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Panelist discussion on Israel/Palestine conflict explores complex terminology

Maddison Behringer / THE GATEPOST

By Ryan O’Connell

Associate Editor

The “Series on Peace and Justice in Israel/Palestine” continued on April 16 in the Heineman Ecumenical Center with the second of two events, “Untangling the Discourse: Exploring Complex Terms in the Israeli-Palestinian Context.”

[ Editor’s Note: See “Panel discussion addresses Israeli/Palestinian history” in the March 8 issue of The Gatepost. ]

The panel consisted of Salem State History Professor Aviva Chomsky, Fitchburg State Humanities Professor Yasser Derwiche Djazaerely, and Framingham State Nutrition and Health Studies Professor Susan Massad. 

The event was co-sponsored by Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement (DICE) and Academic Affairs.

Susan Dargan, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and moderator of the event, began by introducing the topic of discussion. A slideshow titled “Talking about Palestine, Israel, and antisemitism” was displayed during the introduction.

Dargan announced the event’s ground rules which included allotting each panelist 15 minutes to speak and another five to answer attendee questions, asking participants to participate in active listening, and requiring they submit their questions on index cards, which would then be presented to the panelists by the moderator, among other rules.

Dargan then introduced Chomsky, the first panelist. 

According to the event speaker biographies, Chomsky was “one of the founders of the Committee for Academic Freedom in the Occupied Territories at UC Berkeley in the early 1980s,” and “was a creator of the country's first class on ‘Palestine.’”

Chomsky said she had two learning objectives prepared for her time on the panel - analyzing terminology used in the media and how it affects public perception, and discussing differing definitions of antisemitism and why they are important.

She first said the way the conflict is presented in the media has roots in colonialism and the idea that the lives of colonizers matter while the lives of the people who are colonized do not.

Chomsky added this behavior normalizes war instigated by imperial and colonial powers, such as the United States and Europe.

She said all of the wars the United States has ever participated in have been colonial, beginning with the 17th century “Indian Wars,” which were fought even before the United States was formed.

Chomsky added the foundation of the United States was built on driving Indigenous peoples from their own land.

She shared a quote from White House National Security Spokesperson John Kirby regarding the war in Gaza, which read, “This is war. It is combat. It is bloody. It is ugly, and it's going to be messy, and innocent civilians are going to be hurt going forward.” 

She said this quote proves the United States recognizes innocent people will be harmed from its involvement, and yet still chooses to support Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

Chomsky added the United States even refused to use the term “ceasefire” until a few weeks ago, and has since distorted the meaning of the word from an end to fighting to a temporary pause in fighting.

She said though the United States now supports this modified definition of ceasefire, it still does not support an end to the war.

Chomsky added after 100 days of the war, President Biden chose to focus on the 120 Israeli hostages held by Hamas in a speech rather than to acknowledge the 25,000 Palestinians dead and 20,000 held hostage in Israel.

She then discussed the use of charged language by media outlets, and how Palestinian and Israeli forces are described with vastly different language, despite similarities between the two.

She said Palestinian fighters are often referred to as “militants,” while Israeli fighters are “soldiers,” and prisoners taken by Palestinians are “kidnapped,” while prisoners taken by Israelis are “arrested.”

She added this language encourages people to think violence against Palestinians is justified and deserved, and it shields Israel from culpability in contexts such as “Israeli strikes resulted in deaths.”

Chomsky also discussed the idea that Palestine and countries in “the Orient,” a colonial and romanticized term for Asia and the Middle East, refuse to give up violence, yet western countries such as Israel and the United States are never expected or called to do the same.

She said Palestine’s right to exist has been denied by Israel, and Palestine has been systematically destroyed since Israeli settlement began in 1948.

Chomsky then discussed the definition of antisemitism, and how she believes it has been mobilized to diminish criticism of Israel. 

“What Is Antisemitism? A Columbia Task Force Would Rather Not Say,” a March 21 article in The New York Times, shows even Columbia University cannot settle on a definition, she said.

Chomsky said the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) proposed a definition of antisemitism in 2016. 

The IHRA also presented a list of actions considered antisemitic.

Chomsky then said she disagreed that some of the manifestations outlined by the IHRA were in fact antisemitic. 

Defined examples of antisemitism, according to the IHRA, include, “targeting the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity,” “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” or “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

She added 43 countries have adopted this definition of antisemitism, including the United States.

Chomsky said a different group of scholars created the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) in 2020, an alternate definition of antisemitism. 

Some of the JDA’s definitions of antisemitism align with the IHRA’s definitions, such as guidelines B7: “Holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s conduct or treating Jews, simply because they are Jewish, as agents of Israel,” or B9: “Assuming that non-Israeli Jews, simply because they are Jews, are necessarily more loyal to Israel than to their own countries.”

