Two Student Groups Tackle the Middle East Problem

Poet, writer and activist Remi Kanazi performing at Bowdoin

Poet, writer and activist Remi Kanazi performing at Bowdoin

Remi Kanazi, spoken word artist and pro-Palestine activist, recently came to Bowdoin to perform for a packed audience in Ladd House. The event was just one stop on a busy college tour for Kanazi. “I work with student activists to challenge inequality in society,” Kanazi said.

In between reciting his poetry, Kanazi indulged in playful banter intermingled with serious stories of his experience as a Palestinian-American. Kanazi wasn’t the only poet to perform; Bowdoin students also recited original works.

The political and artistic spirit of Bowdoin students impressed the visiting performer. “This is nutty how good the poets are. And I’m teaching a workshop tomorrow? I’m going to be like, write a poem and perform it, we’re done,” Kanazi said.

Kanazi was invited to Bowdoin by Bowdoin’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a nationwide group that seeks to end the oppression of Palestinian refugees in Israel. The event was also hosted by Bowdoin’s Slam Poet Society, whose members often overlap with those of SJP’s.

Christopher Wedeman ’15 is one of the students involved in both groups. Born to an American journalist father and Italian mother, Wedeman grew up in the Middle East. He chose to come to Bowdoin because he wanted to attend a liberal arts college in the United States, but after his first semester, Wedeman found he was missing a group of a people interested in same issues as he.

It wasn’t until Wedeman met Zohran Mamdani ’14 in Arabic class that he began to consider forming a chapter of SJP on campus. Wedeman and Mamdani discussed the idea over the summer, and the group was officially chartered last semester. Wedeman also became involved with the Slam Poet Society after attending a slam coffee house in Reed. “I was blown away by how incredible it was and how honest the kids are. That’s what I was looking for: willingness to express dissatisfaction with the way life can be,” he said.

The Remi Kanazi performance was SJP’s first official event aside from weekly meetings, and, based on its turn out and student engagement, was a success.

What makes SJP different from other activist groups is its focus on human rights rather than political or religious agendas. “I don’t see what’s happening [in the Middle East] as a religious issue, but it’s been tied to this idea of Judaism versus Islam. There’s this idea that you’re critiquing Jews and the faith of Judaism, which is a very irresponsible way of looking at it,” said Mamdani, who was born and raised in Uganda and moved to New York City in 1999. “Because if you’re standing against oppression, you’re also standing against anti-Semitism.”

The official methods SJP promotes as a means to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel until it provides full rights for Palestinians. This international nonviolent movement, called BDS, was first introduced in 2005.

Mamdani articulated why SJP chose a nonviolent approach for addressing injustices in Palestine: “I think BDS is a very interesting and an effective way of going about things. We live in a capitalist world where people will only act if their pockets are hit and this is a tactic going all the way back to Ida B. Wells.”

What SJP’s group members most actively work against is apathy and immobility. “There’s this notion that justice will happen eventually on its own. The struggle is eternal and it needs to be fought by people every single day,” Wedeman said. Mamdani agreed: “Usually I think of the world as a lot of gray, but when it comes to injustice and oppression I do see it as a binary, and I see it as standing with it or fighting against it, because being a bystander is helping it.”

Members of J Street U, Bowdoin’s pro-Israel student group which also seeks to end violence in Israel, might concur with Mamdani’s statement against inaction. J Street is a national lobby organization that raises funds to support U.S. government leaders in favor of mediating a two-state solution in Israel. J Street U is its university division, focused on generating dialogue within campus communities and working with local politicians.

The organization is named for the “missing street” in Washington D.C.’s famous alphabet grid. Likewise, J Street is the “voice that’s missing in the American discussion,” according to Bowdoin J Street U co-leader Judah Isseroff ’13.

Last semester, Bowdoin’s J Street U organized a panel between campus members of J Street and SJP. “We organized with them and invited other groups on campus. [Marilyn] Reizbaum, [Harrison King McCann Professor of English], came. All engaged in a very meaningful and constructive dialogue, which is not typical of all campuses where you’d probably see more tensions between J Street and pro-Palestine groups,” said co-leader Adam Rasgon ’13.

J Street also hosted a lecture by Director of B’Tselem USA Uri Zaki this semester. “It was a phenomenal turnout [with] 80 students in attendance. [Zaki] talked about the importance of Israelis and the American pro-Israelis coming forward, really pushing for Israel to occupy a higher moral standing. He also talked about the intricacies of the occupation of the West Bank and different aspects causing substantial suffering for Palestinians,” explained Rasgon.

Rasgon was first exposed to dialogue surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during a summer camp he attended in 2007 in Israel. “[The camp] brings together Arabs and Israelis and other groups from the Middle East. We lived in the typical camp atmosphere, but we had two-hour dialogue sessions every day where you discuss the relevant issues. I was a part of the American delegation,” said Rasgon, who also studied abroad in Jordan last year.

Isseroff, a friend of Rasgon’s, worked with J Street the summer after his sophomore year. “[Isseroff and I] were both interested in starting a group on campus that can support Israel and support a conversation around the issue, which we thought for the most part was nonexistent,” Rasgon said, “and also to provide an outlet for students to take action in support of the peace process.”

Many pro-Palestine students do not see dialogue by itself as an effective means of addressing and conquering the injustices committed against Palestinians. As Mamdani said, “It takes the idea that ‘we are all people’ much too far. It puts things on a false sense of parity. And then the action is given a pass, but the action is what creates the problem.”

Furthermore, although SJP does not formally advocate a specific solution for the conflict, Wedeman and Mamdani both agree that the most practical and ethical option would be a one-state scenario.

“I think it comes down to Zionism,” said Wedeman. “A Jewish state is an exclusivist state regardless of their religion. I’m against any society that discriminates against people based on things over which they have no control, and ethnicity and religion fall under that category.”

However, for Isseroff and Rasgon, both Jewish, Zionism can mean finally having the religious freedom to explore Jewish identity.

“The beauties of Zionism are the revival of the Hebrew language, for Jews to come from this very meager and feeble state in Europe and other parts of the world, and go to the land of Israel and recreate their identities where a new center of Judaism has emerged, which Jews can look to as a source of inspiration.” Rasgon said. “J Street believes you have to make that concession [of land] because it’s absolutely essential to make peace with Palestinians and that the Palestinians deserve their own home in their own borders. So we believe there can be a state of Palestine.”

An aspect both these groups have in common is the way they have involved other Bowdoin students, regardless of religion or background, who seek a solution for Israel and Palestine.

Sinead Lamel ’15 became active in fighting Palestinian oppression during the Occupy Wall Street movement, where she met a Palestinian man who helped her learn more about the conflict. “I learned how tax dollars are going to something people are told skewed facts about. We recognize that a lot of the media bias comes from pink washing. For example, a company tries to display itself as green so it installs solar panels, but it’s dumping waste on the land. That’s the same tactics the Israeli government takes.”

Will McCartney ’13 joined J Street for academic, social and political purposes. “I’m a history minor and I’m interested in the area. I’m friends with Adam, and I like having the opportunity to learn more about the politics of Israel, getting to speak with people who are really passionate, like Adam and Judah. It’s very personal for them and I love to get their perspective.”

Anyone interested in learning more about these groups are encouraged to attend their open weekly meetings.

Students for Justice in Palestine meets Thursdays at 8:oo pm in the BSG room (next to Sargent Gym).

J Street U meets Tuesdays at 7:30 pm in Hubbard Hall West.

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