Israel, Palestine and Me
The May 4 Reflection Gallery at Kent State University's Taylor Hall, on Nov. 16, was bulging with a standing-room-only crowd of students who came out to share their feelings and gain an understanding of the Israel-Hamas War.
"Israel, Palestine and Me: Students' Forum for Reflection and Dialogue," was organized by Kent State’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies and School of Communication Studies, to provide currently enrolled Kent State students a safe place to gather, talk and gain a better understanding of the issues and what is at stake for all parties.
Tatsushi Arai, associate professor of peace and conflict studies, opened the forum, explaining the ground rules for participation: no cell phone usage and backpacks had to be set aside to eliminate distractions and allow students to focus on real sharing of their experiences.
Organizers also requested that students not be photographed, to allow them to take part without in the forum without any fear, although some students agreed to be interviewed by Kent State Today following the forum.
Arai told the group that they must take part in “wholehearted sharing and wholehearted listening.”
Organizers asked students to reserve a spot for the event and limited attendance to currently enrolled students, however, a line of students who had not registered showed up to take part.
“We were absolutely overwhelmed tonight by the student turnout to discuss Israel, Palestine and me,” said Paul Haridakis, director of the School of Communication Studies. He said organizers were pleased with the turnout, and told the group how impressed they were with the students for their interest and behavior.
The event's purpose, he said, was to give students a safe place to discuss the war and share their experiences with each other, and he was so pleased that so many took the opportunity to take part.
The students were divided into four smaller discussion groups, each led by a faculty member from the School of Peace and Conflict Studies who has experience facilitating dialogue.
In small groups, participants shared their individual experiences from their backgrounds, some were Jewish, many Palestinian, and many who had no personal stake in the conflict, but who merely wanted to learn more and further their understanding of the issues.
Students from Middle Eastern countries talked about how they often are labeled as “terrorists” due to the darker color of their skin. Other students shared similar experiences of prejudice due to their race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
One student, a sophomore from Canton, Ohio, majoring in computer information systems, explained how his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Palestine, and described an incident from 2015 when his family visited their relatives in Palestine. He was 11 at the time and described walking in the streets with his sister and cousins and being confronted by Israeli Defense Forces, who later threw a hand grenade at the children, leaving a permanent burn mark on the back of his thigh and ringing in his ears, because the children were speaking to each other in English and did not have their visas on them.
When they returned to the large group for discussion, students shared what they had learned and how their perspectives had changed. One student noted the importance of “humanizing each other,” to see people as individuals rather than categorizing people into broad groups.
Students also remained long after the event had ended, eating pizza together and continuing their discussions with each other.
Neil Cooper, director of the School of Peace and Conflict Studies, said the purpose of the forum was to create a safe, welcoming space for currently enrolled Kent State students of all backgrounds “to reflect on the events unfolding in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, and other areas in the region, listen to each other and to seek a deeper and broader understanding of the issues at stake for both parties.”
A further aim of the event, Cooper said, “is to help students develop the tools for finding accurate, reputable, reliable media sources and for constructively engaging in discussions about the events unfolding each day in this conflict.”
In discussions, many students spoke of the need to seek out more than one source for news and to look for sources that reflect the reality of the people on the ground in conflicts.
Haridakis said that while many media outlets do a good job, getting a broad perspective from diverse media is always important. He cautioned students that social media can be a particular source of disinformation, often on purpose from bad actors, and it can spread quickly.
He told the group not to discount the importance of interpersonal communication and talking with each other to gain a better understanding of others.
Israel declared war on Hamas after the Islamist militant group launched a brutal attack on Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,400 in Israel and kidnapping more than 240. Israel retaliated by launching an air and ground offensive on Gaza, vowing to eliminate the militant group. The most recent death toll estimates from the conflict are more than 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza.