UCF’s Students for Justice in Palestine held a silent, die-in protest outside the Student Union shortly after noon on Wednesday, April 6.
Members of the pro-Palestinian organization played dead to show the alleged oppression of Palestinians by the State of Israel. The demonstration was active for only a brief amount of time before members of Knights for Israel, UCF’s pro-Israel organization, arrived with signs of their own to counter-protest.
While KFI’s initial plan was to silently protest, one of its members addressed the SJP protestors with a question, leading to the SJP members engaging with the counter-protestors. What was supposed to be a silent protest quickly prompted a passionate yet civil debate between the two organizations that drew in several bystanders.
Jude Alkhaldi, an SJP member and international student from Jordan, said she wasn’t expecting a debate.
“This is my first semester in the group,” Alkhaldi said. “I was told there would be other people, but I didn’t expect them to come and talk to us.”
This didn’t stop her from engaging with the crowd. Alkhaldi was one of the loudest voices engaging with the Knights for Israel protestors.
“We were trying to explain we’re here for peace, and that we respect innocent Israelis a much as we do innocent Palestinians,” Alkhaldi said.
Rasiel Freija, vice president of SJP, said she wasn’t surprised by the day’s turn of events.
“We didn’t mean for this to happen, but it sort of tends to happen,” Freija said. “We don’t go to KFI, but they usually end up coming over. I was expecting things to get heated, but I didn’t expect so many pro-Israel people to come over.”
Yonaton Cinader, one of the protestors in Knights for Israel, saw the protests as a way to open a communication with SJP.
“We came to silently protest, but one of our members asked them a question,” Cinader said. “They decided to respond and it ended up being a series of animated conversations.”
Senior Nitzan Goodman, vice president of Knights for Israel, viewed the experience more positively.
“As long as we’re communicating verbally, it’s great. This is the first time in four years I’ve spoken with people on the other side,” Goodman said.
As an Israeli and former infantry member in the Israel Defense Forces, he said he has seen the conflict firsthand.
“I’ve seen a [Palestinian] lady pretending to be pregnant and actually carrying a knife. I’ve seen it all,” Goodman said. “Of course, I’ve also seen our side doing not the nicest things. Sometimes I was there to stop it, sometimes I wasn’t.”
Many bystanders listening appreciated both sides of the debate.
“The conversations look to have gotten a little on the aggressive end, but at least they’re talking things out,” UCF student Muhaimeen Hossain said. “It looks like some of them are even agreeing on some things, some of them not. I’m just here to get perspectives from both sides.”
SJP member and freshman Noa Tan said she is looking to change minds on the conflict. Tan was born in Hafia, Israel, and moved to the United States at the age of 5.
“I’m here because the Society for Justice in Palestine is accused of being anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist, and I’m here to condemn those beliefs as a person who believes in the rights of every Palestinian and every human being — I just also happen to be Israeli,” Tan said. “I hope my perspective is one that will help people in Knights for Israel see other perspectives.”
While many members of both groups were steadfast in their beliefs, Tan believed there was a possibility for beneficial communication.
“There are Palestinians whose lives have been interrupted and oppressed by the Israeli government and the Israeli military, and there are Israelis whose lives have been threatened by rockets and by terrorism,” Tan said. “There’s a big difference in perspective on both sides, but there are Israelis on the right and left just like there’s Americans on the right and left. The differences between us aren’t as entrenched as people think.”
Dominic Pineiro, a junior majoring in math, said he appreciated the discourse.
“Learning that this debate happened spontaneously makes me even happier. I think all argument is constructive” Pineiro said. “The people arguing this, they’re already pretty set in their stances, they probably won’t convince each other. But the people on the sidelines listening can have their stances changed, especially if they’re on the fence.”
Harry Sayer is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.