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University clarifies discussions on Israel/Palestine conflict 

By Sophia Harris 

Editor-in-Chief 


The divisions of Diversity, Inclusion & Community Engagement and Academic Affairs clarified their involvement in the “Series on Peace and Justice in Israel/Palestine” after they heard from concerned students.  


The concerns regarded a perceived lack of objectivity in the series. 


The first event, titled, “Israel/Palestine: A Historical Context,” was hosted in the Heineman Ecumenical Center on March 7.


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.”


Three speakers gave presentations at each event that provided context for the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas and answered questions from the audience.


The series originated due to students, faculty, and administrators wanting an event that focused on the context of the conflict after the Oct. 7 attack, said Jeffery Coleman, vice president of DICE. 


Preceding this series, the first discussion about the conflict in the Middle East was scheduled for Nov. 13 in the Henry Whittemore Library, but was canceled the day before.


Coleman said the organizers of the event, a student group called History in The Making, “experienced some pushback from other members of the campus community, and so we learned that the students did not feel comfortable moving forward with having the discussion.”


He said after this event was canceled, he “learned that there was a group of faculty and staff and a few students who were interested in having some kind of discussion or forum or dialogue around the topic, but there was a sense of folks feeling afraid because of what they had seen happen to other individuals on campus, and on other campuses.”


Coleman recognized that nationally, there has been “a lot of hostility on college campuses.”


He added, “That bubbled up and a lot of people on campus were like, ‘You know, it's an important topic, but I just don't feel comfortable doing that.’ But the students kept asking for” an event about the conflict.


Coleman said DICE received notification through the University’s Bias Education Response Team system, that an anonymous member of the community had submitted a form relaying the importance of a conversation about the conflict.


“We wanted to respond because we have seen that come through and also because we all felt as an institution that we should be having these types of sessions and dialogues,” he said. 


Coleman added as DICE and Academic Affairs were discussing the nature of the event, “We wanted to make sure that we are creating and fostering an environment where academic discourse and these kinds of debates can happen.”


He said the 17 students, staff, and faculty who wanted to hold this event did not feel safe doing so unless the event was sponsored by the University and they would remain anonymous.


Coleman added the group wanted to be anonymous “because they did not feel safe having their names out there but they felt safe if Academic Affairs and DICE would be sponsors at this particular event.”


He said, “We would be happy to provide sponsorship so that you all feel supported by the University.”


Coleman added the event was “not necessarily developed through” Academic Affairs and DICE, but the offices did provide a list of stipulations to follow in order to hold the event.


The stipulations that DICE provided to the group were centered around the systems to be set in place to make sure that DICE would be able to respond appropriately. 


Coleman said, “If somebody is triggered in the moment, if somebody needs support, if somebody wants to have a discussion, if somebody wants to have an opposing view, we need to be able to have a space where we're embracing all of that.”


He added, “We charged that group with making sure you have all of these logistical things taken care of.”


Coleman said, “I'm always concerned that every member of the community feels that they have a sense of belonging.”


He added, “From my lens, this is a group that felt like their voice was not being heard. They wanted to have that opportunity” for that to happen.


Kristen Porter-Utley, provost and vice president of academic affairs, said her stipulations for the event included “that people who are presenting were faculty affiliated with a discipline that is related to the conversation in the Middle East. They need to be scholars of the area. Those were the two things - they were faculty affiliated and had expertise in the area and/or scholars studying the long-existing conflict between Israel and Palestine.”


She said, “We wanted people to have the freedom to shape something.”


Jerome Burke, director of the Center for Inclusive Excellence, said one of the requirements was to first find panelists from FSU before reaching out externally. 


Porter-Utley said the list of people who would be presenting was provided to Academic Affairs prior to the event taking place.  


She said, “We didn't really do a vetting other than saying they need to be scholars or affiliated with departments” related to the context of the conversation. 


She added the event “bubbled up from the faculty, staff, and students, and the group was working independently.” 


She said the group was responsible for the conversation and the messaging about the event. 


Porter-Utley, Coleman, and Burke agreed that the individuals in the anonymous group met all of the stipulations required by DICE and Academic Affairs in order to obtain sponsorship of the events.


Burke said the audience’s questions were given to the moderators at the time of the event because “looking at what was happening at other universities … we didn't want to create a hostile environment for anyone.


“There were several conversations on how we could best do that - so not censoring or muzzling anyone, but doing it in a manner that would not be combative,” Burke said. 


Porter-Utley said there was a clear point of view in the series.


“There is no question about that and that's O.K.,” she said.


She added, “We are talking about something that kind of grew up from the faculty versus something that a university would put on.”


Porter-Utley said, “Things that bubble up like this are very likely to have to come to the community with a point of view, and honestly, that's O.K. And then people have the ability in that space to ask a question that might differ from that.”


She added, “I think it's very hard to come away from that discussion without noticing that this was one particular point of view. I don't think it was in contradiction to what was advertised or what was discussed, but I do think it was a particular point of view.”


Coleman said he was not able to attend the second event, but he attended the first event in the series. He agreed with Porter-Utley that “it [the series] was a particular point of view.”


He said, “In this scenario, this particular group had more of a point of view context from a pro-Palestine point of view. And that's O.K.. We're supporting their opportunity to have that space.”


He added, “We would do the same thing if there were individuals who wanted to do a discussion, program, or event on more of an Israeli Jewish context or perspective.”


Coleman said the Jewish campus chaplain was included in the first discussion that was canceled in November. 


He said, “He's been very much aware of his opportunity to create experiences for Jewish students or the campus community. That's another resource that I think might be kind of underutilized by students.”


He added, “If folks want to continue this - it can be a continuation of a discussion series that you know, continues on. We can have programming focus from the Israeli Jewish perspective. That would be very much welcomed.”


Porter-Utley said if this included an academic discussion with “faculty and scholars in the area, that is something that I would want to hear more about.”


When asked about panelist Aviva Chomsky’s comments about the definition of antisemitism, Porter-Utley said because she did not attend the second event, she could not comment on the context of the statement, but she wanted to be “very clear that I do believe that people have the right to present a point of view that is not popular and for that to be debated.


“I think that we have an opportunity in the coming years to think hard together as a community about how it is that we model academic discussions where people have opposing points of view, and present them in a respectful way.”


[Editor’s Note: See “Panelist discussion on Israel/Palestine explores complex terminology” in April 19 issue of The Gatepost]


Porter-Utley added, “Any group of people who want to hold an event on a particular topic can do that independent of sponsorship. There are ways in which people can come forward and have a gathering of folks for a particular reason.”


She said the series “would have looked different if it was something we had organized.”


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