The JDA’s definitions, however, diverge from the IHRA’s definitions of antisemitism in some cases, such as in guideline C12: “It is not antisemitic to support arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants ‘between the river and the sea,’” or C13: “Evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state.”

Chomsky said the IHRA’s definition limits legitimate free speech and discussion regarding Israel, Palestine, and Zionism.

She closed her presentation by posing a series of questions to the audience, including whether it was possible for Israel to be a democratic country, what the real definition of antisemitism is, and whether Israel has the right to exist.

Chomsky then responded to several questions received from the audience.

One submitted question asked how Israelis taken hostage after the Oct. 7 attack should be referred to if not as kidnapped.

Chomsky said people can refer to the Israeli and Palestinian hostages either as hostages, prisoners, or kidnapped - but they should not reserve one word for a specific side. She added attendees should always refer to those captured as hostages or kidnapped regardless of their country of origin.

Another submitted question asked Chomsky to discuss the phrase, “from the river to the sea,” and if it was insinuating the destruction of Israel. 

Chomsky said she thinks there are four statuses of Palestinian: those within the original 1948 border, those in Jerusalem, those in areas occupied by the Israeli military, and those “in diaspora,” meaning places outside of Palestine, such as the United States.

She added she interprets the phrase as meaning Palestinians in each of these four categories will have freedoms equal to Jewish people in Israel. 

When asked about the impact this would have on the state of Israel, she answered by posing a question - was the United States destroyed when the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments were passed, separating from its origins as a country for only white men? 

“I don’t think so,” she said.

The topic of the second panelist, Yasser Derwiche Djazaerly, was “The Gaza war at the crossroads of regional and international politics.” 

Djazaerly teaches French, Arabic, Italian, German, and Spanish at Fitchburg State University, and has published seven juried articles in Arabic about the history and politics of the Middle East.

Djazaerly began by addressing the recent fear of escalation between Israel and Iran following Iran’s missile strike on Israel April 13. The strike was in retaliation for Israel's bombing of the Iranian embassy in Syria April 1.

He added he knew there would be no escalation due to underlying cooperation between Iran and Israel.

Djazaerly then brought into the discussion Israeli author David Grossman’s 2008 novel, “To the End of the Land,” which tells the story of a mother reluctantly bringing her son to an army base following a Hamas attack, which inspires the son to rejoin the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) after his three years of deployment.

Grossman compares the mother bringing her son to the army base to the biblical story of Abraham sending his son to be sacrificed, Djazaerly said. 

He said in response to Grossman's novel, Benny Morris, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, criticized Grossman’s allegory and wrote that the biblical story of David versus Goliath, with Israel being David and the surrounding Arab countries Goliath, was more fitting. 

“But as we see it, we are surrounded by the Muslim world, organized in some way by Iran, and the West is turning its back on us. So we see ourselves as the underdog,” Morris said in a feature story with the Wall Street Journal.

Djazaerly said despite this claim, Egypt, the largest Muslim-majority country in close proximity to Israel, has assisted Israel in war efforts against Palestine. 

Jordan, another Muslim-majority country, ships goods to Israel as well - subsidizing the cost of the war, he added.

Djazaerly then read a quote from a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who wrote that Israel portrays itself as David to the western world, Goliath to the surrounding Arab countries.

He added the United States and parts of Europe also send military aid to Israel, and some countries, including France, even actively participated in shooting down drones attacking Israel.

Djazaerly added although Israel portrays itself as an underdog, it has defeated surrounding Arab countries in wars in the years 1948, 1956, 1973, and 1982.

He said this makes the role of Iran extremely important to Israeli propaganda, in order to support the David versus Goliath narrative.

Djazaerly added a 2012 Israeli newspaper article by Aner Shalev discussed an Israel/Iran alliance, and how by threatening each other, the right-wing governments of both countries retain control.

He then said Iran informed Israel and the United States about the recent missile launch three days in advance, though the media perception of the attack continues to paint Israel as a “David.”

Djazaerly said understanding Iran and Israel’s relationship is important for understanding the war in Gaza as a whole. The Oct. 7 Hamas attack misinterpreted the relationship of Israel and Iran, calling on Iran to provide assistance which never came in their surprise attack against Israel, he added.

He added Iran and Israel use each other strategically in controlling the Middle East.

Djazaerly said in the days following the 1958 coup in Iraq, Israel announced it had developed an alliance with four of the surrounding countries, one being Iran.

He added the practice of forging alliances with surrounding countries went on to influence Israel’s future foreign policy.

Djazaerly then discussed the strategic military choices taken by the U.S., Iran, and Israel.

He said the United States once gave Iranian troops time to evacuate regions of Iraq before a bombing run, not killing a single Iranian soldier, and Iran gave a similar warning to Israel before sending their recent retaliation, again not killing any Israeli soldiers. 

