By Henri Gendreau
On Sunday, Student Council approved the club Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine (KSJP), a group committed to “highlighting human rights violations that are taking place in Palestine and Israel and the diaspora of Palestinian people outside of that region,” according to Andrew Firestone ’14, a member of the group’s organizing body.
The College’s withdrawal in December from the American Studies Association (ASA) for its boycott of Israeli colleges and universities was one of the impetuses for the group’s formation. While KSJP was not founded out of the decision, it prompted further discussion on the subject of Israel, Palestine and academics.
“Many members of KSJP felt that Kenyon’s withdrawal from the ASA was a political decision made under the veil of the protection of academic freedom for all people,” Firestone said in an email, though he added not everyone in the group holds this view in the organization.
“We actually want to do something, bring about a certain change which is not just simply sitting down and talking about things, though that is extremely important,” said Secretary Jae June Lee ’17. In discussing the club with the Collegian, Lee and Firestone consulted with other group members of KSJP, whose titleholders also include Treasurer Qossay Alsattari ’16. Firestone mentioned that about 10 students were working toward the group’s fruition, and that a steady rate of 20 or so students attended weekly meetings.
Student Council’s approval of the club, which was unanimous, came with trepidation from some of the council members. Some members were concerned that approving KSJP would put it in conflict with existing clubs on campus, such as the Middle East Student Association (MESA) or J Street U, whose national website describes parent organization J Street as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”
“I would hate to create two rival groups,” Sophomore Class President Trevor Kirby said at the meeting.
“With this kind of issue there are always people who get very, very emotional about it, and rightfully so from their perspective,” Communications Director Alexandra Britt ’15 said, “but it won’t be one club versus another.”
When a motion to approve the club was first raised, Kirby asked, “Is everybody comfortable with this?”
“I don’t think it’s a process to decide whether they’re a conflict or not. That will be decided by the fact that people join or not,” Business and Finance Co-Chair Nick Marting ’14 countered. The usually reticent Dean of Students Hank Toutain noted that it was important for Council to consider the club’s approval regardless of agenda or conflict. “What you need to be most careful of, frankly, is that you’re treating this application just like you’re treating any other application,” he said.
After being approved as a club, KSJP launched a poster campaign to address the issue of Palestinian education. Some posters have been torn down and vandalized, Firestone and Lee said. On one of them, a student wrote, “Why do [Palestinians] always launch the first rockets then sit behind and pretend they are innocent when Israel retaliates?” Firestone noted that the writer had misspelled “Palestinians.” “It’s sad because they don’t have a conception of a Palestinian people to the point of being able to know how to write it down on a piece of paper,” he said.
The group is planning on a number of programs, including possible film screenings and guest speakers. In talking about the possibility of the group’s bringing speakers from the national organization Jewish Voices for Peace to campus, Firestone said of KSJP, “It’s hard to find a better example of why this has nothing to do with nationality or religion, that this has to do with perspective and ethics.”
And part of that approach focuses on group discussion and engagement on campus, Firestone and Lee stressed.
“We don’t intend to be an exclusive organization where you can’t show up if you think that your point of view doesn’t line up with ours. The idea is to expand the conversation, to include as many people as would like to be involved,” Firestone said. “I think our point is we will not apologize for our point of view. We will not apologize for our interest in this matter. We will not apologize for the posters, and we will not apologize for our presence on this campus.”
Co-chair of J Street U Julie Hartman ’15 wrote in an email that the chapter “will continue to advocate for the adoption of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” “We look forward to the possibility of engaging with [K]SJP in constructive, meaningful dialogue on campus,” Hartman wrote.
“We want more students on this campus to understand that there are a lot of Israeli activists at this table,” Firestone said. “There are a lot of Palestinian activists at this table, there are a lot of American activists at this table. There are Muslim activists and Jewish activists, there are Christian activists, there are atheist activists. Now that’s a pretty diverse picture, and that’s something a lot of folks are resistant to.”
The club sees the Israeli-Palestinian issue as not reducible to that dichotomy, but as a conflict that requires a moral obligation for all to involve themselves, regardless of any sort of affiliation one way or another.
“We see it as a responsibility not for everyone to join the organization, but for everyone to engage, to critically analyze, because we can make the table bigger,” Firestone said. “There’s room for all of us.” Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine meets Saturdays at 6:15 p.m. in Bemis Music Room in Peirce Hall.