Group Seeks Middle Ground
January 27, 2004 12:57 PM
The May 7, 2002, rally at SF State was the talk of the nation as pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters came to a head in Malcolm X Plaza.
While no arrests were made, the university forwarded cases of three students to the San Francisco district attorney for possible prosecution of the students for hate crimes and vandalism.
At the time Samuel Vengrinovich, now 23, was not a SF State student, but he attended the rally. Once anger erupted from both sides and racial epithets were yelled across the plaza, he said it was the first time he had really felt what it was like to be despised so much. In fact, he continued, it was the first time he’s ever felt that kind of hate.
Media outlets from the Bay Guardian to Fox’s “O’Reilly Factor” covered the event. SF State, since then, has been criticized for being both anti-Semitic and pro-Israel.
Vengrinovich said he strived to look beyond May 7 and learn from that experience, and one result is a new student organization -- the Israel-Palestine Alternative -- whose mission is to support co-existence and mutual recognition between two peoples and be a center-of-the-road forum for moderates.
“For far too long there has lacked a student organization here at San Francisco State University, that seeks to mend ties, not separate them. As Shimon Peres (former prime minister of Israel) once said, ‘the Middle East is all tongue, and no ears.’ In many ways, I also have felt San Francisco State has become the same thing,” said the recent international relations graduate.
“My hope for this organization is to shake up the decades-old political climate that existed here for too long.”
The IPA became an officially sanctioned student organization in December. Members say they are eager to hit the ground running with events -- such as open discussion forums, Israeli and Palestinian film screenings and comedians -- to promote dialogue and understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and discourage hate, racism, discrimination and segregation over the conflict.
While the organization probably would have been created if May 7 didn’t happen, Vengrinovich said, the rally highlighted the need for the IPA, showing the lack of communication existing on campus. The group admits it isn’t trying to solve the Middle East’s problems, it wants to provide a place to discuss and learn about the issue.
“All we hear about is the extremist sides in the media. … We want to reach out to the moderates,” Vengrinovich said. “The truth is that there are a lot more moderates. By promoting the middle ground and seeking to peaceful co-existence, what we really do is make the extreme sides look weird.”
For every event the IPA hosts, strict rules will be enforced. While people will be free to express their ideas, hate will not be tolerated, according to the IPA. And ideally, the IPA encourages all groups on campus to throw their two cents in the discussion.
Vengrinovich said he and IPA co-founder, Kfir Mordechey, wanted to create a haven for discussion because it’s important to understand that every conflict has two narratives. While one doesn’t have to agree with either side, it’s important to listen and discuss, he said.
“This is a school of diversity, but it’s also a school of hypocrisy,” Vengrinovich said, adding that outside SF State, he’s met people of different ethnic groups and didn’t feel tension that he says he feels on campus.
The reason, he theorized, is that students converging upon the university in their first semester are learning about their culture and heritage, some for the first time in their lives. “What happens is that maybe while seeking our identity, we take it to another level and forget it’s about being American, too,” he said.
To the existing organizations on both sides of the issue: GUPS and the Israel Coalition and Hillel, Vengrinovich said, the IPA may be a surprise to them.
“This is a political threat to what they’ve been doing for so many years, people are attracted to moderate perspectives. … I’m also asking both parties to not feel that they cannot participate. Our doors are open to everybody.”
The executive director of Hillel, the umbrella organization for Jewish groups and activities including the Israel Coalition, said he was confused as to why Hillel or the Coalition could be considered extreme.
"While the Israel Coalition is a specific to Israel, it is a coaltion of interests -- some more to the left politically and then some more to the right," said Seth Brysk, executive director. "The Coalition is unified in its support of Israel's right to exist."
He added that Hillel and the Israel Coalition has sponsored many interfaith activities and hold to standards promoting peace and open discussion.
"We've repeatedly made overtures to GUPS for dialogue ... have been active in helping the Year of Civil Discourse (an academic program on campus), and that is a lot of what (the IPA's) goals are," Brysk said. "It puzzles us that we'd be considered too extreme."
The IPA could be sponsored by Hillel in the future, he said, if it changed its bylaws and allowed for officers to be elected -- a requirement for Hillel groups.
GUPS issued the following position: "We as GUPS advocate positions that call for justice and an end to the perpetuation of human rights abuses against Palestinians. The solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is firmly grounded in International Law. Any alternatives that are contrary to established international law will not resolve the conflict. We encourage the Palestine Israel Alternative to fairly evaluate the causes of the conflict and explore various possibilities for peace in the region. We welcome their efforts and hope that the organization will address the plight of occupied and displaced Palestinians in their discussions."
Ideally the IPA would not exist, Vengrinovich said, because that would signify everyone was getting along.
“This is not the Middle East. We can actually speak to each other without danger. Here we can set an example to the rest of the world that we can exist peacefully and then we can help our brothers and sisters out there,” Vengrinovich said.
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