New group highlights Palestinian perspective on Mideast conflict

Kathryn Sullivan
Thursday, October 28, 2010

Amid the ongoing Israeli−Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, a new student group, the Tufts chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), hopes to foster discussion and expose students to the Palestinian perspective.

SJP is a nation−wide association of campus chapters that first launched at University of California, Berkeley, to advocate for the Palestinian cause. Tufts SJP President Jack Irmas founded the group upon his return from studying abroad at Tel Aviv University in Israel last year after finding no campus group existed to address the Palestinian narrative. "I want to bring in a perspective that Tufts generally doesn't see and really educate people about what they don't know," Irmas, a senior, said.

Senior Sean Smith, who studied last year at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, said he hopes the group will help open up a more balanced discussion on campus. "We're essentially hoping to expose the Tufts students and community to a more balanced perspective that acknowledges both sides as fundamentally human and fundamentally deserving of human rights," Smith said.

While the group's registration remains pending, it has begun to attract interest from the student body, Irmas said. The first general interest meeting attracted approximately 20 students from diverse backgrounds, according to Irmas. Earlier this month, the group hosted a screening of the documentary "Occupation 101" (2006), a film depicting life in the Palestinian territories for an American audience, according to Smith. In the group discussion that followed, he noted that an Israeli student felt comfortable enough to participate. "That's the kind of dialogue we hope to see in the future," Smith said.

Smith hopes to organize in December another film screening on the topic of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The group also plans to bring educational speakers and lecturers to campus later this semester. The group has yet to select a faculty sponsor and has found it challenging to identify professors who would be willing to argue on behalf of the Palestinian point of view, according to Smith. "It can be unhelpful in American academia to be outspoken toward Palestine," he said. "We're still trying to figure out who would feel comfortable." Still, according to Irmas, a few professors have approached the group expressing interest.

The Anti−Defamation League, the organization whose aim, according to its website, is "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people ... to secure justice and fair treatment to all," recently placed the national SJP organization on its list of the top 10 anti−Israel groups in the United States. "I thank them for putting our name out there," Irmas said. "I thank them for the publicity they give us for putting us on a list that is so obviously biased. It doesn't worry me."

Irmas hopes to work with other campus groups to educate students about the Middle East conflict and emphasized that students can be sympathetic to both the Israeli and the Palestinian causes. "It's funny because I'm not anti−Israel; being pro−Israel and pro−Palestinian are not mutually exclusive," Irmas said.

The group plans to reach out to Tufts Friends of Israel, according to Irmas. He believes the groups can work together to bring attention to the issues in the Middle East. "They've come to us with an interest in speaking to us, and we're definitely interested in that," he said. Tufts Friends of Israel President Daniel Bleiberg said that his group is interested in fostering and engaging in dialogue with SJP. "We have spoken to them, and by all means we are going to continue,"

Bleiberg, a sophomore, said. "I do hope we can come to understandings on each other's narratives." Bleiberg hopes the groups can engage in meaningful dialogue rather than heated debate. He noted that Tufts provides an environment that is conducive to these types of discussions.

"What people respect around the country about Tufts is that students can bring out dialogues, and that's what we're looking for," Bleiberg said. "Both groups have an interest in the region, and that is a commonality that we can definitely exploit to co−sponsor events together and educate people about Israel and Palestine and what is actually going on on the ground there," Irmas said.