Middle East studies in the News
Inaugural Palestinian student conference held on campus
by Mara Revkin
A lecture on terrorism and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by Joseph Massad, associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, was marked by a tense question and answer session that was cut short at the suggestion of Vice President Maurice Eldridge '62. Friday's lecture was the keynote event of the inaugural conference of the Palestinian Student Society of America, which brought over 60 Palestinian students to campus.
Massad's talk entitled "The Opposite of Terror: Notes from the Settler Colony," discussed the use of the term "terror" and its relationship to power structures.
"Terror is a name that is never assumed but always rendered … Terrorist identities remain contested terrains, controlled by an enemy in power who controls the mode of representation," Massad said. "In the case of the terrorist, it is the other, the enemy, who defines the identity of the terrorist."
Massad argued that the term "terrorist" has been subjectively applied to Palestinians in the context of United States foreign policy as justification for "Israeli oppression," adding that he does not endorse suicide bombings as a viable tactic for achieving a one-state solution.
However, Massad sharply criticized the Bush administration's deployment of political rhetoric to establish "binaries of good and evil." Massad further suggested that Bush's "Axis-of-Evil" constitutes an "involuntary coercive club, into which members are forced by the peremptory dictate of the United States government."
Massad has been flagged by the American media as a controversial and provocative presence in the current academic discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Evidence of ideological tensions surfaced in the question and answer session immediately following the talk.
Several audience members from outside the immediate college community posed questions that some students felt were excessively confrontational and at times combative. "I felt that a lot of people who attended brought questions that articulated a specific agenda," David Pupkin '09 said. "They clearly hadn't come to listen to Massad."
After a particularly combative question describing Middle Eastern cultures as cannibalistic, Eldridge stood up in an attempt to placate the audience member and shortly thereafter sat down next to the event's organizer, Sa'ed Atshan '06, to "suggest that we draw it to a close."
"While I don't want to be perceived as a censorial ‘big bad wolf,'" Eldridge said, he intervened out of an "obligation to keep the tension under control."
"The speaker was invited to speak, not debate, and there is a point at which questions go beyond attempting to get clarification, to the extent that they take on a challenging tone and assert a counterpoint that the questioner had in mind all along," Eldridge said.
Eldridge added that he was "impressed by how well Massad handled the argumentative questions."
Atshan claims that although Massad has been labeled as controversial in the past, he was still an appropriate speaker for the weekend.
Atshan explained that Massad is a scholar who "unapologetically articulates a Palestinian perspective that Americans often don't hear because the United States is so overwhelmingly supportive of Israel."
Columbia University's official inquiry into Massad's conduct found that there was not adequate evidence to corroborate allegations of verbal intimidation directed toward his Jewish students. Atshan described the investigation as a "campaign to smear Professor Massad's reputation and defame him."
Atshan said that the conference represented a rare opportunity for a minority group that is frequently marginalized in academic and cultural contexts. "It's very difficult to be a Palestinian in the United States, which is the most anti-Palestinian country in the world after Israel," Atshan said.
"A lot of these students have been treated like aliens from outer space on their respective campuses, and it was a very meaningful experience for them to come Swarthmore and be treated like full human beings and with full respect," Atshan continued.
According to Atshan, the overarching objective of the conference was to "define the trajectory and mission of the Palestinian Students' Society." Over a three-day period, attendees of the conference collaboratively drafted a mission statement and bylaws.
The discussions also generated fundraising strategies to promote the long-term sustainability of the organization. In addition, the group appointed a steering committee charged with the task of "motivating the organization to grow and move forward," Atshan said.
Atshan emphasized group consensus as the guiding criteria for all decisions concerning the Society's mission and trajectory. "Building the organization should be a collective process," Atshan said, adding that the group spent nearly five hours discussing and drafting a mission statement. "Everyone has a stake in how we proceed from here."
Fadi Kiblawi, a Palestinian student at George Washington University, described the conference as "non-hierachical in structure." "I think we were very successful in laying a foundation for the organization," Kiblawi said.
"It's difficult when you're one of three Palestinian students at your college to assert your identity, when that identity is being negated academically and ideologically in an attempt to justify the destruction of the Palestinian people," said Steve Adala, an attendee from New York City.
The conference, which lasted from Friday until Sunday, featured workshops facilitated by well-known public figures, including Noura Erakat, legal counsel for the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation.
Some students expressed concerns over chalkings that appeared outside of Parrish Hall the weekend of the conference. Pupkin said that these chalkings included the slogan "Israel Equals Apartheid" and an endorsement of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Palestinian nationalist group implicated in several airline hijackings and two suicide bombings carried out at the Karnei Shomron pizzeria and the Netanya outdoor market in Israel.
Joel Mittleman '09 described the chalkings as "indicative of a pretty sad level of discourse." "I don't think it's particularly productive for this dialogue to be hashed out in chalkings in front of Parrish," Mittleman said.
Atshan disagreed that the chalkings were problematic in their tone, describing the messages as "a healthy and productive expression of free speech." "Nelson Mandela, one of the world's experts on apartheid, saw the conditions in Israel and has since been very vocal about his view that it is in fact an apartheid state."
Atshan received a Lang Opportunity Grant to fund the conference, with additional sponsors including the University of Pennsylvania's Middle Eastern Studies Center, the President's Office and the Intercultural Center.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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