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Professor hosts Israel-Palestine info session in DOW

Todd Holmstrom, a Michigan Tech social science professor and former government official, was the speaker for an informational session held on Nov. 14 focused on the current Gaza strip military conflict. Holmstrom was the U.S. Department of State acting director of the Israel and Palestine affairs during the 2008 Gaza conflict, among other significant U.S. foreign affair positions. The event was facilitated by USG and a few other passionate Tech students. It was meant to clear up confusion about the topic, while showing both sides’ points of view. 

After the speaker was introduced, he began to give background to the history and politics between Israel, Palestine, and the ethnic identities between them. While presenting the context of the situation, he made a point to say that the event was meant to be a discussion and “give and take” rather than a lecture. At some point during this background, one student asked Holmstrom about the Israel military’s use of white phosphorus while holding up his phone to record. Holmstrom responded by bringing up the nature of the conflict. This caused a heated argument of interjecting and interrupting, “not allowing a platform for healthy discussion,” expressed by the speaker. 

Several attendants attacked how Holmstrom presented information and argued that he didn’t do enough to explain the injustices against Palestinians. One attendant dismissed the speaker by saying, “This sounds like propaganda to me.” The attendant later walked out, followed by another who decried the event as being “dangerous.” Despite several vocal walkouts during the first half of the event, discussion continued about the conflict. Holmstrom remarked, “If we, here in this obscure little corner of the United States, can’t have that type of respectful give-and-take, how in the world can these two parties ever do it when they’re in the midst of a conflict?” Arguments started several more times with Holmstrom and occasionally between attendants. The potential for political change in Israel, the possibility of a two-state solution, and how a ceasefire could be achieved were some of the topics discussed.

Individuals in the audience started to ask historical points not brought up in the presentation, which at first led to Holmstrom giving many reminders about there being two distinct and arrogant narratives at play. “Both sides have a narrative supporting a set of facts saying we’ve done everything we could to realize a two state solution, and it failed,” he said to one student. Holmstrom and this student had a fair amount of back and forth throughout the two hours. Sometimes leading to periods of disorder in the room, other times sparking productive dialogue. The conversation ranged from extremism and the electoral process in Israel, the illegitimacy and political manipulation of Hamas, the role of countries not directly involved in the conflict, and even the usefulness of polls. “As an American, the best thing to do is consider both contexts.” 

During an interview with Holmstrom, he talked about how divisive this subject is for people. He talked about how this conflict has polarized people across the U.S. and how that’s materialized on college campuses. He said that people often go to these events to argue for their side instead of wanting to hear multiple perspectives. He said, “There were a number of people who were intent on being disruptors.” He wishes those who walked out would’ve stayed to hear different views about the conflict. 

As the conversation simmered down in intensity, Holmstrom ended the event with a story he experienced while working in affairs. He was making an attempt to convince an Israeli woman of power to lessen the strain of the blockades in Gaza. She responded to him with a long-winded memory of escaping Auschwitz, all for the purpose of conveying how much land security meant to her. The event ended with applause for the speaker and active audience members of both sides walking to the front to ask more questions.

Matthew Staats, USG Representative for the College of Sciences and Arts, was one of the organizers for the event. He was pleased with the turnout for the event, which was at least 30 people. He also acknowledged the difficulty of discussing this conflict due to how divisive it is and especially since some students have connections to this region. He said, “This issue is difficult to discuss given the divisiveness of the topic and it is disheartening to have people walk out.”

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