As the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict turned to its fifth week of action, Fairfield University’s politics department hosted a “teach-in” on Nov. 9 to discuss the “historical context of the Palestine and Israel region.”
The event, titled “Beyond the Headlines: Unearthing the Deep-Seated Roots of the Israel-Gaza Crisis,” was originally scheduled to be held in the Barone Campus Center but was moved to the Egan School of Nursing building to allow for additional seating capacity.
“Each of us, as part of our commitment to the university’s Jesuit mission, should strive to educate ourselves, as best as we can, on the complexity of this critical crisis and its devastating human toll and significance, along with its political and economic ramifications,” said Professor Gwen Alphonso, Ph.D. in an email sent to the students and faculty of the politics department before the event.
Marcie Patton, Ph.D., professor emerita of politics, kicked off the event by first addressing the question of why Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, an event that left hundreds of Israelis and Gazans dead and dozens kidnapped by Hamas militants.
“So I’ve been listening to a lot of these teach-ins on YouTube, and one of them had a powerful impact among the speakers. And the speaker said, in answer to this question, ‘Why did Hamas attack Israel?’ [is] that the media uses the present tense in order to answer this question,” Patton said while inferring that “for that reason, the media labels Hamas and its actions as terrorist actions.”
Patton went further and expressed that to “accurately” explain Hamas’s attacks on Israel, their actions needed to be contextualized both historically and politically. However, she clarified twice to the audience that “explanation is not a moral justification. Killing civilians is a war crime.”
She then continued the conversation by giving the audience, almost equally divided between students and faculty members, a brief demographic overview of Gaza and contextualizing the idea of it being an “open-air prison”. According to Patton, the term comes because of the high population density, the inability of Gazans to leave the territory and “because Israel controls who can enter and exit Gaza.”
The politics professor then transitioned into a detailed, chronological explanation of the history of Palestine and Gaza, from the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the occupation of Gaza by Egypt and Israel during the late 20th century, the two Palestinian infantadas protesting Israeli occupation and Hamas rise to power during the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.
“In 2007, Hamas took over governance of Gaza. In response […], Egypt and Israel imposed an illegal, according to international law, an illegal land, sea and air blockade of Gaza,” said Patton 11 minutes into her lecture.
As Patton explained, Hamas is an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement in English. The political wing of the movement based in Qatar calls for the liberation and creation of a Palestinian Islamic state while the military movement of the group is based in Gaza and its goal is “to resist Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.”
During the lecture, Patton also mentioned the two covenants authored by Hamas: a 1997 document that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and a 2017 charter that affirmed that Hamas is fighting against Zionism and not the Jewish people.
“Voters in the 2006 elections, the elections for the legislature, voted for Hamas not because they wanted really an Islamic state, but because Hamas had been providing a lot of welfare and social services to the population and were not seen as not corrupt,” Patton described as a way to contextualize Hamas’s softening their anti-Israel stance in 2017.
Dr. Patton also attempted to address the “failure of Americans to relate to Palestinian suffering and why have the victims been portrayed as perpetrators, and I’m not referring to Hamas.”
She argued that the lack of mainstream support for Palestinians can be attributed to a mix of a settler mentality and guilt.
“One of the answers I’ve read is that the United States was established basically by settlers, very heroic settlers, and they [the United States] very much identified with the Jews settling and establishing Israel,” Patton said. “And then, of course, is the Holocaust guilt; because the United States did next to nothing to rescue Jews during the Holocaust in Egypt.”
After delivering a 36-minute-long explanation on Gaza and Hamas, Dr. Patton ceded the floor to Glenn Dynner, Ph.D., Director of the Bennett Center for Judaic Studies at Fairfield University.
He introduced himself to the audience as an expert in Eastern European history and someone who takes a real personal interest in the region. “I try to do so with empathy. I try to do so with an understanding of this conflict,” said Dynner while talking about his experience and connections to Israel.
Dynner continued his reflection by saying he was “pretty upset at the version that we just got.” He pointed out that the previous presentation ignored the involvement of Egypt in the blockage and movement of people in Gaza and only presented a one-sided context that “sounds a lot like a justification.”
The religion professor started by mentioning that if he were to recommend reading to the audience, he would encourage them to read the Hamas charter. “Because the Hamas charter is calling for the complete destruction of Israel, the eradication of any Jewish autonomy or self-determination whatsoever and the charter is calling for Islamic rule over these areas.”
His comments gave space for the first of multiple interruptions by Dr. Silvia Marsans-Sakly, who was slated to give her presentation on Palestine after Dr. Dynner. The heated moment marked a shift from a lecture-style event to a faculty debate over the topic.
“[The 2017 charter] calls for Islamic rule over this entire area,” said Dynner again while Marsans-Sakly searched in her folders for a piece of paper. “I mean if you can find it, please go ahead.”
“Yeah, I do, I have it,” Dr. Marsans-Sakly responded, eliciting the audience’s laughs.
