Student and faculty speakers at an event held in the Bergland Auditorium of Indiana University Northwest’s Savannah Center on Thursday night condemned the Israeli government’s ongoing assault on the Gaza strip and called for an end to the violence.
“Immediate cease-fire now is the minimum,” Raoul Contreras, chair of IUN’s Minority Studies Department, told an audience of around three dozen people.
Contreras cited the position of Raz Segal, an Israeli professor of Holocaust and genocide studies, who has labeled Israel’s actions in Gaza as “a textbook case of genocide.”
For the past month, the Israeli Defense Forces have conducted a campaign of airstrikes against the Palestinian territory, killing an estimated 11,000 people according to Gaza’s health ministry, almost all of whom have been civilians. The assault was prompted by an October 7 attack on Israeli soldiers and civilians by Hamas, the terrorist group that governs Gaza. Hamas militants broke through the territory’s heavily fortified border with Israel, killing more than 1,400 people and taking over 240 back to Gaza as hostages. News of the massacre horrified Jewish residents of Northwest Indiana, many of whom have relatives in Israel or other ties to the country.
“We are all still reeling, especially as more information becomes available,” Emily Benedix, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana, told the Post-Tribune. “Our Jewish community has been very touched by the outpouring of support from the non-Jewish community in Northwest Indiana. It’s been absolutely encouraging and meaningful beyond what we can express.”
The past month’s violence has been the latest flare-up in a struggle spanning three quarters of a century between the nation of Israel and the stateless Palestinian people. In November of 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to divide the British-controlled territory of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Jewish nationalists in the region embraced the plan but Palestinian Arabs, who at the time outnumbered the region’s Jews, rejected it as a land-grab. Violence between the two groups broke out and after Israel declared independence the following year, five Arab states attacked the new country.
The war ended with an Israeli victory, and resulted in the permanent displacement of roughly 700,000 Palestinians, more than half of the group’s total population, with refugees emigrating abroad or settling in the Gaza strip and West Bank. In 1967, an Israeli victory in another war with its Arab neighbors led to the country occupying the Gaza strip and West Bank, the latter of which remains under occupation with partial control by the Palestinian National Authority. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but maintains control over the movement of people and goods into and out of the territory through a blockade. Various Palestinian factions have employed both violent and nonviolent means in an effort to secure statehood.
Among those displaced in 1948 were the family of Dana Safi, a Palestinian American IUN student who grew up in Munster. She told the Post-Tribune that she still has relatives in the Gaza strip, though they are not in close contact with her family in the United States. News of the Oct. 7 attacks left Safi with a profound sense of dread.
“I distinctly remember like waking up that day just reading all the news and my first thought was ‘this is going to be extremely bad for every single Palestinian.’” she said. “Hamas doesn’t speak for the Palestinian people and a lot of Palestinians, they don’t like the idea of fighting back because we know that we’re going to get hit harder.”
Less than two weeks later, the Palestinian death toll of the ensuing Israel-Hamas war had already surpassed that of the third war fought between the two in the summer of 2014, when 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, were killed, according to data from the United Nations. The Gaza strip, roughly twice the size of Washington D.C., has a population of over 2 million people, nearly half of whom are children. Safi, a sophomore studying philosophy, said that her family has been monitoring Facebook for news from the territory, and learned that a relative was likely killed on Sunday.
The violence in Israel and Gaza has had reverberations far closer to home. On Oct. 14, less than 60 miles from IUN’s campus in unincorporated Plainfield, Illinois, 6-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume was stabbed to death by his landlord, according to the Will County Sheriff’s office. His mother, Hanaan Shahin, was also stabbed and was hospitalized with nonlife threatening injuries, in what authorities have labeled an anti-Palestinian hate crime. Joseph Czuba, 71, pleaded not guilty to eight criminal charges and faces life in prison if convicted.
“I’m just afraid of identifying as Palestinian because you never know who has a vendetta against me,” Safi said, adding that her parents have cautioned her against displaying her support for Palestine in public out of concern for her safety. She chose to attend the event, she said, “because if anyone’s gonna speak out, it needs to be the people who have a direct relation.”
Two other Palestinian American IUN students, both of whom have family in the West Bank, offered condemnations of Israel and support for the Palestinian people at the event.
“The international community must prioritize the importance of a cease-fire for the sake of the innocent lives at stake and to alleviate the immense suffering in Gaza,” said Naseeb Mohammed, a first generation American studying accounting and finance. “It’s our shared responsibility to work toward a just and lasting solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that recognizes the dignity and humanity of everyone involved and paves the way for peace and coexistence in the line of Palestine.”
Ahmad Abudayyeh was born in the West Bank and moved to the United States as a preteen. He drew a sharp distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian people as a whole, lamenting the harm done by the former. He argued, however, that Israel’s 16-year blockade of Gaza — defended by the Israeli government as a means of denying Hamas access to weapons — contributes to violence.
“I do believe that all Israeli lives and all Palestinian lives matter,” he said. “but I truly believe that keeping 2.2 million people in an open-air prison will create radicalism.”
Benedix stressed that her organization supports the right of pro-Palestinian students and faculty to voice their views in public, but pushed back against a number of the event’s talking points.
“What my concern is when I hear the term ‘genocide’ and actually several of these slogans that we’re hearing and all the inflammatory language, is that it is something that’s meant to engage raw emotion without context,” she said. Blame for the month of violence, she said, belongs squarely on Hamas, whose violence she described as “animalistic and barbaric.”
“I would challenge anyone to say that those actions can be justified by anything,” she said. “We’re not talking about the civilians. We’re talking about the people that did these horrific actions.”
It is incumbent on the militant group, she said, to end the violence by returning Israeli hostages.
Jewish voices have long been among the most prominent on both sides of debates in the United States over American support for the Israeli government — the U.S. supplies Israel with more than $3.8 annually in military aid — which have become increasingly heated in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks and. On Oct. 18, the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League — one of the nation’s oldest Jewish civil rights groups — issued a condemnation of Jewish pro-Palestinian protesters who occupied the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington to demand a cease-fire. President Joe Biden has staunchly resisted such calls and has pledged “rock solid and unwavering” support for Israel.
Ruth Needleman, a professor of labor studies at IUN, invoked her own Jewish identity in condemning Israel’s attacks on Gaza at Thursday’s event.
“I have no identification with Israel. It’s not my country. They don’t speak for me and they don’t speak for the majority of Jews in the world,” Needleman said. “To attack the policies of the government of Israel is to be against genocide, not to be anti-Semitic.”
An IUN spokesperson did not comment on the event’s content, and wrote in a statement that it “was not university-sponsored.”
“It was conducted in accordance with normal procedures for events in that venue, which encourage the free and civil exchange of ideas,” she wrote.