A discomfort permeated the room as 20 students anxiously dug into their dinners; they shifted their eyes as a sign-in sheet was passed around. Last Thursday evening, Kenyon’s new chapter of Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) — a national Jewish pro-Palestinian activist group — was about to hold their first meeting in Bemis Music Room in Peirce Dining Hall.
“It’s a very sensitive topic to pretty much every Jewish person, so I expected some kind of resistance or some kind of unease,” said Nathan Geesing ’21, the leader of the newly formed campus organization. He said that, for the most part, he was optimistic about the outcome.
JVP joins Kenyon Students For Israel (KSI) and Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine (KSJP) as the third student group focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict at Kenyon. Geesing said that he created the group to offer a space for Jews to contribute to the conversation in support of Palestine.
“People are ready for this kind of space,” Geesing said. “Jewish spaces like Hillel on campus actively avoid discussion of this issue. There’s no real space for progressive Jews to talk about this in an honest manner.” At the meeting, Geesing outlined the mission of JVP then opened up the floor for questions from the group. Some students expressed concern for the way Zionism was portrayed during Geesing’s presentation, while others expressed support for a JVP chapter at Kenyon. The room agreed that the discussion was needed and many found it to be productive.
The JVP meeting followed an email sent out by KSI earlier that day, which aimed to address the “abundance of anti-Israel behavior on campus.” The email cautioned students interested in JVP: “While we appreciate all discussion on campus around the issue of Middle East peace, we feel that the founding of this organization will make no progress towards any such end.”
When asked about the email, Geesing said it was symptomatic of KSI’s unwillingness to participate in open discussion on the conflict.
“The email is indicative of the fact that KSI is not open to serious debate about this issue,” Geesing said. “Before we’d even had our first interest meeting, before I’d even had a chance to explain what I wanted to with this organization here on campus, they’d already denounced them [JVP].”
Ben Reingold ’20, president of KSI, attended the meeting. “I think that this group could be a space for dialogue, but I am extremely concerned about the platforms of the international organization of JVP,” he said. “They support convicted terrorists and mask them as liberation fighters … We should all be in favor of peace, but the policies that they propose are unproductive and vague at best.”
Geesing spoke about the intellectual transformation that he went through after coming to Kenyon, especially as a result of attending both KSJP and KSI meetings. “I came to this campus as a Zionist,” he said. Going to KSJP meetings — and meeting “face-to-face” with Palestinians — was his first real exposure to the other side of the issue. “I just had no idea what they actually believed. I’d only been told what they believed.” Though Geesing said he “never really agreed with them until like the fifth or sixth meeting,” he noticed that something kept him coming back for more. “They did bring up very good points about just the universal importance of human rights,” he said. Geesing said JVP welcomes students across the political spectrum.“We’re still going to welcome you if you have different viewpoints. I was welcomed into Students for Justice in Palestine when I was still a Zionist.”
Geesing said that his primary goal in establishing a JVP chapter at Kenyon is to help bring about a more understanding and honest dialogue on campus, one in which the understanding of who’s suffering — and how we can help them — takes precedence. “I see this organization as a necessary step that Kenyon needs to take,” Geesing said. “If you’re going to have an honest discussion about anything, you have to understand the facts, and you have to understand who’s suffering. That’s what I want to do with this club.”