Once the exchange concluded, Dynner continued his speech by saying that there is an indigeneity argument that could be used to counter the claim used by Palestinian supporters who argue the conflict is another example of Israel’s settler and colonialist goals.
“I suppose that depends on your definition of colonization or who’s a colonizer.”
While affirming Israel’s “colonialist routes in certain instances,” like the expansion of the West Bank and the recent rise of extreme right-wing, racist movements, Dynner did problematize the “settler-colonialism” concept. He argued that the term seemed to justify any kind of moral atrocity in the name of resistance and decolonization.
“The attack on Oct. 7th did not happen against settlers […] It happened against Jews living in Israel and non-Jews as well. It didn’t come from occupied Palestine, it came from Gaza, which is unoccupied,” argued Dynner while explaining why the Oct. 7 attacks are not justified under the settler-colonialism theories. “You can call it what you want, [an] open-air prison, but Israel left. Israel is not occupying Gaza.”
A second debate challenging Dynner’s comments ensued, with all three professors talking at the same time.
“So let me finish, because I let you go through the whole thing,” said a frustrated Dynner.
He continued his presentation by talking about the atrocities that were committed during the music festival on Oct. 7 and “there’s nothing in decolonization or resistance in murdering toddlers and kidnapping babies and massacring peaceful gatherers at a musical festival.”
“If we can condemn those acts, without ifs, ands or buts. I think we are lost in the humanities because we have lost moral clarity,” said Dynner, which elicited gasps in the audience and made a student-attendee leave the room. Questioned by the other panelist, Dynner condemned Israel’s killing of people as a result of their military operations.
Dynner concluded by stating that his goal was “to give a Jewish perspective here, which is unfortunately constantly silenced.”
Dr. Silvia Marsans-Sakly, an associate professor of the practice of History and a faculty of the Islamic World Studies program, started her visual-heavy presentation 56 minutes into the event.
At the start of her presentation, Marsans-Sakly highlighted how Israel declared war on Hamas immediately after the Oct. 7 attack and questioned who “really” controls Gaza if the Israeli response has resulted in the destruction of universities, hospitals, water tanks and restricted access to basic resources to the 2.3 million population.
“I’m going to give you guys some context, zooming out, because I’m interested in this [as a] whole,” said the professor while anticipating the connections she would make between what she described as the “Israel project” and the ideas of colonialism.
She proceeded to display a graph that displayed the human cost of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as documented by the United Nations. “To give you a sense of the context of wars, you have had six or seven wars and these are the deaths and injuries on both sides.”
Marsans argued that the evident disparity in casualties was due to Israel’s “mowing the lawn” strategy, a phrase first used in an article made by Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamiras in 2014. The metaphor implies the never-ending cycle of the Israel-Palestine conflict and suggests Israel should limit Palestinian militants’ capacities.
After explaining key moments of Palestinian history, she continued to read selections of The Jewish State, which declared the aspiration of establishing a sovereign state of Israel, and the Balfour Declaration, in which England declared support for a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
The second leg of her presentation focused on the population changes over time in the disputed area, but before, she reminded the audience that the conflict was about land and people. “In order to establish a Jewish state, you need a Jewish majority, right?”
By using graphs and demographical data, Marsans-Sakly showcased how from the rule of the Ottoman Empire to 1946, a year before The Partition Plan was presented by the British at the United Nations, the Arab population still remained the majority. The plan would have divided Palestine into three different zones: a Jewish state, an Arab state and an international zone in the city of Jerusalem.
“The partition, it’s not 50-50; the partition gave 56% of the land to the Jewish state, 44% to the Arab state,” she explained. “The Arabs had doubled the population. Population became a problem and to this day, the Arabs pose a demographic problem according to Israeli authorities.”
During the presentation, Dr. Dynner questioned the explanation Marsans-Sakly presented on the Palestine refugee problem in the late 1940s and early 50s as she narrated how Arabs were leaving their homes at gunpoint.
As the event went past the 8:45 p.m. end-time, Marsans-Sakly moved her presentation with a faster pace and skipped a few slides from her presentation. However, she still talked about the issues surrounding Arabs getting evicted from their lands and discussed Israel’s tiered citizenship system.
Lastly, she presented multiple short clips that presented how Arabs experience day-to-day life, with clips from 2021 and 2023 showing heavy Israeli police presence. She also addressed the recent events in which Harvard students were doxxed after writing a letter holding Israel “entirely responsible” for the conflict.
“Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism,” the professor repeatedly expressed as she explained comments made by Israel’s Prime Minister in which he justifies Israel’s actions with biblical passages.
She concluded the lecture by asking the audience to participate in a petition organized by the Jewish Voice for Peace calling for a ceasefire.
“Ceasefire, or urging for a ceasefire should not be a dirty word,” she said. “Calling for a ceasefire should not be tantamount to support for terrorism and it is for some reason.”
The event concluded with a Q&A session highlighted by a student who confronted Dr. Dynner’s presentation by stating, “It wasn’t your job to bring a perspective.”