Feb. 19, 2009
With passion and rhetoric, students and panelists debate violence in Gaza
Wet February snowflakes were a quiet reminder that the desert of Gaza is nearly half a world away, but in crowded Goldwin Smith Hall's Lewis Auditorium Feb. 18, the conflict that began in the Middle East a century ago -- and intensified in Gaza in December -- felt very close to home.
The panel discussion, "Gaza in Crisis," slated to last an hour and a half, was still going on, informally, three hours after it began. The dialogue reflected the difficulty in isolating the current crisis, in which 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have died, from its broader context.
Not participating were Cornell Hillel, the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Islamic Alliance for Justice. The three groups planned a similar event for Thursday afternoon, Feb. 19.
"This Gaza crisis is not the core issue, and by giving it too much centrality, it is easy to fall in the trap of conflicting narratives of both sides," said panelist Luis-Francois de Lencquesaing '09, Cornell International Affairs Review (CIAR) president and Student Assembly international representative. "The core issue is the politics of this conflict, and its position in the geopolitical realm."
Panelist Richard Miller, professor of political philosophy, opened the discussion, saying it is wrong to launch a war if its harm is excessive given its goal, or if its goal can be achieved through peaceful means. He argued that Israel's response to rocket fire from Gaza is both disproportionate and unproductive.
"Operation Cast Lead is a moral disgrace of a high order," he said. "It is a use of fear and destruction by which a government representing one ethnic group dominates a territory containing about as many members of another."
Panelist Syed Saad Ahsan '10 noted that both the Talmud and the Quran "hold human life in very high esteem."
"This is something upon which people of conscience should unite," he said.
But David Jacobis, a Cornell law student studying in Tel Aviv, who joined the panel via videoconference, argued that chances for peace in the near future seem slim; and that recent responses by the Israeli army to Palestinian aggression have been unapologetically disproportionate. "The rhetoric is really going extremely to the right," he said. "In Israel it's pretty clear that [recent attacks were] meant to be excessive."
Moderated by Nic van de Walle, associate dean for international studies and professor of government, the panel also included Mossaad Abdel-Ghany, retired senior research associate in clinical sciences, and was sponsored by numerous campus organizations.
In the question-and-answer session, audience members brought up issues from recent and distant history. The tone was occasionally heated, but tempered with frequent humor.
"We should be mature enough to deal with people with different opinions," said Wasif Syed, a Ph.D. student and organizer of the panel. "I think this was one of the most passionate events I've ever attended."
Kristina Gabler '12 said the event was a good start. "I think this was a step in the right direction -- a good event to get voices out," she said.
Last week, students with the Islamic Alliance for Justice installed a display on the Arts Quad denouncing the violence in Gaza. The display, which included 1,300 black flags and signs with information about the ongoing crisis, was vandalized several times; Cornell Police are investigating the incidents. On Feb. 12, President David Skorton issued a statement condemning the vandalism.