Shalaam Coalition: Discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

By Sarah dillard

Shalaam Coalition, an organization that got its name by combining the words for peace in Hebrew and Arabic (Shalom and Salaam) was formed in September with the hope of bringing dialogue about the conflict to campus. Shahar Eberzon ’12, a student from Beersheba, Israel co-created the coalition with Tarik Hindi, ’13. “This discussion needs to happen,” Eberzon said. “If it doesn’t, I’d consider it a personal failure.” Eberzon emphasizes that Shalaam is about exploring the conflict in a safe environment that encourages difference of opinion. “Our goal is not to homogenize views or reach a consensus,” Eberzon said. Individuals and seven clubs ranging from Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER) to the Macalester Jewish Organization are a part of Shalaam. The coalition is working to host the first Israeli-Palestinian week on campus in early November. The week will feature documentaries, panel discussions, guest speakers and a celebration of Israeli and Palestinian culture. Shalaam has been meeting twice a week since the start of September to hold discussions amongst themselves and set guidelines for how the coalition will be run. Eberzon says they have tried to emphasize the creation of a safe atmosphere in which students can share their thoughts. But Shalaam’s goals have been met with opposition by some members of the community. In early October several fake Facebook profiles were created and admitted to the group’s Israel-Palestine Week page. “People who support Israel, you guys make me sick,” said one of the comments from a fake account. “How dare most of you use the Holocaust card in trying to justify Israel’s war crimes. You are horrible people, absolutely disgusting.” Although the messages have been removed from the Facebook page, Eberzon says they have taken a toll on Shalaam. “It’s been destroying what we’re trying to do,” Eberzon said. “It’s reminding us that there are hateful people out there.” For many in the organization, the comments are a first experience. “There’s a lot of anger in the group with no one to direct it to,” Eberzon said. “It’s the first time that a lot of these people have experienced hardcore antisemitism.” Co-creator of SUPER, Kelli Crescenti, ‘12, disagrees with what was done to combat the comments left on the Facebook page. She hopes that people with all views join Shalaam and become a part of the discussion rather than venting on the Internet. “We shouldn’t be silencing people’s opinions, although I disagree with the hateful things that were said,” Crescenti said. The Facebook comments have not been the only source of contention on campus over the conflict. On Oct. 6, the American flag in front of the Campus Center was replaced during the night with a Palestinian flag. The incident was reported to campus security. Another new group on campus, J Street U, was created in response to what co-creator Noah Westreich, ‘14, saw as a one-sided conversation on campus. The organization, one of about 50 chapters on college campuses across the country, defines itself as being “pro-Israel and pro-peace.” Westreich hopes that J Street U provides a space for students who want to critically examine Israel’s role in the conflict while still expressing support. “J Street has allowed me to question in a really productive, transformative way,” said Westreich. “At home I was never presented with the ‘other side’,” Westreich said. “[At Mac] I became concerned that I hadn’t been getting the full story.” The fact that SUPER was the only organization on campus at the time that addressed the conflict was a shock for Westreich. “It was a trigger for me that this was the loudest voice,” Westreich said. “It was the only voice.” Westreich is quick to point out that he admires the work that SUPER does. Like other member organizations of Shalaam, Westreich hopes that the J Street U is able to add another dimension to the conversation. SUPER was created for similar reasons in 2009. Crescenti was frustrated by the lack of focus on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “I think of Mac as a community very dedicated to human rights issues and the continual dehumanization of the Palestinians seemed to be an issue that hadn’t been fully addressed on campus,” Crescenti said. The organizations comprising Shalaam all highlight the importance of the conflict even for those who do not feel that they are directly involved. Eberzon said that Shalaam hopes to fuel discussion in the community regardless of the heritage or identity of students. “I think a lot of people think that if they’re not from Israel or Palestine they don’t have the right to talk about the conflict,” Eberzon said. “It’s a very American issue,” Westreich said. “We are Israel’s number one ally economically, militarily, and socially. It’s something that’s always going to be relevant in America.” Eberzon hopes that people on campus take advantage of the discussion that will be created through Israel-Palestine week and by the strengthening of organizations across campus. “I want to tell people to ask questions,” Eberzon said. “We need to debate and challenge other’s opinions. We have to be able to get angry and make others angry. We’ll both feel [bad] but then we’ll feel really, really good.”