Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a club new to Occidental this year, collaborated with Hillel and J Street last Wednesday to co-host a candlelight vigil mourning the lives lost in the most recent Gaza-Israel conflict. Approximately 30 members of the Occidental community gathered in the middle of the Quad in remembrance of those killed, and also in a stand of solidarity.
The Gaza-Israel war has left many like-minded students shaken and questioning the cyclical, systematic nature of the violence, prompting the idea for the on-campus vigil.
“Yes, we need to remember lives of the people that were lost, but [the vigil] is also to draw in people and give them the sense that this has got to stop,” Beebe Sanders (senior) said.
Testimonials read aloud at the vigil gave the gathering a closer view of the horrors that have become Israelis’ and Palestinians’ reality. One such account was from the perspective of a father, who witnessed the bombing of his house while his children were inside.
“Our main goals were that people walk away with a sense of togetherness, with a sense that as Americans, as all people, we have some investment in this conflict,” J Street Co-Chair Ben Poor (senior) said. “I hope people felt that they had a chance to mourn and to reflect on the events of this summer as a campus community.”
The collaborative event served as an introduction to SJP, which was established by Sanders, seniors Janan Burni and Robert Rodriguez-Donoso and Yasmine Dabbah (sophomore). SJP is a national organization established in 2001 with more than 80 chapters, the purpose of which is to advocate for human rights and a peaceful resolution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We wanted to start SJP because we felt there was a lack of voice for Palestine on issues such as human rights and advocating for an end to the occupation,” Sanders said.
The idea for the group came about in Spring 2014, and was fully conceptualized in time for the start of the 2014-2015 school year.
“We had heard about the organization and then we did our own research … then we came together and we decided that a lot of our views aligned with them and that it would be worth pursuing,” Burni said.
Unlike J Street, which advocates a two-state solution, SJP does not offer a specific political agenda.
“We just want there to be justice for Palestinians,” Sanders said.
The group’s current focus is on continuing the campus-wide dialogue about human rights and political conflicts, specifically on how they pertain to the plight of Palestinians. Members aim to educate students on the Gaza-Israel conflict and promote discussion about the root causes of the continued violence.
“We want to bring some speakers to campus, and potentially have a panel with other SJP chapters in the region,” Sanders said.
Neither Burni nor Sanders are strangers to Palestinian issues. Both previously studied the subject at Occidental, as well as from abroad in Jordan, where they had the opportunity to visit Palestine.
“I heard about the conflict growing up in my household, but I guess I didn’t really get active in studying it until I came to college, and then I was able to make trips while abroad, and study it while I was abroad,” Burni said.
Despite the collaboration that Occidental’s chapter demonstrated, Poor said other chapters are not as willing to work with organizations of differing political ideologies.
“At UCLA, the SJP won’t talk to the pro-Israel group (Bruins for Israel) or to J Street, so it’s really inspiring that for this first event we can all come together and say, ‘We’re not going to let that happen,'” Poor said. “We have political differences, but I think [the fact] that we can come together in this way is really special.”
Although this vigil was the first event that Hillel and J Street have co-hosted in recent years, the collaboration between the two groups, as well as with SJP, is unlikely to end here. SJP also recognizes that, while the specific goals of each group may differ, their general vision for the future is the same.
“Both of our overarching goals are that we want to see peace and an end to the violence and injustice,” Sanders said. “There’s definitely room and potential and willingness to collaborate in the future.”
Although Hillel is more of a religious, social and cultural club than a political one, the group has likewise expressed an interest in future collaboration with SJP.
“I think that diversity adds to the quality of any dialogue, and therefore SJP being on campus adds to the quality of discussion about this issue,” Hillel member Nathan Landay (senior) said. “If there’s another such event as tonight’s vigil that we feel is important that will benefit our members in the Oxy community, then yes, we would collaborate in the future.”