By Andrew Fraley
Inside a packed and dimly lit room in Harriman Hall, with two police officers standing outside, a would-be simple film screening inadvertently turned into the most controversial event this year. On Thursday, Feb. 5, the Stony Brook Social Justice Alliance screened the documentary film Occupation 101, to much criticism and opposition from the Jewish community on campus.
“[The movie] misrepresents the facts and makes up slanderous lies,” said Daniel Graber, an Undergraduate Student Government senator and prominent member of Stony Brook’s Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life. Graber had contacted the SJA earlier that day to request that they not show the film that day, and perhaps delay it for another time. Graber was not speaking for Hillel when he requested this, but he said they backed him up. In addition, several students went to Dean Stein and Director of Student Activities Alexandra Duggan to voice their concerns. “Showing a film that is very anti-Israeli is going to bring up anti-Semitic sentiment,” said Sarah Marshall. “We obviously don’t want that.” Marshall is a contributing writer to The Patriot, and is also an active member of Hillel. She shared similar opinions as Graber, agreeing that the film is, “extremely biased and inaccurate.”
Graber also cited an earlier incident, in which Hillel agreed not to show the film Obsession—a controversial documentary about radical Islam—after the Muslim Student Association voiced concerns, as another reason SJA should not show the film. Hillel acquiesced in order to preserve the peace and cooperation between the two organizations. “Things work better when people get along,” explained Graber.
In addition to the legitimate and courteous requests, there were also several inappropriate responses, including accusations of anti-Semitism and attempts to sabotage the event. Before the movie was shown, Alex Saiu, a member of SJA, displayed a flier of the event, with “cancelled” printed beneath it. “We don’t appreciate this,” announced Saiu. Hillel and Graber both condemn the sabotage, calling it “misguided”. The responsible parties have not been identified. Also, since the film was advertised, the SJA has been inundated with numerous accusations, over email and on the group’s Facebook wall. “Accusation of anti-Semitism should not be used lightly. I think it’s unfortunate that people feel that way and are willing to use words like that as vehemently as they have been used before and following the film screening,” said Dan Woulfin, a graduate student and member of SJA.
The SJA decided in the end to go ahead with the screening. “We feel that the members of the campus community are mature enough to watch it and make up their own minds and not come to rash conclusions,” said Saiu, defending the SJA’s decision. The SJA also wanted the screening to coincide with the upcoming convoy to Palestine. The Viva Palestina! Aid Convoy, a humanitarian convoy from Britain and with contributions from around the world, successfully crossed into Gaza on March 9. “Showing the film was meant to highlight this courageous humanitarian mission and the importance of direct action and international solidarity when national governments and global bodies like the UN fail to act in the face of blatant human suffering,” explained Saiu. More info is available at vivapalestina.org.
In order to avoid conflict, and to diffuse the unjust accusations, the SJA went to Hillel to discuss it. They also invited Rabbi Joseph Topek to speak at the event, and open it up for discussion. “[The SJA] were gracious enough to me to offer a few remarks after the film,” Topek explained. “I think the SJA leadership did a good job at moderating a discussion.” Agreeing that the situation was dire, Topek also added facts he felt the movie omitted, and tried to clear up some of the history that wasn’t fully explained.
The movie itself focuses mainly on the human rights side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While many agreed that it was one-sided, Saiu explained that it is the “side that’s unrepresented”; this later became a topic of debate during the discussion as well. Despite containing no apparent anti-Semitism, many still begged to differ. “The film uses Israeli and Jewish interchangeably,” explained Graber, claiming that the movie creates a negative association between the two. Graber did not attend the event, but had seen the movie previously. “It’s basically a propaganda film, and a well made one at that,” added Topek. “ If the purpose is to try to have a somewhat objective study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict then I don’t think it was a great choice, but it did succeed in provoking a discussion.”
The discussion afterward became heated early on, although the SJA did an effective job keeping it reasonable. Woulfin acted as moderator, and made sure everyone got their say. “My biggest concern was that the discussion would devolve into a circular debate of ‘us versus them,’” said Woulfin. “Fortunately, most of the Stony Brook students who attended didn’t fall into that trap and were able to discuss the film intelligently.” Although it remained civil, it became polarized and very tense. “It was very uncomfortable for me,” claimed Marshall, “the pro-Israeli side of the debate got jeers, while the pro-Palestine side got cheers. It was a very scary thing.” The tension was certainly not one-sided, however; I noticed several scoffs at statements defending Palestine as well. With prepared statements and unwavering responses, many of the attendees seemed unchanged by the film. “By simple observation, most of the minds are already set,” noted junior Ahmed Uro. In the end, the only thing that was agreed upon was that nobody may agree, but knowledge is power. “It’s ok for students to disagree with one another, even passionately,” admitted Topek, “as long as it is civil.”
Members of SJA still remain perplexed about the whole incident. “The film isn’t perfect but our goal was to highlight a humanitarian crisis, which the film very powerfully does,” explained Woulfin. “Another film about the same topic was shown the week before in the Union Auditorium by UNICEF and raised no outcry.” The movie drew a crowd of 65 people, completely filling Harriman 214, and would have drawn more if not for the forged fliers and police presence. “[Not showing the movie] would have been a disservice to those here,” said Saiu after the screening. Relations are usually good between the Muslim and Jewish communities on campus; fears of anti-semitic backlash seemed unfounded. “It’s something that I’ve seen on other campuses,” said Woulfin, “but never at Stony Brook.”