One submitted question to Djazaerly asked what role Iranian sympathies play in that country’s advocacy for Palestine.

Iran is not a democracy, he said. Because of this, nothing the government does is a reflection of the will of the Iranian people. He added since Iran is under a dictatorship, it is impossible to know its citizens’ real opinions.

The third presenter, Susan Massad, spent a sabbatical at the School of Public Health, Al Quds University, in the West Bank, Palestine, in 2013.

Her learning objectives were comparing life in the West Bank and the United States, as well as differences in food and water challenges in the region.

Massad first said the Palestinian struggle is one of getting access to food and water, remaining on their homeland, and retaining their culture.

Farmers’ rights to sovereignty, she added, are under attack. 

Massad said agriculture has historically been a large part of Palestinian culture and their gross domestic product (GDP).

Prior to 1967, she said, 35% of Palestine’s GDP was generated from agriculture. This percentage dropped to 13% in 1993, and is now around 6%.

She added the reduction of agriculture has been due to illegal Israeli settlements, as well as shipping blockades which have prevented agricultural machinery from being imported to Palestine since 2007.

Massad also said the rise of industrial farming in the region, which uses high amounts of pesticides and monocropping techniques, has contributed to the economic failure of Palestinian farmers, who cannot compete with industrial farming outputs.

She said Palestinian staple foods, which are “low on the food chain” and require very few resources to thrive, have also been dying.

These foods include olives, za’atar, figs, and dates, she said.

Massad added food insecurity is a huge issue for Palestinians right now due to the abandonment of Palestinian farms, plus the blockades on imports.

According to NPR, 300,000 people are currently trapped in northern Gaza, and famine is expected to set in by May.

She added Oxfam America reported many in northern Gaza are currently surviving on only 245 calories a day - only 12% of the 2,000 daily average calories needed.

Massad then referenced the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA), and said the current situation in Palestine is the biggest crisis in the organization’s history.

She added water is another concern. Israel has taken control of Palestinian springs and sells the water back to Palestinians, she said.

She said the World Health Organization recommends a person use 100 liters of water a day for all of their needs, including bathing, cleaning, and drinking. People in Palestine, she said, are using less than one liter per person, per day.

Massad also mentioned the destruction of Palestine’s olive trees, and the irony in the destruction of a symbol of peace. Since 1967, she said, 100 million trees have been destroyed.

Massad said she spent time with a volunteer organization in Gaza, Grassroots Jerusalem, which she said aims to unite Israelis and Palestinians. 

She added she also went on an olive harvest with a group called Friends of Al Walaja, all made up of Jewish people who had immigrated to Israel, and said the country was very different from what they were told to expect.

Massad said many of the members she spoke to in Friends of Al Walaja could not afford to leave Israel without financial devastation, however.

One submitted question asked Massad how Americans can support Palestinians suffering from food insecurity.

Massad said the best way to help is to buy fair trade food items made by Palestinians, and suggested olive oil, coffee, and za’atar.

Another submitted question asked Massad if Israel has been intentionally destroying farmland. She replied yes, for housing space.

Massad was also asked if there was a rise in illness following the food insecurity in the region. She said there was.

The floor was then opened to submitted questions addressed to all panelists.

The first question asked how people can talk to their Jewish friends about the Israel/Palestine conflict respectfully.

Chomsky said not all people of Jewish heritage or religion have the same outlook on the situation. Jewish Voice for Peace and the IfNotNowMovement, she said, are instances of Jewish people against Zionism and the war in Gaza.

Chomsky said she believes in the right to speak about the Israeli state and its choices, and this discussion should not be deemed antisemitic.

A second question from the audience asked the panelists about the normalization of war, and if they thought some wars were necessary.

Chomsky responded first, and said no. 

She said she was not a violent person, but also it’s not “necessarily her job” to condemn every act of violence in the world. She added colonial violence, such as that inflicted by the United States,’ is the kind she attempts to stop through her activism.

She added condemnations of violence also aren’t particularly helpful.

Chomsky posed a question, using the United States’ actions during the Vietnam War as a parallel. Was it her job to condemn the bombing of Vietnam, she asked, or to try to stop it?

Djazaerly said he believed war waged in self defense can be justified. “Preventative” war, he said, is not justifiable.

The final question was whether the Israeli government’s actions can be considered tantamount to genocide.

Chomsky first said that genocide is actually a very specific, legal term. South Africa, she added, accused the Israeli government of genocide in early 2024. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) said Israel could be plausibly committing genocide. 

The ICJ, she added, ordered Israel to take steps to prevent genocide from continuing.

Chomsky said the legal verdict of whether Israel is committing a genocide does not matter. Rather, the fact that hospitals and schools were destroyed and thousands were killed during the war is what is important.



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