Bringing the Palestinian-Israeli Conversation to Whitman

Audrey Hecker, Staff Reporter

After living through the devastation of the Lebanon War more than a decade ago, Bashar Haidar, a junior at Whitman College, decided it was time to show his support of the Palestinian state and its inhabitants in the founding of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) Club. The club is new to the Whitman campus as of this semester.

The club’s agenda contains two main categories: educational endeavors and political involvement. Haidar hopes to host speakers, researchers and events on campus to raise awareness of an otherwise concealed issue.

The ongoing conflict between Jews (those who occupy the State of Israel) and Arabs (Palestinians) has caused controversial and upsetting instances. After the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in 1967, the advancement of Palestinian nationalism and survival became an increasingly difficult struggle.

The Club Advisor, Professor Elyse Semerdjian, considers her experiences with Palestinian acquaintances as defining moments in her career as an activist.

“[I knew] an old woman named Rasmiya from Nazareth who bore scars on her arm from napalm thrown on her and other Palestinian refugees as she crossed the Allenby Bridge into Jordan in 1948. She showed me those scars and I took note of them every time I saw her, understanding them as indelible marks of trauma and exile,” Semerdjian said.

Both Haidar and Professor Semerdjian feel a strong sense of responsibility to introduce the underrepresented topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Whitman.

“This is my third year here and in the past two years I’ve barely heard anything about this really pressing issue [on campus],” Haidar said.

To Haidar, it comes as no surprise that there has never been a collective dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Whitman College. Professor Semerdijan reflects Haidar’s sentiments about the lack of activism on campus.

“Shockingly, Whitman’s community has not been very engaged on the question of Palestine since I arrived 15 years ago,” she said. “I am hoping that we will have some important and much-needed dialogue on this campus.”

In addition to bringing this dialogue to campus through SJP, Professor Semerdijan will be teaching Hist 322: “History of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” for the Spring semester. She encourages “students who want to study the conflict and the academic debates surrounding it” to register for the class.

Besides normalizing these important conversations within the Whitman community, SJP also hopes to resolve certain aspects of Whitman’s economic framework.

“The long-term goal of the club … will include researching investments that Whitman has in Israeli colonial settlement businesses and trying to craft proposals to divest from that,” Haidar said. “We do have a very strong support voice for Israel [on campus], and I don’t know if that’s just because a lot of people are ignorant about it or if they have informed opinions, but we’ll see.”

Haidar went on to say that SJP is “excited to collaborate” with faculty, Off Campus Studies, other Whitman clubs and Whitman students in general regarding their “complicit … or not so complicit decisions.”

“[Students for Justice in Palestine] is about a complex system of oppression, and it welcomes anyone who stands against oppression in all its forms,” Professor Semerdijan said. “Just remember that time Martin Luther King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”