

“I do wish our school was a little more careful about events, and the planning behind them,” Cohen said. “Once you have a political group involved, there is a message there.”

According to Gigi Posejpal, director of international student affairs and co-adviser of the ISO, Cohen initially approached the organization a week prior to the event to see if a pro-Israel individual could be added as a panelist. ISO referred him to the institute because it wasn’t involved in planning,  Posejpal said.

Regarding the IDF event, Posejpal said it was postponed in March a week before it was set to take place because there was confusion as to what the event would consist of and also because of time constraints. There needed to be more concrete planning and more well- represented sides, Posejpal said.

Posejpal said ISO’s involvement in the “5 Broken Cameras” screening was minimal, and the only involvement was that ISO’s logo appeared on the poster. Because the organization was endorsing the event and not actually planning it, ISO could not make major changes, Posejpal said.

“All sides of an issue should be presented [at events],” Posejpal said. “If that does not happen, then we have failed as an institution.”

Kevin Obomanu, co-adviser of ISO, said the organization agreed to sponsor the screening because it seemed balanced, whereas the IDF event did not.

“It’s not that [ISO] is for or against issues,” Obomanu said. “We thought [the IDF soldier event] wasn’t a valid idea because we only had the two soldiers and not enough information about them.”

Chehade said the personal nature of “5 Broken Cameras” makes it relatable, and he hopes the screening and discussion raised awareness.

“There has been a lack of a Palestinian voice for a long time, and films like ‘5 Broken Cameras’ are helping to change that,” Chehade said.

The Ellen Stone Belic Institute of Women & Gender in the Arts and Media sponsored the event and was in charge of coordinating the screening and discussion following the film, according to the institute’s executive director Jane Saks.

The institute chose Chehade to lead the Q-and-A because he teaches a course on the Middle East at the college, and Pollack because her organization is trying to bring to light a model for peace, Saks said. 

According to Saks, the discussion following the film was not intended to be narrow in focus and that organizers for the event reached out to various people both on and off campus to attend the event.

“The film is a deeply personal and firsthand account of nonviolent resistance,” Saks said. “It’s a really important opportunity to get a firsthand experience of a conflict that has been going on for generations.”