Pro-Palestinian Demonstration Stirs Controversy

Members of the 5C organization Students for Justice in Palestine awoke early in the morning March 31 to unpack and erect a wall.

As part of the group’s participation in Israeli Apartheid Week, the wall was intended to recreate the barrier separating Israeli and Palestinian communities throughout the West Bank.

According to SJP President Daniel Solomon PZ ’18, Israeli Apartheid Week is carried out on multiple college campuses nationally “to raise awareness about what is going on, what Israeli Apartheid is and to raise support for the kinds of boycott efforts that Palestinians have called for in order to restore basic rights to all people living in Palestine.”

At 60 feet by 10 feet, the wall is made up of painted illustrations and murals constructed by college groups throughout the Southern California region. Throughout the day, members of SJP camped out near the wall while passing students were presented with a wall of statistics, illustrations and performances. SJP hosted several other events last week commemorating their cause.

Solomon explained that the wall is intended to give people a “visual narrative” and to show students “what it might be like to be living with this wall actually blocking your freedom of movement.”

Some students such as Rebecca Rubin PZ ’17 responded to the wall with disapproval. Rubin said that she thinks the statistics and figures represent only one side of the argument.

“I was trying to put myself in the shoes of someone who knew very little about the conflict and if I had just seen that wall, I would be super pro-Palestine,” Rubin said. “I think that there should be context to all those facts.”

Rubin added that she had hoped to see a more balanced representation of both sides of the debate. 

“Where are your sources?” she said. “If the intention is to open conversation about the conflict, then both sides need to be represented, hands down.”

Due to the wall’s circulation between universities, some of the information was not up to date with current statistics and data. 

“The one problem that we had with the figures on the wall is that they are two or three years old,” Solomon said. “So the death toll is much higher, the number of Palestinians being in prison is much higher.”

However, he said that he thinks students with pro-Israel beliefs are unhappy with how the wall is “presenting a narrative that doesn’t make Israel look very good. It is a very different narrative than what you get from the US media which is incredibly biased in terms of favoring the Israeli narrative.”

The demonstration was also controversial in its very presence on campus. The wall was erected despite being rejected by the Aesthetics Committee in the Pitzer Student Senate.

SJP first contacted Vice President for Student Affairs Brian Carlisle on Feb. 10 about a “public art performance.” Carlisle directed the group to the Aesthetics Committee, which oversees approvals of all art installations. Committee member Liam Brooks PZ’18 said that the group couldn’t approve the wall because it seemed to carry a political message rather than being just an art piece.

“It basically boiled down to whether it is an artwork or if it was just a piece in a larger demonstration which we couldn’t really say yes or no to,” Carlisle said. “So we denied it on the basis of we didn’t think it was artwork necessarily. They were welcome to try other channels. But as an Aesthetics committee, we couldn’t approve that.”

Dalia Zada PZ ’18, another member of the Pitzer Aesthetics Committee, emphasized how political bias had nothing to do with the decision made by the committee.

“When we were looking at it we all sat down and told each other to remove all your emotions about the subject, do not look at it as a political statement— look at it logistically as art.”

The fact that the wall was not a Pitzer student-produced piece complicated the decision. Images of every panel of the wall could not be presented to the Senate, and because the wall belongs to another organization, the committee asked SJP to produce a contract that would free Pitzer from liability if something were to happen to the wall. SJP did not produce this contract.

SJP’s use of the word ‘apartheid’ also sparked controversy regarding the nature of the conflict. William Townsend PZ ’16, president of the Claremont Progressive Israel Alliance, believes the term ‘apartheid’ “doesn’t fit the description of Israel and Palestine. It kind of undermines a Jewish narrative in the land of Israel.”

Solomon argues that, while the word ‘apartheid’ is best known for its application to South Africa, its international definition rings true for the Palestinian reality.

“It’s important to remember that apartheid has an actual legal meaning under international law. It is the domination of one racial group of people over another,” Solomon said. “Jews have all sorts of privileges in this land, whereas Palestinians face brutal oppression by the Israeli state.”

Townsend claimed that the wall could lead to anti-Semitism.

“I think that from CPIA’s perspective, SJP is not an anti-Semitic club,” he said. “In our official statement, we don’t see the wall as being anti-Semitic. We see it as something that really simplified a conflict. And a lot of times what happens when you simplify the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is you have anti-Semitism arise.”

Carlisle said that he has been receiving many emails and phone calls from concerned parents and students. However, he was quick to tackle free speech infringement accusations.

“To be clear, the Campus Aesthetic Committee has approved politically motivated murals for decades,” he said. “There are murals that are engaging in political speech all the time. The accusation that the college attempted to censor the material that was going on that wall is inaccurate. It is a mischaracterization.”

Despite the committee’s decision to reject the proposal, SJP chose to continue with the demonstration, citing their right to free speech and political demonstration.

Attendees of the April 5 Student Senate meeting discussed an anonymous complaint addressed to SJP. The letter suggested that “SJP should be investigated into its violation of college policy, which subsequently holds them to club audit.”

The Executive Board voted 3-1 to allow the Senate to decide whether or not to investigate the claim. The Senate then voted not to investigate the claim.

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