One of the most divided and long-standing issues of modern history was brought to the halls of a UCF auditorium on Wednesday.
The panel on Palestinian Rights and the Impact of Occupation saw, not a packed audience, but a fully engaged one, as students wearing yarmulkes and head scarves listened in unison to five different activists call for the continued need of what everyone in the room had gathered for —everyday diplomacy.
“When it comes to dealing with national conflicts, we have to realize that national conflicts come down to conflicts between individuals, and if individuals are not educated on how to deal with them effectively, they will not be in a position to transform the conditions that millions of people are subjected to,” said Chandra Kethi-Reddy, a UCF triple-major who sat on the panel.
The remaining four speakers included members from the Council on American Islamic Relations and Israeli members of the UCF community.
Moderated by UCF students Adam Manno and Joey Roulette, the panel discussion began with a question on the importance of Zionism in today’s world.
Panelists provided similar definitions, agreeing mostly on its impact in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.
Laila Abdelaziz, legislative affairs coordinator for CAIR, said that ultimately, Zionism is important because it is the political ideology that has defined the most contentious conflict of the 20th century.
“It is important for us as Americans to understand and know what Zionism is, because we as Americans are very committed to the current status quo of the Israeli state and the Zionist political agenda,” she said. “We cannot deny that the establishment of the state of Israel has created a global refugee population of 8 million Palestinian people.”
This political framework, as put by Kethi-Reddy, is used to describe a community gathered around the cause of providing a home base for their people, particularly, Israeli Jews.
When it comes to the question of the importance of Zionism, Kethi-Reddy said it is best to leave it open-ended.
“We should come together and try to understand what the needs of Zionists are, and at the same time, expect the Zionists to be able and willing to address and speak about the needs of Palestinians,” he said.
Noa Tann, a UCF Israeli immigrant who sat on the panel, said there is multiplicity within the issue, acknowledging the racist acts that have been committed in the name of Zionism, but also the homes that have been granted to people under the cause.
Both Tann and Barry Mauer, a Jewish UCF professor who sat on the panel, spoke of the Jewish-American influences that present Judaism as Zionism.
“When I was growing up, my parents sent me to a Jewish camp, and what I found out was that it taught very little about Judaism, and taught a lot about Zionism, and in fact, it equated the two,” Mauer said.
Tann, who has been heavily embedded in a Jewish-American summer camp for over 10 years, said that she has found a lot of uncritical and unconditional love for Israel within that community.
“I think this narrative is incredibly harmful to people within the Israeli and Palestine populations, and in the U.S.,” she said. “Identity and love for Israel are important, but you can’t teach children a reality that is not true, and expect them to grow up into Jewish-Americans who can adequately understand the problem and elect neutral representatives that will lead to peace and civility in Palestine and Israel.”
Neutrality in the United States is the first step toward peace and resolution, said Abdelaziz, who added that though diplomacy is important, she does not believe the conflict will be solved in the chambers of the Israeli government.
“I believe that the U.S. is the last remaining superpower, and as the superpower that sustains the status quo as it stands in Israel, it is the only place in the world where we can start having a constructive conversation towards a solution,” she said.
Mauer also spoke of United States' involvement with the Israeli state, saying that the millions of dollars of aid offered to the Israeli government is not benevolent.
“Israel exists as a political force because it is a U.S. client state that does the dirty work for the U.S. through out the world,” he said, echoing Abdelaziz’s statements.
She said that before talking about diplomacy, United States citizens and the government must first talk about becoming a neutral party that is fair to both the occupied Palestinian people and the Israeli, which means putting a stop to the exorbitant foreign aid funding.
“We are not talking about becoming a neutral party,” she said. “We’re talking about signing another ten-year contract that will maintain the status quo and keep Americans complicit in the current human rights violations that the Palestinian people are suffering under the Israeli regime.”
For Rasha Mubarak, a UCF alumna and the Orlando regional coordinator for CAIR, the first step toward a resolution is going back to the drawing boards and remembering that the conflict is about human lives.
“It’s important to remember that a Palestinian person's life is not more valuable than a Jewish person’s life, and a Jewish person’s life is not more valuable than a Palestinian person’s life,” she said. “I think we need to refresh the fact that this is about humans, not religiosity or entitlement.”
Kethi-Reddy said that is it important to stop focusing on the end game and start focusing on what can be done here and now.
“The idea of everyday diplomacy is that we are the arbiters of peace in the relationships that we have, and the conversations that we have. If we don’t have peaceful conversations, if we don’t have conversations that are directed toward peace, it’s not possible,” he said.
“In terms of what we can do, I think that we can go out using social media to impact the mood of this conflict, to make peace look possible, and the way we can do that is by having higher standards for ourselves in terms of how we hold these conversations and in terms of our intellectual attention to the issues that matter.”
This article was originally published on April 8. The initial version stated the word "yamakas" and was corrected to say "yarmulkes."
Daniela Marin is a digital producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @dan__marin or email her at DanielaM@CentralFloridaFuture.com.