About a year ago, when I was a guest lecturer at the Center for Jewish Studies of the University of Florida, I was asked to lead a panel discussion in honor of the Balfour Declaration’s centennial. The panel was initiated by a Jewish students’ organization in cooperation with a Jewish institute in Washington, which also sent a speaker. Mainly Jewish students were present at the panel.
There is hardly any BDS activity at the University of Florida in Gainesville and there is a significant number of Jewish students on campus, most of whom are active in Jewish organizations. And yet, before the event, which supposedly dealt with the very heart of the “the conflict,” I wondered whether the Palestinian students’ organization or some other group on campus would call for its cancellation, demonstrate outside the venue or mount some other protest. Yet the event came off as planned.
When the speakers concluded, some students asked informational questions and others asked what the significance of the declaration was in Israel today. A question by one female student drew my attention. I realized that she wanted to look at the complex picture not only of the present, but also of the past – the picture that is supposedly obvious. The guest speaker welcomed the question, explained the connection as he saw it, the student thanked him and the evening ended.
But something in her question kept me thinking about it. It was an attempt to understand other possibilities as well, or at least the logic behind them. I assumed that she was a member of one of the Jewish organizations. When they told me later that she was the president of the Palestinian student union on campus, the dialogue seemed to me even more significant and respectful. I thought that the president of the Palestinian student union, small or large, who came to hear the discussion – certainly not to boycott it or denounce it – and who raised a serious question and listened seriously to the answer was a leader I would like to see not only in student groups.
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Her name was Lara Alqasem.
Now it has come out that she is in the “banned-entry facility” at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Her decision to study in Hebrew University’s program in Human Rights and Transitional Justice seems to me a natural continuation of the wise and modest leadership that impressed me so much.
I thought about my encounter with her when I read various comments, on which the Israeli courts also might be relying, that she is active in preventing the appearance of Israeli speakers on campus, active in boycotting Sabra Hummus, and some went so far as to say that her presence is dangerous because she intends to use public transportation during her stay in Israel.
When I heard that the request by members of the Hebrew University faculty to visit Alqasem in detention had been denied, I thought that the guardians posted “at the gates” of our law had gone even beyond the Kafkaesque. The fact that Alqasem has no relatives here is perhaps part of the story that brought her here, and Israel wants to prevent the entry of the story itself.
I wonder about the students who are studying in the human rights program, and how the year will start when one of the students (who will study or not, depending on the court) has been in “barred-entry detention” for a week now. What can be learned from this affair, how can it be discussed if the student herself is not in the class? How can such a program even be held in a country that seeks to stop at the gate even the story of family members who once lived here?
I believe in the possibility of dialogue, the existence of human rights, and especially in leadership with integrity that shows the way, emerging from people who want to hear, to learn, to protest and propose a way. I would be happy to see such leadership here, in the place where we live.
Dr. Shenker, who teaches at the department of sound and screen arts at Sapir College, was a guest lecturer at the University of Florida.