Seeking to broaden discussion on campus, UTC students plan Israel-Gaza forum

Palestinians clean up Wednesday after an Israeli strike on a residential building in Rafah, Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
Palestinians clean up Wednesday after an Israeli strike on a residential building in Rafah, Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Feeling their school was failing to bring in diverse perspectives to help students make sense of the Israel-Palestine conflict, students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have planned a forum Thursday evening.

Though envisioned beforehand, the event was finalized after the university hosted Bassem Eid, a Palestinian activist and pundit who is touring the nation with the expectation-defying message that Palestinians and the international community — but generally not Israel — are largely to blame for the horrific situation on the ground in Gaza right now.

"It felt as though the university did not do its due diligence," said Muslim Student Association President Rizwaan Abdul in an interview on campus Wednesday.

He added that while he did not want to stifle open discussion, it was difficult to imagine the university being comfortable hosting on campus an openly pro-Hamas speaker -- which he said would have been an equivalently extreme opposing view.

If you go

— When: 5 p.m. Thursday.

— Where: UTC Auditorium, 642 E. 5th St.

— What: Ceasefire for Palestine event.

The Muslim Student Association is organizing the event, "Ceasefire for Palestine," along with the campus's chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America.

By email Wednesday, Irven Resnick, a professor in the philosophy and religion department who supported Eid's talk, said the speaker came recommended by individuals in the Chattanooga community and noted he had written for mainstream outlets and been quoted in The New York Times.

"When we invited him, it seemed that he would offer another Palestinian perspective — one that regarded Hamas as the problem and not the solution — while at the same time provide criticism of Israeli policies. In that sense, he appeared to offer an ideal balance," Resnick wrote.

But he said some in the audience at the Feb. 14 event on campus were quick to brand Eid as a traitor to the Palestinian cause and dismiss reports of Hamas' atrocities — its attackers killed about 1,200 people in Israel in an Oct. 7 surprise attack — as fake news.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga Jewish Federation screens gruesome documentary on Oct. 7 festival massacre)

Resnick added that Eid's talk should be seen as part of an ongoing series in which other views will be offered and to remember that inviting a speaker to campus does not represent an endorsement of that individual's views by the university administration or faculty.

"Rather, the events in this series are part of an effort to inform and encourage calm reflection," he wrote.

University officials sent an emailed statement through spokesperson Chuck Wasserstrom.

"Given the complexity of the problems surrounding the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict, the feelings are understandably high," the statement said.

  photo  Staff photo by Andrew Schwartz / Muslim Student Association President Rizwaan Abdul poses after an interview at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Wednesday.
 
 

The school also noted a multi-part educational series coming in the spring attempting to approach the sensitive topic from different viewpoints.

For some staff and students though, the school has thus far been a poor venue for discussion and critical thought on the conflict.

"Its a little shocking how little it's being talked about on campus," said Jamie Booth, a study abroad adviser at the university, by phone Wednesday. "Its a major global issue that affects a lot of our students and our faculty and staff and the Chattanooga community, and I think that as an institution of higher education, we do have some sort of responsibility for sharing information and educating people."

Since the war broke out, Deston Hobbs, the president of the university's Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter, said he has been surprised by the lack of discourse on campus about a conflict that concerns him deeply, as thousands of Gazan children die under bombs and the enclave's residents starve amid an Israeli military campaign whose civilian toll has little recent precedent.

(READ MORE: More than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel-Hamas war, Gaza Health Ministry says)

  photo  Staff photo by Andrew Schwartz / Bassam Eid, the Palestinian activist and pundit, poses Feb. 14 after an interview at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
 
 

Then, he said, the university did host a talk, but the speaker — Eid — showed no apparent concern for the death toll in Gaza.

"More of an ideologue, he wasn't respecting the humanity of the people over there," Hobbs said, adding that Eid seemed like a propagandist.

"We decided we have to take initiative, I guess," Hobbs added.

The student Young Democratic Socialists of America and Muslim groups joined forces to organize Thursday's event. It is set to begin, Abdul said, with him reading anonymous letters of Palestinian students on campus who are scared to share their experiences openly.

Then the event is set to feature a talk from the activist (and current Hamilton County school board candidate) Missy Crutchfield, who has spent some time in Palestinian territories, before giving way to a panel featuring Jen Allgayer, the retired university political science professor Fouad Moughrabi and the physician Ahmed Ibrahim.

In addition to calling for a ceasefire, which Abdul and Hobbs said all U.S. politicians should be doing, their groups have established concrete local action items: One of those is to make Bethlehem — the birthplace of Jesus in present day West Bank — a sister city to Chattanooga, which Abdul said would help make Palestine more real to people here.

Another action item is to get the university student body to pass a resolution to host a student or two from a university in Gaza. And the third is for the university to bring in Miko Peled, an Israeli general's son and an activist, to speak.

"He was like, 'Nope, what Israel is doing wasn't the right way to guarantee Israel's safety nor is it just — right," Abdul said of Peled. "And so he's someone people would look up and not immediately think he's biased."

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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