by Henri Gendreau
A public forum Tuesday discussing the wall Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine (KSJP) erected last week in Peirce Hall was a rare moment of soul-searching for a campus with a track record of political apathy.
Ascension’s Philomathesian Hall was packed as students, faculty and staff came to express their views on an installation piece that sought to bring attention to injustices resulting from the wall dividing Israel and Palestinian territories.
The conversation, sponsored by the Dean of Students Office, was led by Director of Counseling Services Patrick Gilligan, who began the event by having some members of KSJP explain the project.
“We wanted to do something that would force those who, we feel, have refused to negotiate with an issue — whether by denying that it’s happening or because they hold a different opinion — to do so,” KSJP member Sarah Gold ’15 said. “And we wanted to dramatize it in a way that it could not be ignored.”
The wall, which was met with praise, indifference and derision, galvanized the campus into a debate on the role and nature of political speech.
Forum attendee Adam Egelman ’16 said he took issue with the wall coming up during admitted students week. “If I were coming here as an admitted student, I would have definitely rethought this decision,” he said to the crowd of about 70.
Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann blasted those in KSJP involved in the wall’s construction for creating an atmosphere of “righteous indignation” that made dialogue impossible.
“If this goes on, it’s going to be hard for you to be my students, it’s going to be hard for me to be your teacher,” Baumann said of Adam Bulmash ’14 and Jae June Lee ’17, who are in KSJP. “It’s already emotionally difficult in some ways when you feel existentially threatened and you must know that. That’s how liberal education gets killed. We’ve got lots of ways on this campus to debate these issues rationally.”
Professor of Religious Studies Vernon Schubel said more diverse opinions that create a more varied community benefit the liberal arts.
“There’s a whole diversity of positions,” he said. “There’s a whole diversity of Jewish positions, there’s a whole diversity of Arab-American positions even on this campus, and unless we’re willing to hear all of them, then liberal education doesn’t mean anything.”
Dean of Students Hank Toutain said the decision to hold the forum stemmed from responses his office received from students and administrators calling for action. An incident last November when two students decided to wear white sheets around campus prompted a student-led forum by the Black Student Union. But Toutain said the need to hold a forum by students did not exist in this case. Instead public discourse on the wall mostly played out in a pamphlet war between members of KSJP, Kenyon Students for Israel and other individuals.
Overall, Toutain said he was pleased with the forum, but said he thinks the College could benefit from providing more opportunities for public discourse.
“I suppose it was more comments than conversation,” he said. “It’s like golf. You can always get better.”
Speaking mostly about anonymous commenting, Toutain said, “When we think of ourselves as a community of learning — learning in the company of friends — it just strikes me that that’s likelier to happen when we own our own comments rather than hiding behind anonymity and hurling verbal hand grenades over the wall to other people who probably get injured in the process.”
Gilligan added in an email that “it seems that issues like this get resolved either through conflict or through empathy, and I’m rooting for more empathy.”
“That’s why discussions like this are so important,” he said.
Sewar Quran ’17 said at the forum that she found the discussion encouraging.
“When somebody disagrees or has a different opinion, that’s fine. This is why we have a dialogue,” she said. “I think this needs to happen more on campus.”
Oren Weingrod ’14 held a similar view. “This is amazing that Kenyon students are feeling so passionate about something,” he said. “Let’s be passionate about as many things as possible.”