“It’s very difficult for us to discuss Palestine here in the United states,” began Dr. Maura Finkelstein, the co-director of Center for Ethics. “This discussion is fraught and uncomfortable, and so we must have it.”
On Thursday, Feb. 1, the College hosted Dr. Sa’ed Atshan, a Palestinian Quaker and professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College, who gave a talk titled Palestinian Christians: Past, Present and Future, in Miller Forum, Moyer hall at 7:00 p.m.
Atshan’s speech, which lasted approximately 30 minutes, presented Israel as an occupying force on dwindling Palestinian land. His talk was sprinkled with encouraging applause and hearty laughter from the audience. It delved into the experiences of the 20 percent of people in the region that identify as Palestinian Christians, including himself. On large screens behind him, Atshan contrasted images of war-torn Gaza and refugee camps, with the Quaker boarding school which he attended, his cousins’ toddlers in santa hats and Bethlehem (the Middle-Eastern city, not the one here in the Lehigh Valley) decorated for Christmas. He then described the intense forms of oppression in the West Bank; from families being forced to demolish their own homes to avoid bulldozing costs, to Israeli military brutality and military blockades that impede movement.
“One of the most painful images in East Jerusalem is when Palestinian families bulldoze their own homes,” said Atshan. “Once your home is slated for demolition, if you don’t demolish it yourself, you are given the bill and you have to pay for the security and the infrastructure for the destruction of your home. Most Palestinians cannot afford these and they will go to prison if they are unable to pay the fines. So you will literally see father, mother and children chipping away at their own house after they have received this demolition order.”
Additionally, Atshan explained that there are over 500 checkpoints scattered over an area 14 percent the size of New Jersey. A trip to school or work that would normally take 15 minutes to travel could take as long as six hours, and can at times be deadly.
“Many Palestinian women have died giving birth at these checkpoints,” said Atshan.
“[Laborers will] start lining up at three in the morning so that they could get to work at nine in the morning. Imagine each and every day having to go through this, being confined like chicken, or like cattle, every single day.”
Atshan also touched on a feeling of abandonment by American Christians, who assume that Palestinians are all Muslim and have sided with Israel in the conflict.
He also showcased Palestinian Christian resistance who he admires, including a woman whose house was surrounded on all three sides by the wall and whose children could see a sniper from their window. He then showed his cousin’s engagement photos.
“Despite all of this madness, life goes on.” said Atshan, “There is resilience and creativity and agency and resistance. That is really what we need to support.”
He then ended by reading a biblical passage commonly quoted by Palestinian Christians.
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not in despair. Persecuted, but not abandoned. Struck down but not destroyed,” he said, “Thank you so much.”
Then, the questions began. At the start of the question and answer session, students were shy to come forward, but by the time they were dismissed half an hour later there was a line of almost ten students waiting to talk. Atshan thanked everyone who asked him a question and answered each one with cited sources.
Yael Green ‘19 brought up an experience of her friend in the Israeli army.
“I just wanted to thank you for coming out today and sharing your story. I know you talked a little bit about the checkpoint. I have a friend in the Israeli army and she actually served in the checkpoint area and she actually stopped an ambulance that was trying to come into Israel that had hundreds of bombs in it that they were trying to use as terrorist attacks. And I just wanted to know what your response was to the fact that checkpoints actually have helped save hundreds, thousands of lives… and the terrorist rate has gone down significantly.”
After suggesting that she look at the UN Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs website, which contains information on checkpoints, including how most separate Palestinians from their lands, Asthan then remarked that he often gets questions like this. But he clarified that he came to campus to share his experiences.
“When I represent myself, that’s all I can represent. Is myself. But as I represent myself, I am put in this position where [I’m asked] ‘what about the other side?’ and what about everything else you haven’t represented? Where is the other side? And, I have to admit, that that sometimes can be dehumanizing, because I think every voice deserves to stand alone, on its own terms, and every set of experiences is valid in its own way.”
This response received applause from some audience members.
Another student came to the mic, apologizing, saying she never meant to — nor would anyone at Muhlenberg — intend to dehumanize him.
Some gave Atshan a standing ovation. Others were audible in their contestation. Read more with student opinions in our Op/Ed section, one who appreciated Atshan’s visit and one who wished both sides were presented.